Birth Marks, by Jim Daniels. Rochester, New York: BOA Editions, Ltd. 120 pages. $16.00, paper.
Although the title of this new superb collection by Jim Daniels, the award-winning author of thirteen previous books of poetry, may very well be a reference to the poems themselves, we may also speculate that his title refers to the nature of his experiences while growing up in 1960s/70s Detroit and to the alienation that he has experienced in more recent years both as a family man and as Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University. Employing his masterful control of language, Daniels’ new book suggests that, much as we may be “marked” during our youth by the imperfections of a dissolute society, from our subsequent perspective as adults, we may view our often flawed coming-of-age experiences as the most authentic ones of our lives.
In a very amusing poem entitled “The Religious Significance of the Super Ball,” for example, Daniels’ narrator describes how, as an adolescent, he and his brother goofed off during their religious grandmother’s wake by consuming pilfered alcoholic beverages (“I laughed till beer spewed out my nose”), wresting a Super Ball toy from a cousin and conducting a “Super Ball Orgy” after borrowing Grandma’s “old brown Buick” in order to buy more super balls at a local store. Near the end, however, the narrator wittingly confesses that, “I’d loved her, little old grandma, but I was / a stupor Ball. Jesus was her Super Ball.” Drinking, stealing, and bouncing super balls over his neighborhood’s “boxy little houses,” it turns out, had merely been the narrator’s immature way of expressing heart-felt grief for the death a beloved relative.
On the flip side of “45 RPMs: Side A/Side B,” one of the most amusing poems of Daniels’ impressive collection, the narrator recalls his youthful sexual liaison with a Japanese-American girl named Jane Shizuka, who, he claims, had bestowed on him both “crabs / and self-doubt.” Skillfully juxtaposing the hippie-like, reputedly mystical relationship of John Lennon and Yoko Ono with his own passionate affair with Jane, the narrator, through clever word play, describes how he and Ms. Shizuka “rode around a lot in Jane’s car-ma, / we were not super-star-mas,” and even though “John and Yoko’s Bed-In / was a big hit with us,” nevertheless, “The front seat of her [Jane’s] VW Bug / was unkarma-fortable.” Unlike Yoko, whose song lyrics (“Who has seen the wind?”) appear immediately following the poem’s title, suggest transcendence, the narrator underscores the down-to-earth reality of his relationship with Jane in the poem’s final stanza as he reports that he “could see the wind” whenever he watched his Asian girlfriend “walk up / the steps to her house, her hair / trailing behind her.”
The authenticity motif is developed more dramatically in “Feed Corn,” a rollicking account about the time that the narrator, friend Bill, and the narrator’s brother, following their lay-offs from their factory jobs, “in an act of speed-laced bravado drove east from Detroit / in search of an ocean.” After reporting a series of juvenile misadventures, including stealing field corn, (maybe) stealing “the underwear of two Canadian girls,” and the narrator’s having casual sex in a campground tent with a “sad school teacher,” the narrator recalls that on the return trip home, he and his brother, upon learning of Elvis Presley’s death “on the radio in my Plymouth Satellite,” realized that their sister, who “loved Elvis [,] … was bawling her eyes out back in Detroit / and that her tears were genuine human tears.”
Perhaps the most profound irony that emerges from Daniels’ new book is that in more recent decades, the narrator has often felt a profound alienation as a family man and as an educational leader in a Pittsburgh society that he depicts as being no less decadent than the one that marked him as he came-of-age in Detroit. Even as his son and daughter affirm their love for each other in the back seat of the car as he drives them home in “The Gravity of Math,” the narrator indicates his isolation from his two kids by noting, “I can’t see back there,” and by suggesting that his thoughts are not focused so much on sibling love as they are on death: “I’m counting / how many slabs of gray stone I’ve leaned / against.”
It is not difficult to understand why the narrator feels so alienated from his culture, moreover, given especially the many casualties of his society that he describes, including the students of “Final / Not Final,” whose suicides effect their disappearance “into the Land of Empty Desks,” the little girl carrying a birthday cake in “Hit and Run” whose “Body parts” are “strewn across the road,” the young man at the playground in “One Arm Raised” whose “reaching against a knife” resulted in “blood dripping” from his hand, and the family members in “Watching Another Drug Bust” who must somehow cope with the resilience of local pushers who are arrested by the police one day but then materialize on the street only a week later.
The narrator further underscores his sense of alienation by comparing his role as university professor to the authenticity of his youthful past in “MegaEverything,” a poem in which he masterfully juxtaposes his attendance at a Black Sabbath concert at the Michigan State Fairgrounds in 1972 with his more recent experience of having to question one of his students about the latter’s plagiarizing the lyrics of a song by Black Sabbath. As an authority figure in charge of this student violator who wears “black boots” and a “torn Megadeth t-shirt,” the narrator is obligated to enforce school regulations, even though he himself, at the ’72 concert, demonstrated his identification with Black Sabbath’s Ozzy Osbourne when, as the performer was “stalking onstage,” the narrator raised his fist.
Perhaps Daniels’ overall point in Birth Marks is that the best we can do about the loss of the authenticity we experienced during our youth is to render it through writing. If we, however, happen to lack the talent necessary to undertake such a project, then that is okay, for we have the remarkable talents of a seasoned poet like Jim Daniels to so poignantly express the loss for us.
Dennis B. Ledden, whose dissertation focused on Ernest Hemingway’s early works, has presented his research on American and Latino literature at numerous literary conferences. Dr. Ledden’s most recent publications include essays in The Cincinnati Romance Review and The Hemingway Review.