Transcribing Experience:

Michael T. Young's Transcriptions of Daylight

Reviewed by Larissa Shmailo

In Michael T. Young’s stunning first book of poetry, Transcriptions of Daylight (Rattapallax Press, 2000), the poet offers his reader the challenge of participating in what is evanescent and elusive in experience. As the poet writes in "Pomander,"

...transience daunts the weak hearted

who think the endurance of a thing

matters more than its completeness.

Michael Young’s poetry communicates the completeness of phenomena without struggling to capture or fix them on a lepidopterist’s pin. His subject matter is the ephemeral--dreams, shadow, the motions of atoms and time--with the understanding that these ephemera form the bulk of our lives. Memories and perceptions are presented as zazen moments, transformed rather than translated for the reader. In these transcriptions, the poet offers the most direct form of his experience to his readers and auditors. From "Examples to Follow,"

whatever will rise and fall, will begin,

then end, forgive each moment for what comes along,

like wind shoving the clouds, and clouds, the day,

like the night calling the sun to come in,

the dream where a brief second is lifelong,

where nothing waits for praises or regret,

but takes as eyes take, gives with the ease of skin--

only so much--yet real as all you know,

that leaves or stays, will sleep and wake, forget,

let go.

Central to Young’s work is making available what might otherwise be lost to reader and poet alike: lost love, the idiosyncratic gesture of a parent who has died, even stones and monumental edifices that daily succumb to shadow. From "Mysteries of the Empire,"

By slow degrees, by angle and time of day,

frieze work and flourish emerge or vanish.

From hour to hour the half-hidden and hoped-for

surface like a spray of pearls between the lofty pillars

or sink with a thrash of fish tails under the shadowy gables

while light and darkness divide between them

the beauty of the heights, its losses and revelations--

details impossible to see from the street,

where people rush and mutter, and later,

where I go, rushing and muttering too

as if I didn’t know what mysteries lie overhead and out of


Cathedrals disappear through the action of mystery and prayer. From the poet’s perception of the painting by Monet (Rouen Cathedral Facade and Tour D’Albane),


The night departs.

The light takes over.

The cathedral stone

softens and softens

and disappears...

and there is no answer.

It is precisely those details "impossible to see from the street" as we rush and mutter that Young’s work gives us. The poet continually challenges us to question how concrete or enduring our seemingly solid reality is. From "The Work of Bees,"

...Even the pen,

so steady in my hand, buzzes with atoms,

and the paper under it nearly hums.

All things contain their own transformations. Reality is not the perceived and desired solidity, but the many events of radiation and seeds. From "Illumination,"

All soils unlock their seeds

And every stone discharges its starlight.

All things undergo phase change: ice ("the past tense of water"), life, and light. From "Houses of Amber,"

Light enters the pine and becomes a voice.

The voice becomes a bird and flies away.

A lifetime passes in the transformation.

I search for evidence, find only moss....

The poems are not dissection or analysis, nor the myriad subjectivities of translation, a movement away from the source. Here is rather a language for light, its genetic code, direct and unmediated except by faith and forgiveness.

Where Young is often dark, confronting pain and seeming meaninglessness, he is fundamentally a poet of faith who accepts the mysteriousness of the divine and submits to it with "the humble hope for something more"--a yearning for greater understanding, and failing that, greater faith. Chaos is apparent; faith and forgiveness are real. In "A Letter," the poet has dropped a glass and it has shattered into prismatic shards.

For watching how the light transformed those fragments

and what that transformation made of them

made of my own mistake, my clumsiness

was a perfection that required no glass,

and never needed to be justified.

It didn’t once reproach me for the drop.

It simply was there, dazzling me, and then,

I finally understood how to forgive.

The poet knows the limitations of his poem’s Virgil, the grinning Wilburian skull that leads him into the streets of Calcutta, the Medusas that ossify the past, and those who would turn their regretful gazes backwards at the risk of turning to salt. The poet does not abandon these human things for the divine, but asks humbly for their transformation in a faith not bound by finitude and its concepts. In his final transcription, the poet leaves us with his "Prayer:"

Though my young body will age and grow weak,

and with it my mind lose its memory,

dear God, not confined by a physique,

whose mind won’t fail with time, remember me.

This memorable book answers the poet’s prayer.