Jim Daniels' 'Birth Marks': love and decay from the poet of mill towns and beyond

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"Birth Marks" is the essential handbook into the goings-on in author Jim Daniels' life. The Carnegie Mellon University professor's 14th poetry collection flips between the recent past and Mr. Daniels' adolescence. Between dark humor and unwholesome love, the poet gives us an unblinking view of the alcoholism in his family, the struggles of the working class and the shame he has felt surrounding it all.

We still see Mr. Daniels' love for baseball in "I Dreamt I Wrote a Poem About Jazz" as well as the deep affection he still holds for the mill town, his hometown Detroit.

But here, instead of giving voice to Motor City's middle class, Mr. Daniels is trying to find himself in this mess of Michigan memories, searching his own adolescence, crouching in the "sin pits" of his past, longing for his words to fill him with the "familiar Detroit way" once again.

By Jim Daniels.
American Poets Continuum /
BOA Editions LTD ($16)

In "MegaEverything" Mr. Daniels interacts with a student who has plagiarized Black Sabbath lyrics into a poem he has turned in for class. As he speaks with the student he sees himself as an underage drinking teen idolizing Ozzy Osbourne, waiting for the 1972 concert to begin at the Michigan State Fairgrounds. He says, "Ozzy stalking onstage scared me / in a familiar Detroit way."

His complicated love for the place that has housed his heart also scares him. How remarkably similar he is to the plagiarizing student scares him. Mr. Daniels regrets not helping this student more -- not showing him how "poetry was all [he] had that wasn't toxic" in his youth.

What Mr. Daniels fails to acknowledge is that the child isn't him, and not everyone can be saved by poetry. The boy walked away from his office, and Mr. Daniels never saw him again.

Mr. Daniels recalls his lovers -- Anne, Jane and an unnamed lover in "Love Poem With Pesticide." He remembers Anne as his "autumn girlfriend" when he gets a call that she'd been in a car accident in "Making a Case for the Letter." He can only remember them temporarily breaking up because of the college winter break. In love, " -- who knows the last time we're going to wear something?" he asks.

Jane, the Japanese girl, helped him live out the roles of Yoko Ono and John Lennon's Bed-In one night when his parents were out of town. He remembers their love in the midst of mourning a classmate's death. They were 15.

It's as though he does not believe that love can exist in his own life without pesticide to remind him that no love is pure joy, but layered feelings of being adored and being torn, like catching the winning baseball and never getting it signed, or memories of a decaying city.

Maybe there is no difference between weeds or flowers, rain or spit, roots or birthmarks. Maybe all love contains pesticide. Like Jim Daniels we try to clear a path to understanding where we're going as we age, by looking as deeply into the ground as we can dig, and as far back into the past that our minds can reach.

Without that first love that died prematurely, or watching the Tigers' 30th win in '68 after the riots, or letting go of that taste for alcohol, who would Jim Daniels be? He wouldn't be the man who turns a mill town into poetry for us every time.

Daeja D. Baker is a poet who lives in the East End (daeja.baker@icloud.com).

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