Cody Deitz Reviews Jeffrey McDaniel's Chapel of Inadvertent Joy

This opening poem invites the reader in, and once in, the reader cannot help but be carried along by McDaniel’s speaker, who flits from the humorous and light to the dark and surreal.  The balance between these elements does not reveal a yin-and-yang sort of relationship however; it is much more chaotic.  The lighter moments often display a compulsive hope while the shadows tend to assert themselves, rising up to complicate and recontextualize the speaker’s desires.  

 

In a few poems in the collection, the tension between these elements becomes more concrete. In “Keeper of the Light,” McDaniel’s speaker is literally and figuratively a “keeper of the light.”  He is, after all, a lighthouse keeper, but he also maintains a silent but burning empathy:

 

            […] I read you

 

            and chart your coordinates. Note your howls. And no,

            I cannot save you, or bring supplies–just sit inside

 

            this giant candle and fling thimbles of light

            in your direction, whispering, I hear you, hold tight.

 

The simple act of recognition is utterly transformed into a powerful deed, even if its power exists only within the mind of the speaker.  Indeed, the response of the speaker to the suffering of the various partially-identified people is paltry, but in its triviality, the speaker’s effort becomes beautiful.  McDaniel’s ability to slyly pluck at the reader’s sense of helplessness in this portrayal of the dutiful light-keeper pitching light into the proverbial void is incredible.

Pitt Poetry Series

University of Pittsburgh Press

74 pages

$15.95 

 

His most recent collection, Chapel of Inadvertent Joy, displays a Jeffrey McDaniel as potent as ever, despite its contending with the various declines of middle-age and a love wrecked by infidelity.  The poems in this collection, like in his other books, have a habit of sneaking up and biting you, making for a surprising and invigorating experience.

 

From the very first poem, it’s clear that McDaniel remains one of the contemporary masters of candor.  The poem is humbly titled “Hello,” and reveals a speaker letting down his guard a little bit.  Courting the reader, it seems, is always a fashionable way to begin a collection:

 

            …Anyway, it’s good you’re here.

            The truth is I’ve been lonely, crawling up and down the page at night.

 

            […] I know I’m complaining, and it’s unattractive,

 

            but please, forgive me, because complaining is like sex for old people.

 

Jeffrey McDaniel has published four books of poetry: The Endarkenment, The Splinter Factory, The Forgiveness Parade, and Alibi School. His poems have been published in numerous anthologies and magazines, including Ploughshares, American Poetry Review, and Best American Poetry 1994 and 2010. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, he teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. (from University of Pittsburg Press)

Other poems take on grander themes, but effectively ground these themes in concrete experience.  “Satan Exulting Over Eve” is a kind of ekphrasis and persona poem combined, where McDaniel inhabits the voice of Satan to fully humanize a distant God.  The result is bewitching, and Satan, one of the most interesting and oft-discussed literary figures, is made new:

 

            Some savior you are–saving her

            from yourself perhaps, you two-faced swine,

            planting and pruning the tree of death

            beside the tree of life. Yes, I am evil.

            Yes, I am the minister of woe,

            but at least I’m consistent.

 

The poems in Inadvertent Joy feature the quick lyrical turns that make readers lovers of McDaniel’s style, and for those familiar with his work, there is a familiarity to this collection:

 

            He’s dragging his Mediterranean tongue

            around the perimeter of my wife’s lullaby,

            like Hector’s body around the gates of Troy. (“Holiday Weekend”)

 

Overall, this collection does not represent a significant departure from his earlier aesthetic or subject matter in any substantial way.  This might be considered a criticism, but the collection reads as fresh and vibrant, and this is largely due to the consciousness through which McDaniel’s poems are filtered. 

 

This consciousness is cynical, experienced, and dark, but also energetic, democratic, and actively seeking redemption.  Indeed, it is this active search for redemption that seems to lead the speaker ultimately to the final poem, “Chapel of Inadvertent Joy”, an image pulled fittingly from a poem by Marina Tsvetaeva, with whom McDaniel shares a certain candor:

 

            Feel the convergence of all your stray voltage. Don’t pull out

            of that feeling. Let the father standing next to you

 

            see your eyes well up, the inverse of how the neighbors

            sometimes hear you yelling fuck. It’s true–you don’t deserve this,

 

            but it’s yours anyways: the gold-tipped spurs of this moment,

            a red bird flinging praise through the sky.

 

McDaniel is exceedingly successful in wooing the reader into his murky, imperfect, and fleetingly bright world.  There is a journey to be taken in Chapel of Inadvertent Joy and once begun, it’s nearly impossible to leave McDaniel’s side.  Ultimately, the speaker realizes an imperfect peace, perhaps the only kind of peace to be had.