Review by Todd Davis (email)
by Jim Daniels,
photographs by Charlee Brodsky
Bottom Dog Press, PO Box 425, Huron, Ohio 44839; ISBN# 0933087942, 2005, 96pp., paper, $12.95, hardcover, $20.00
In his eight previous volumes of poetry, Jim Daniels has demonstrated not only an affinity for the working class but also a desire to capture and frame certain small moments that represent their joy and despair, their levity and anger, moments of varied, intricate lives that otherwise would simply vanish, shuffle around the corner in a pair of worn shoes, slipping away with seemingly no consequence. Of course, the consequence of all our lives is what's at stake in Daniels' poems because what we notice and honor in art versus what we choose to ignore and discard says a great deal about our particular cultural moment in time. Thanks to Daniels range and ability to find the crack through which a reader might discover not just sympathy but empathy for those we share our neighborhoods and towns with we are given yet another book from a poet whose craft and care continues to grow.
If it were not for a poem like "Buckle," in which a working man reels with the absurdity of the system's petty gratitude for his years of labor—"Gold pen: twenty-five years. / I clip it on. A joke, really...A little piece of the boss / to stick myself with"--or another like "American Young, American Darling," in which the speaker assures us that "Whatever news he carries / in his back pocket / is nothing you want to hear"--we would not have a record of such poignant and essential matters, and the most elemental parts of America's cultural infrastructure would be in danger of being misplaced, misused, or simply abandoned, so much rubbish or detritus to be hauled safely out of sight.
Perhaps Daniels' penchant for such portraits is no different from any other artist whose work describes or portrays a particular subject and betrays an idiosyncratic passion. Like his poetic forbears--Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, William Carlos Williams, and Philip Levine, to name but a few—Daniels' work distinguishes itself from many of his contemporaries because of its sustained commitment to the lives of the people we most often overlook or ignore in our culture, and Daniels own history and relationship with this subject brings a degree of authenticity that has always been the strength of American poetry. (Daniels worked the auto line in Detroit before lighting out for academia, and his relatives still work in many of the plants surrounding that city.)
It's most fitting that Bottom Dog Press--whose founder Larry Smith long ago made plain that his purpose was to publish a literature about and for the working class—has brought out this volume of poems that showcases the flawless collaboration of two artists whose very clear aim is not only to highlight the physical lives of the working class but also the range of their emotional lives, suggesting the ways in which we are all connected.
Street literally speaks in the voices of its subjects. The photographs in the collection were made in various Pittsburgh neighborhoods during the 1980s, and the poems were written over the course of 2004. Brodsky, who like Daniels is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has created a series of pictures whose angle of focus--sometimes upon the bellies and midriffs of people in the street, sometimes upon their bare or shoed feet, sometimes with her subject in a doorway or window or in front of an apartment building or neighborhood store--serves as the catalyst for Daniels' inspired and wide-ranging characters, for the voices they speak in--rough, colloquial, city-speak.
Street is organized into three sections: "The Art of Letting It All Hang Out," "The Invisibility of Doors," and "Stillness and Sway." Like Brodsky, Daniels has made decisions concerning light, juxtaposition, and "verbal" cropping in each of these sections, and like Brodsky, he has succeeded in letting his characters talk about what they know best. Brodsky's photos capture women in house dresses, in shorts several sizes too small, in halter tops, in shoes decorated with bows, band-aids on shins and ankle bracelets demurely clipped over pantyhose. She also gives us boys sitting in the shade, baseball uniforms still white before a game, men washing hubcaps, men in work-shoes and business suits, men with defeated faces curled in disgust or defiance. When Daniels adds voice to these subjects, telling us the stories that reveal their attitudes, their motivations, then the true beauty of this collaboration shines, layer upon layer unfolding, pushing the reader back and forth between the poem and the picture. In "Bad News," for example, a man tells us that "Sight is a funny thing. / It's like a bad haircut. / I hate bad haircuts," and we are compelled to turn back to the photo only to discover that Brodsky has not shown us the man's hair, that the focal point is instead his hands and the glasses he holds in those hands, the down turn of his head, the resignation of his pursed lips. It is the lips, then, that push us back to the poem, to a better understanding of why Daniels has this man say, "You hate me. / I'm trained / to recognize hate. To be hated."
This dance between Brodsky and Daniels art finds its culmination in the books last section where feet carry so much of the burden, as they do in life beyond the page. As Daniels explains in "Haloes," "Everybody looks for them / around your head / when the feet deserve them / more." These two artists reveal plenty about who we are and where we think we're headed. They've spent plenty of time on their feet, walked the necessary miles to better understand what might be captured in a poem or photograph. Perhaps, as Daniels says in "Glow," we should refuse "to pray and ask for more." After all, this collection's abundant and artful life is more than enough.
Todd Davis teaches creative writing, environmental studies, and American literature at Penn State UniversityAltoona. His poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and have appeared in such journals and magazines as The North American Review, River Styx, Arts & Letters, and Quarterly West. In September 2002, his first book of poems, Ripe, was published by Bottom Dog Press. His second book of poems, Some Heaven, is forthcoming from Michigan State University Press in 2007. Davis is also the author or co-author of several scholarly books, including Kurt Vonnegut’s Crusade (SUNY Press, 2006) and Postmodern Humanism in Contemporary Literature and Culture: Reconciling the Void (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).