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Birth Marks

A poet of the working-class and city streets, Jim Daniels’s fourteenth poetry collection travels from Detroit to Ohio to Pittsburgh, from one post-industrial city to another, across jobs and generations. Daniels focuses on the urban landscape and its effects on its inhabitants as they struggle to establish community on streets hissing with distrust and random violence.

A poet of the working-class and city streets, Jim Daniels’s fourteenth poetry collection travels from Detroit to Ohio to Pittsburgh, from one post-industrial city to another, across jobs and generations. Daniels focuses on the urban landscape and its effects on its inhabitants as they struggle to establish community on streets hissing with distrust and random violence.

This promotional description led me to Birth Marks by Jim Daniels, and although the description is completely accurate, the collection was unlike what I had expected. My expectations placed more weight on the words “establish community” and envisioned a collection singing the triumphs of the human spirit despite desolate times. A few poems in the collection brush against this assumption. The most notable example appears in the B side poem of “45 RPM: Side A/Side B” which starts by quoting Yoko Ono: “Who has seen the wind? Neither you nor I.” The narrator reflects on a girlfriend, walking readers through memories and music of the time, before concluding with these six powerful lines:

and Barry’s name was briefly erased
from the blackboard of our young lives,
and as I turned to watch her walk up
the steps to her house, her hair
trailing behind her, I could,
I could see the wind.

Seeing the wind and other glimpses of beautiful moments are not the focus of the poems or the people within them. Who are the people in these poems? Who are the inhabitants struggling to establish community?

My Two Aunts

work at Burger King and McDonalds.
One in Newark, the other in Memphis.
My two aunts married two drunks—
one died, the other disappeared.

My two aunts are two alcoholics,
recovering. One dates a blind man.
The other dates memory:
her husband’s final day
breathing his own blood.

Their alcoholic sons
have married and divorced.
Their children are sad and overweight
they are tall and stutter
they have imaginary illnesses
they blame their fathers
they blame their mothers

Other inhabitants include students trying to get away with plagiarism or trying to commit suicide, an addict nephew, and a drunk-thief-TV repairman. Daniels applies overt wit throughout his poems about the various characters and the backdrops they inhabit, especially when the narrator is commenting on his own experiences. For instance, in “Riding the Bench” the narrator goes through a series of clarifications to more accurately describe the expression we use colloquially:

perhaps you never rode
the bench. Rode implies skill, as in rode a horse.
 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I warmed the bench,
not really riding it, though if riding were involved,
I would’ve said Whoa, boy! or Heel, boy!
 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I never saddled up
the palomino. I was riding the jackass express
into the quicksand of bad grades and miscellaneous misdemeanors. Put me in, Coach, I should’ve said.
I scored one point the whole season.
That point is this

The play on common expressions and humor is throughout almost every poem of Daniels’s, which helps ease the reader into the content of the poetry. Additionally, Daniels writes in a vivid and very direct way, making it easy to grasp his meaning. A prime example of this appears in “Elegy for the Nasty Neighbor”:

across the street who died at last. I’ve already
forgiven myself the relief—that fast,

that mean. Her last words to me,
a complaint about red mulch
 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The mulch matches exactly the color
of their shingles. Still didn’t keep the weeds down

as claimed. I’m out on my hands and knees, not praying.
I’m digging, and the daughter says something about working

the earth bringing you closer to God. She wouldn’t know God
if he broke off the side-view mirror and turned it into a set

of dazzling silver teeth. I wouldn’t know God if he turned my mulch
into gold nuggets. But we’re thinking about him, wondering

if he’s a real dude, what he’s doing with the old bitch about now.
 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Her name was Mrs. Kearns, and that’s all anybody

called her. Okay, I sometimes called her The Mouth,

her voice injecting bile into my veins.

In “Foundation” Daniels writes a pointed question-and-answer stanza which serves as the foundation for the entire collection of poems in Birth Marks. “Why did we have such a crush / on cruelty? It held us up. / It had our back. It never let us down.” As readers explore the very heart of Daniels’s urban landscapes and the working-class experiences within these communities, they should reflect on his keen observation.

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