Book Review: Birth Marks by Jim Daniels

 photo fcc58834-6adf-46ee-9e36-f2ab63f37634_zps5d737daf.jpg Birth Marks
Poems by Jim Daniels
BOA Editions, 2013


“a tiny yellow leaf falls on to my red kitchen table”

And with that line, I wish to open my review of the book from which it comes, Jim Daniels’ Birth Marks. This book came to me for review as part of BOA’s new books for Autumn, 2013, and it’s an apt selection for this time of the year. Rusted colors like that leaf and the table it came to rest upon, it seems autumnal, but the lives and places described in its pages even more so. Daniels’ primary focus in this collection is the America of the Rust Belt, the America of the Great Lakes’ portion of the Midwest, the America of the automotive industry and steel mills, the America of union jobs and the tight-knit families and often bleak childhoods that went with this blue collar scene. It would not, I need to stress, be a “scene” if Daniels didn’t take it there, but he does and much to his credit: there are numerous ways of writing about places like Detroit—a city begging to have as much written of it as possible—and Daniels picked this trajectory that takes us back and forth from current-day observations over to childhood and teenage memories and back again. Judith Vollmer wrote a book, Reactor, about the canyons of industry and did so from a different approach, but while she focused on how the industrial, the nuclear, meets the natural, the environment, the social, Daniels in contrast pulls the industrial from the inside out, going back into his childhood from where in his father, grandfather, and other relations he first saw the legacy of jobs these men worked. He even says so in one poem, “Company Men” which is possibly the best poem I’ve read yet on the American experience of the type of job a man would get at Ford or elsewhere and would keep until he retired. The type of job that hardly even exists for my own generation and yet seems to remain the mythical model of “good jobs” in many communities and the words of many promises from those who run for elected office.

It is too easy nowadays to picture Detroit mainly on the merits of its current sorry state: to picture it as ruins of once-great industry, to picture it as ghetto, to picture it as dangerous, to picture it as a mess that no wizard that neither is nor was can really sort out. That’s too easy, that’s well enough left to five-paragraph articles in newspapers or at CNN. That picture—and all those photos of once-grand hotels or noble schools with their ballrooms and lunch-rooms in tatters and the copper wire stripped right from the walls—that has its place, to be sure, but omits the working-class experience built on that same drive of industry. It doesn’t include the childhoods spent there in Detroit, much less what a childhood in a smaller city that still depended on the auto industry was really like. Those small cities of Michigan and Ohio and elsewhere still exist and still have at least some of those industries, some of those jobs. A good friend who dreams of being an animation artist (and is great at it, too) works nights for a factory in West Unity, Ohio. The economic structure of such jobs is not what it once was, but some such do remain. This is an America known to many, but fairly absent from our popular culture and when it does somehow appear, it comes in mostly as a member of America’s cast of the past. To understand this America, you need to see it as a child, as a teen, as the grown man who leaves, as the relatives who didn’t, as the streets of it, as the factories, as the jobs—just all of it. One slim book of poems by one author cannot provide everything needed for true understanding, but this one book is a very good place to start.

Aside from my friend with the factory job, I have another friend from Ohio (actually, I have many and have yet to figure out how I know all these great folks unconnected to each other in Ohio, but that’s another matter altogether). My other friend grew up in Bucyrus, in central-west Ohio, and was a friend from high school. He ran track. (Did I just mention he was from rural central Ohio and he also ran track? I’m sorry, in saying both I know I repeated myself: if he was a boy, and a boy from Ohio, and white, and suburban, and able, of course dude ran track.) In Daniels’ book, I see murky traces of the world he described. When I was in college, I worked in a biomedical research lab and we went on a research venture to Twinsburg, Ohio (long story, that) and there—in the north-east part of the state—I saw yet more of the type of world my friend Terik spoke of: small factories including one that makes Day-Glo paint; a powerful emphasis on high school sports but just as much soccer and track as football and baseball, unlike the American South; heating oil tanks by the sides of modest yet decent homes row by row; sidewalks damaged by decades of freezing and then melting under winters’ snows; local restaurants beloved for their pizza or bratwurst. This was the landscape. It was clear and it is very different from Florida, or California or New York (though places like Corning, NY might come close) or anywhere nearly any television show is set. Maybe when she’s done with California, Reba McEntire will set a show in Ohio but I doubt it: the point of her current sitcom is quite telling in and of itself in that her character leaves Tennessee to move to California. We all want Middle America but we don’t know it. Well, this is it. This is that uncast stage.

