After All by Pat Daneman
FutureCycle Press, 2018. 82 pp.
Reviewed by Gail Goepfert
In this first full-length collection of poems, Daneman pulls us into the all that is living and dying. The poems are catalogs and songs, dreams and elegies—with a voice of startling clarity about relationships—how we long for them, live in and through them, even when they don’t fully satisfy. “My mother never once slapped me / though I could feel as if her grief were inside me, / how much she wanted to / how far she could see every time she looked into my eyes.” The poet’s keen perceptions as reflected in the speaker’s emotional landscape resonate throughout.
The poetic narrative, divided into four sections, rises and falls like the electrical events on an EKG. Early, the speaker reveals her curiosity about mothers different from her own in the poem, “Polly’s Mother Sang Opera” and the realities of her neighborhood in the unsettling poem, “Boys Who Cut Legs Off Box Turtles” when all that can be done to the guilty is “. . . shoot them / your most unflinching evil eye, wish them missing / limbs and nightmares to help them think about / what they have done.” In “The Holy,” a poem about a mother who meets a new Jesus with seeming regularity, the speaker closes in on harsh truths in her own voice, “I’ve given him all of my money. […] I need my tongue and my hips. I need / a cellar to shut him in, a ladder to climb him. He’s just / what I want what I want what I want.”
As is true throughout this series of poems, elegies are preceded by poems of tapestry, woven images of what might seem mundane—the making of soup— “Giant cabbages. A cut of pork / long as a fence post. Carrots and potatoes / that will hang like stars in my deep /bouillon dark” and the mother with cancer who cooks because she “like the colors of vegetables” and thinks about “autumn coming—her bones / rattling against her clothes, bald pumpkins / scattered like teeth in the fields, / as gardens everywhere died.” One of the true riches of Daneman’s work is her ability to open the blinds into living spaces using remarkable images--both familiar and surprising.
“Everywhere, longing,” the poet declares halfway through the book in the poem, “In the Middle of the Night.” This is an arresting study of people and circumstances, among them the assistant professor locked in a bathroom who […]contemplates the shell-pink complexion / of his most promising student,” and “The young talk show producer whose illness is taking its time.” Longing is everywhere. “Millions of people [are] lying / awake, tugging at quilts heavy as must / of ancestral insomnia.” These poems, without the proverbial rose-colored glasses, are messy poems brimming with pathos and empathy.
The third section of Daneman’s book is an accounting that hinges on the idea of time—the speaker and her husband breathing through the unknown of the “Time Remaining,” through the memories of “How it Rained in Barcelona,” of “ Waikiki,” and through the “Circus Train” of illness— “Five months we’ve traveled, no landmarks, / gorillas and elephants in every room.” “Dying in Church” is one of the most poignant poems here.
There is no worship anymore in the church of our bed.
We are a chamber in need of restoration.
No Michelangelo holds our miracle, no Gaudi,
[…] There are no prescriptions for us—
No busted hives or pomegranate stairwells
to unwind. […]
Our bed is for silence, sleeping. It creaks
with the weight of midnight, not prayer.
At its heart, the final section is summed up in the title of the poem, “An Argument for Going On” including poems about the death of the speaker’s father. In “Shelf Life” we return to time, how much time he or she or even we have, as the speaker tells us how her father sometimes feels like the “bottles of Tangy Salad dressing that have been there years past / the dates stamped on their labels.” In one of the final poems dedicated “To Anne Sexton,” the speaker writes admiringly about her wish, at the age of sixteen, to have Sexton as her mother: “You slapped the men who needed slapping / and lay down with the men you needed / on lumpy mattresses or towels damp with ocean water,” concluding that after Sylvia died, Sexton said that death was mine. The speaker understands that “it was not a sin for women to aspire / to each other’s bitterness, borrow rage / as if it were a tube of lipstick or a comb.”
The book’s final poem, “A Thin Place,” is an apt title for where we live, on the lip of both living and dying, something Daneman spells out throughout this collection, never succumbing to self-pity or sentimentality, a tender, accepting voice after all.
Gail Goepfert, an associate editor at RHINO Poetry, is a Midwest poet, photographer and teacher. Her first chapbook, A Mind on Pain, was published in 2015. Tapping Roots was released in 2018 from Kelsay Books, and a second book, Get Up Said the World appears in 2019 from Červená Barva. Recent or forthcoming publications include Kudzu House, Stone Boat, Postcard, Poems and Prose Magazine, Open: Journal of Arts and Letters, and Beloit Poetry Journal.