Jim Daniels

Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry

Jim Daniels
December 2011
Review of Having a Little Talk With Capital P Poetry

Aaron, I want to review today a book by Jim Daniels. Jim graduated from Alma College and has taught for many years now in Carnegie Mellon’s creative writing program. Jim is an amazingly prolific writer—he’s written 11 books of poems, 2 books of poems and photos, four books of fiction, and ten chapbooks.

Jim’s latest book of poetry is called Having a Little Talk With Capital P Poetry, published last year by Carnegie Mellon University Press. The title makes me smile;

a lot of his work makes me smile. Jim has a great ironic sense of humor, but what I most appreciate is the true feel of people and things, the authentic vision in his poems. And the way he feels the past. The details are exact, but you can feel them floating and shifting in the memory. I could have a good time just reading poem titles from this book: “I Lost My Voice in a Mall,” “Ode to the Reel Mower,” “Dream With a Train in It,” “Landscape with Gum Wrapper,” for example.

Here is just a taste of a poem from the first section of the book. (I’m saving time for a different long poem) I admire this poem for its accurate view of the past, the way we see our past as if we were hovering over it, as if it were a Monopoly game.

 

AERIAL VIEW OF WARREN, MICHIGAN

We played Monopoly in our dark, damp,

unfinished basements, lining up tiny green houses

like gods or general contractors.
Like those houses, ours were identical.

Our favorite songs repeated endless nonsense

syllables. We couldn’t get enough sameness,

walking blind-folded into each other’s bathrooms

 

because—because we knew!  Rolling the dice—

badoom badoom badoom. Hard splash

onto the square board. We hoarded get-out-of-jail

free cards. We fought over who’d be banker.

 

and the poem ends this way:

 

If you’re passing over in a helicopter or small plane

out of perversity or emergency, you could look

down and see the tiny people emerging

from the tiny houses to wave or give you the finger

 

or both. We would expect an equally appropriate gesture,

all of us down here—the Iron, the Shoe, the Dog and Wheelbarrow.

Even that weird dude, the Top Hat, a rabbit in each hand,

alone on the corner where we ditched him.

 

I’m glad someone wrote about those little lead figures!

 

I’ll just mention the second section of the book, “Esperantos.” It’s a virtuoso performance  of Jim Daniels’ musical ear. The poems aren’t necessarily “about” the singers they celebrate, but they bow to them in tone and voice, and sometimes subject. There’s one for James Brown, Don Ho, Joan Jett, David Bowie, Miles Davis, Bessie Smith, Al Green, Sex Pistols, the Abyssinian Baptist Gospel Choir, and many others.

Daniels’ poems are often equally funny and sad. He opens us with the funny so we can feel the sad. Strangely, for me the part of the book I thought I’d like the most, the “tenured guy” poems, some of them feel as if they’re straining for humor, something Daniels doesn’t need to do.  But now I want to read you one last poem, a perfect example of the splendid clarity and tenderness you can find in this book.

 

HAMMERING

In my grandfather’s low cellar in Detroit

you had to duck constantly in the dim light.

A vise sat on each end of his workbench.

 

Always a reason to put something in

and squeeze tight against disappearance.

A chunk of wood, whatever.

 

He lost a boy in high school, a boy just when

he wasn’t a boy anymore. A boy then, forever.

On the workbench, two dented meat loaf pans,

 

one for nuts, the other, bolts.  I’d run my hands

through them like gold. But nothing shone brightly.

Nothing rusted. They were coated with oil—

 

not abandonment, nor grief entirely.

Each muffled clink of metal against metal

a small compromise or promise or lie.

Some of those nuts matched some of those bolts

though they were kept to match orphans outside

the pans. To replace the loosened and lost. I could’ve

 

gone blind down there, but he’d learned to lean into

the dark, to tighten every single thing another turn.

 

He lost a daughter too, She was never right.

Imagine the day they figured that

out. A baby forever. Or until age twelve

 

when she matured into death. Who am I

in this story? The boy hammering nails into wood

and calling it a boat. A pile of coal sat in the corner

 

black against itself, coal unlit forever, the furnace

converted to gas. Black dust, the one thing rising.

I loved the mystery of coal and my grandfather’s

 

odd, squeaky voice. His company, Packard, went belly

up and took his pension with it. Didn’t leave much

for a new washer. Didn’t leave enough to get him

 

the hell out of there, houses burning down around him,

or worse, filling with crack vials.  I see I missed a third line

back there. That’s how fast it happened. Lucky he’d

 

practiced the stoop all his life. Luck rattling in those

meat loaf pans like a beggar with a cup of pennies.

I knew some of them matched, and some didn’t,

 

but down in the dark, I learned it over and over again.

 

Beautiful poem. Splendid poet. Jim Daniels.