by Jeffrey McDaniel
University of Pittsburgh Press 2008
Reviewed by Mike McDonough
Quantum Cubist Quarterback
Anyone remember the video game Q*Bert? Sort of a 3-D Pac Man with better characterization. You controlled a tube-nosed character springing up and down a pyramidal staircase of squares, changing each square to a different color while avoiding the coiled demons and making sure not to jump off the stairs. Sometimes, if you were trapped in the bottom corner, you could jump on a magic disc and get transported to the top of the stair pyramid again, and the demons chasing you would spring into the void, stretching uselessly for a recoil that never came. Sometimes there was no magic disc, and you jumped off the staircase into the void, spouting cartoon curses like #$@!. Jeffrey McDaniel’s poems in The Endarkenment are like playing a double game of Q*Bert, as if you controlled tube-nose with your right hand and its mirrored opposite with your left.
In the first poem, McDaniel smartly sets up a flawed god character who has not only made some funny, touching and very human mistakes in creating the speaker he addresses, but addict himself, has imprinted his suicidal desires on “that pulsating/ estuary,” thoughts shimmering like “glow-in-the-dark jellyfish” in your mind: “It still feels like I am the razor, and you // are the wrist, like I’m the window and you’re the person about to jump out.” Great stanza break. Right-hand Q*Bert looks on complicit while left-hand Q*Bert springs hopelessly into the void: #$@! QED.
This flawed god helps us chart the book’s lietmotif of self watching self. In “Little Sadness,” he calls the pain inside him like a dog: “Come here my little sadness, I whisper/ down my esophagus. Oh, here // he comes, the three legged bugger,/ with mother’s turpentine eyes and fur…”. This dog is so pitiful, he can’t even jump into the speaker’s lap, “but tries anyway, bashing / his bony head against my kneecap, / whimpering. Good, little sadness, good.” Cornered by comical demons, left-hand Q*Bert jumps for the magic disc as right-hand Q*Bert completes the board. Both start over again.
McDaniel’s metaphors are kaleidoscopic but not necessarily showy; he sets them up so that they fail of their own accord, and in emotionally smart ways. I particularly like how “Lament for A Shriveling Flesh Plant” works:
I sit here pressed against the bed, pressed
against my exterior, wishing I had more to give,
so in the dark, when you tilt me to your lips,
a wave could rinse through your insides,
but alas, I’m just a cheap, unwashed glass
with three ounces of tap water
in my grasp, and you are the whore
who will one day hurl me against the wall.
This extended quote does not show how the metaphor’s coming together mirrors its self-destruction shown here, throwing the film into reverse.
McDaniel exploits metaphors that work just as well as ones that don’t. Initially, I liked the cover ballpoint drawing of a tough, wiry, one-eyed cat more than the title poem “The Endarkenment” and the deliberately stretched definition the word is given in the book’s epigraph. Later, I came to see this as a canny strategy carving out a space just literary enough for second thoughts to occur, but not so literary that they are sure to succeed.
The title poem can be diagrammed like a failed football play: McDaniel looks right (“Sometimes I hate this language with its false words like sunset.”), looks left (“Moonlight is another lie”), the pocket collapses (“I know the glass is half full, but it’s a shot glass and there are four of us and were all very thirsty”), he scrambles backwards avoiding the inexorable rush (“I turn on Fox News and imagine the reporters are giant penises, and coworkers are stroking their legs”), then, cornered (“what would it be like to mate with a sheep?”), he throws a Hail Mary pass into the stands (“the I’m-a-caveman routine. Pound / my chest, howl, look at me mom, I’m banging a sheep./ To someone far away it might sound like I’m on tv.).
Compared with the usual ham-handed strategies declaring collections of poetry anti-establishment or anti-literary, McDaniel’s stance seems smarter and more to the point, the least condescending way to approach the “even-if-you-hate-poetry-read-this-book crowd.” McDaniel aims straight at pretentiousness without overly telegraphing his moves, or hiding behind campy identity politics and a blustery us and them attitude. There is maturity here, a canny, compassionate assessment of his drug addicted years, as well as the second chance he found in sobriety, wife, and family. Continuing his smart self-observation, he knows that his left-hand self is not defeated, only underground, the constant itch that keeps him clinging to stability. I particularly like the confused wonder with which he approaches his wife and their new parenthood. In “Self-Portrait as a Trampoline…” he can
…hear the screams of the children
bouncing on her, the tension and release
of her taut fabric. The little squeaks
of her coiled springs almost sound like hello.
Hello, Martha, I whisper into the night.
If this almost sounds too cute, the last poem “Self Portrait as a Stick of Butter…” sets up a kind of Twilight Zone episode where a stick of butter is trapped in a closed refrigerator (“nothing in here / except a jar with a single olive… all round and perfect in its glass.”). It wishes it could be spread on a warm piece of toast, but fears being left out overnight, melted in a useless puddle. OK, desperate silliness aside, how does the butter know the olive is there? The poem (the poet? the daughter?) as a stick of butter trying to resolidify itself like an oleaginous Humpty, its complacent, fearful self image melted by exposure to a new existential space? By concentrating, it becomes
Uncut. A sturdy stick of butter,
back in the dish’s cradle.
The olive glimmering
like that hint of moon
visible on a moonless night.
The literally inchoate metaphor is well placed. Because it so desperately wants to cohere but doesn’t, it can speak self-effacingly to the fragility of a fetus becoming a human being, the fluid, womb-like void somehow concentrating itself into solidity, and the confusion and hope of new parents in a way that you didn’t think was possible. The prime virtue of Jeffrey McDaniel’s The Endarkenment is that the usual literary assumption of attained wisdom is gently mocked, even as the necessary effort towards clarity is made.