Daniels’ book isn’t all what you might expect from my claims above: he is an English and creative writing professor at Carnegie Mellon University and some of the poems speak to that experience, dealing with a student’s attempted suicide and the like and these are poems I would welcome in any other volume by a poet in his situation: well-written and honest, from a first-hand view on his topic. However, here they feel like filler because what he offers on his childhood, on Detroit, on Pittsburgh today—that’s all worth its weight in gold. There is a poem by Daniels which is not in this book but concerns 9/11 and is entitled “Soccer Practice, 9/11/01, Pittsburgh” and is one of his best. It’s online somewhere, and you all, dear readers, should go read it. It is close kin to some of the more-general poems in the book at hand, but even better. Again, though, these poems are not the star attraction: the star attraction is the star witness to Rust Belt ruin that is well-crafted enough to be ten times more than just that. The Catholic churches of Detroit make their way into the narrative as does so much else of the city. Detroit is not all cars and crime: before it was “Motor City”, Detroit was “Stove City”. Seriously: it’s where most of America’s woodstoves came from back when everyone had one for heat and/or cooking. Coal stoves, too, and that’s part of the reason really it became the seat of auto industry later: it was already established as a place that could work iron. There’s a strong maritime tradition and traditions ranging from the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald all the way back to the very first discovery of this spot of land by the white man. It’s Zug Island, it’s Canada across the way—a fact that Daniels notes when he speaks of his father drinking Canadian whiskey over ice, and not one of the finer brands, but one that while somewhat inexpensive was still considered a real treat in their household. Such memories as these are what realities are made of, to be sure. Such memories as these—such oral histories, indeed—is what Daniels provides us.

In most reviews of poetry books, I include a fair amount of quotes from the books themselves: what better way to showcase the fine language at hand? However, with Daniels, I’m not going to do that: These poems are more about narrative than the slick roll of the words themselves, although much of Daniels’ language here is downright beautiful—make no mistake about that. His power to describe in a way that really takes you to the quick and often harsh core of the matter though, sparing no detail but still with a breathtaking speed that outpaces poets known for their economy is really what allows Daniels to press a short story’s portion of narrative into the slight space of two pages or less in many of these poems. Unlike many in contemporary poetry, it’s not down to the power and purr of just a few words with Daniels: when he tells us in “Company Men” that “we do not discuss our jobs, we leave our jobs where they belong” it fits perfectly to the extended narrative at hand. Ripped from the page, truncated and thrown down here as an example, you’d think perhaps this was from a second-rate spy novel and the men in fact were CIA, but in context it speaks to the blue-collar experience fittingly. Small bits of what Daniel has done in his poetry cannot convey the whole much larger than these parts. He knows that too, certainly: you cannot capture the works of the great European masters via a few pixels from your phone’s camera nor play Mozart on the tin bell of your phone’s speaker with impressive results. Daniels knows that his poems are not going to overrun us with fancy language as some expect from the poet’s pen but instead do the work of the journalist, only faster, and most-often better. He’s not alone in this: G.C. Waldrep has the same skill as does Diane Ackerman—a poet often thought of more as a journalist, come to think of it—at her very best.

If I can find any fault with this book, it’s simply that, as stated above, Daniels in places introduces poems that do not fit well into the primary extended narrative which is about working-class America and especially Detroit and its environs. Poems about his family on vacation are great and as well-written as anything else he has here, but they don’t help inform the comprehensive focus. And the thing is, the poems about the blue-collar basis of what we consider even now as the American Dream are so very good that you find yourself wanting more of these. That said, you can consider the poems that I’d dare title as off-topic for this collection really as just a bonus round: they’re good and worth reading. Daniels perhaps was not interest in the collection at hand being as cohesive as I myself, as a reader, viewed it, but regardless, it works best as a single effort. We don’t have enough contemporary writing on this topic, not of this quality, and not in the form of poetry, certainly. Daniels’ best poems here allow you to see every detail—even when he has left some details out—of the tired but proud father with the factory job and the wife and kids at home on an evening when the weather is not yet cold but a chill is in the air and the boys are thinking about hockey. He is able to put you there, distance and time no longer a factor in the least. So we need more poetry of this caliber, of this intent.

We’ve got baby Jesus here in the house
of unbelievers. Sometimes a good story
can keep you going a long time.

So, here you have a quote from this book. An apt one I feel—one that captures some of that Catholic faith as transformed into the post-Catholic, post-factory, post-working-class, world from which our author as professor and modern family man speaks to us now, but tinged and yet adroit with all and everything faith always has been about in the first place.

Jim Daniels’ recent books include Trigger Man: More Tales of the Motor City and Having a Little Talk with Capital P Poetry, winner of the Midwest Book Award. His poems have appeared widely in such places as Billy Collins’ Poetry 180 anthologies, Best American Poetry anthologies, the Pushcart Prize anthologies, and Ted Kooser’s “American Life in Poetry” series. His poem “Factory Love” is displayed on the roof of a race car. Daniels has garnered such honors as the Brittingham Prize for Poetry, the Tillie Olsen Prize, the Blue Lynx Poetry Prize, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and two from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. He is the Thomas Stockham Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, where he received the Ryan Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Elliott Dunlap Smith Award for Teaching and Educational Service. A native of Detroit, MI, Daniels is a graduate of Alma College and Bowling Green State University. He currently lives in Pittsburgh, PA, with his family.

Filed under: Prose