We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and imagination, but we can’t do it without you. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
“Eloquence is heard; poetry is overheard.” So John Stuart Mill famously quipped in an attempt to answer the question of what poetry is, and although this is an assertion I usually find myself agreeing with, I have never overheard someone in the subway speaking a sonnet. Like Mill, David J. Daniels seeks the almost-overlooked but utterly salient detail, the almost-muttered-under-one’s-breath truths. But unlike Mill, Daniels has a notion of poetry that hovers somewhere between the heard and the overheard, between eloquent speech and earnest prayer. Thom Gunn’s influence is just as palpable here as Albert Goldbarth’s, the linguistic playfulness of John Ashbery just as essential as the lyrical intensity of Linda Gregg or Tess Gallagher. What other American poet can you say that about? I met Daniels years ago in college in New Orleans, and though our paths diverged after graduate school, his poetry and particular way of paying attention to and inhabiting the world remain of deep interest and importance to my own. He lives and teaches now in Colorado, where he is, as Lynn Emanuel once phrased in a poem we both love, “over-educated but recovering,” and slowly, quietly, writing increasingly ambitious, complex, and beautiful poems. As the poems below illustrate, something campy often results from melding the heard and the overheard. Much of the delight herein is performative, hilarious, and heartbreaking. Here’s the late-night drag queen you can’t take your eyes off of.
Last week they lit your insides up
by sci-fi periscope, and your insides up
on the doctor’s screen blazed like a colonist’s map
of the Congo: wherever the empire had set up shop
all down the rich green river-stink
were now fully functioning trading posts of pink
or outposts of rot inverted pink
that couldn’t be got at
easily by knife nor chemo shrink.
Tonight you’re passed out cold
on the couch—valerian cut into dope. We’re old
acquaintances; I’m keeping watch. I take my occasional leave
for a smoke on your iced-over balcony. We’ve
been through this before: first Curtis one blasted
summer going fast; then Farmer who lasted
longer. I’ve somehow managed to wind up clean—breathed
dead hippo meat so to speak and not be contaminated—
that last bit lifted straight from Joseph Conrad.
My grandmother’s unpronounceable maiden name
meant shit-on-a-stick in the Flemish tongue, shit
from Lower Flanders, from where she suitcased
unpronounceable longing to Indiana. Mishawaka,
to be exact, which translates as nothing at all
in the tribal tongue from which it was stolen.
She hammered out brake pads and wore the boots
at Bendex Aviation. Hammered out brake pads
with dagos, she said, dagos, then blacks, for forty years.
And she came at us with her foreign curses. She
came at us with her fourth Manhattan. She’d left
a fish monger somewhere; for this, she used to tell me.
I’d watch her slap on sinister powders. Like America,
she was getting ready. There was nothing I could do.
From a small Klan town known mostly for its quarries,
you were a local, corn-fed, closeted; I, a queerest
just down the road at that college made famous
by Hollywood. You played a bit part, Boy on Bus,
but called the film working-class porn. The crushed marl
of your smoker’s cough, already at twenty-four,
signified to me the real, an erotic
otherness I traced in your calloused hands, the shot rock
of your forearms from hoisting limestone
pilings. Your back, like your dad’s, often
shot; your spirit, like your dad’s.
But what that labor had done for your abs
no reps at the campus gym could replicate.
Some nights between books I’d go to that gym but caught
myself more or less peering in, a sort of outsider
admiring physique as much as the architecture,
pre-Holocaust swastika tiles and Gothic spires,
pink germs clustered on showerheads, threadbare
wires dangling from walls that once worked
a PA system—all of this I factored into poems. Of my work,
what little you read you deplored its over-allegiance
to rhyme. What I strove for, restorative elegance
for the dead, you derided as bull, and sided
with substance over style. Risk, you said, that calculated
isn’t risk at all. Our seminar talks back then were on praxis,
a faith—although we were Marxists—
that our theories, contrived, calculated, might trickle
down someday to your daily struggles.
At Jonah’s funeral, or Curtis’s or Eric’s, or the one
for Mike, whom I’ve otherwise failed to mention,
you said those theories were failing. I agreed. From the center
of campus, down a long strip of commerce, past inoperable
railroad lines, we intellects would march: for pre-9/11
Iraq, or that poster boy Matthew Shepherd; whereupon
half a dozen or so would gather for a drink.
You’d join, too, far corner of a booth but shrink
from conversation. You had a thing for pre-ops, Asian
was all the better, which I viewed as perfect fusion
of the postcolonial and queer, but for you was a means
for keeping one foot affixed to Midwestern scenes
the likes of which Rockwell painted, uncluttered,
stripped of apparent angst. Tonight my thoughts are cluttered
as I clutter you. News of your death has found me in the Rockies
through intricate modes of e-transport whose complexities
astonish. In dumb words I’ve struggled to simulate
your full complexity, tonight articulate, rearticulate
your peripheral status, tried before the virus had done you in
which, if you’ll pardon the off-rhyme, did you in.
David J. Daniels’s work has appeared in Pleiades, Gulf Coast, and Hayden’s Ferry Review. He edits Born Magazine and teaches at the University of Denver and the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
A recording of our virtual literary event with three generations of Black women writers.
Remembering poets Lynda Hull and Michael S. Harper, with original portraits
Netflix’s Maid and three recent best-sellers depict the agonies and rage of being a low-wage housekeeper or nanny. But all fail to identify capitalism itself as the culprit.