In an interview about his hometown of Detroit, poet Jim Daniels once quoted writer Richard Price, who likened the place where you're from to "the ZIP code of your heart."In fact, places and people go side by side in much of Daniels' 14th collection, Birth Marks (BOA Editions). Daniels, a longtime Carnegie Mellon University professor whose work been published widely, seems most interested in keeping memories of places (and their inhabitants) alive with a worldly reverence that is clear-sighted about the past, without nostalgia.
As readers, we meet family members and acquaintances in varying states of health and age. In the title poem, Daniels describes his parents as "a bad magician / and she the nervous assistant, / a match manufactured in a damp swamp." The speaker in these poems is a faithful son/friend and realist, unafraid to point out his own faults and others'. This, paired with the grittiness of his surroundings, makes the collection stand out.
A favorite, the long poem "Foundation," uses a survivor's voice to illuminate a reckless youth. The title refers to a "dead-dream basement" whose cinderblocks "created a weedy pit / in the rubbled field behind / the mined parking lot / of boarded-up Bronco Lanes." The clear imagery of abandonment throughout works as an effective metaphor, standing in for the dead-end lives of those caught in the economic shocks Detroit was already feeling in the 1970s. The poem also works as an elegy for a hard-edged attitude the speaker isn't ashamed of: "If someone gives you lemons, / you squeeze juice into the eyes / of whoever fucked you up like that / then you spike the lemonade."
Daniels is playful with language, sometimes riffing on words and using free association to add a jazzy dynamic — even if he's not a jazz guy, as his speaker notes in "I Dreamt I Wrote a Poem About Jazz." This approach also works well in the stream-of-consciousness tone of "Approaching and Passing an Epiphany" and "Lip Gloss, Belgium."
Detroit is not the only place highlighted in this collection. Pittsburgh, mostly Oakland, shows its face in poems like "Watching Another Drug Bust" and "Elegy for the Nasty Neighbor." But while I dig seeing Pittsburgh in print, the poems set here seem to lack the emotional resonance of those set in Detroit. Nevertheless, Birth Marks is full of the poetic elements necessary for an engaging read.