In his six-part poem “Welcome to Warren,” poet Jim Daniels writes of his suburban Detroit hometown, saying, “The Land of Big Ideas / exists in a different tax bracket. / Big ideas sound like whining to us.” Though the Rust Belt population is often forgotten until it figures in presidential elections, Jim Daniel’s 15th book of poetry, Rowing Inland (Wayne State University), gives a needed voice to the region’s blue-collar ethos, in 114 pages emphasizing the personal, not the polemical.
Daniels, a Carnegie Mellon University English professor, has long used his childhood neighborhood and its cast of characters as the backdrop for his work. It’s a winning formula that feels fresh even as he mines memory in the face of aging family and the city’s changing landscape. In “Beware of (My Grandfather’s Fake) Dog,” he writes of “His shrunken street, tight with menace and doubt / his busted jaw and memory bank, convinced us / to move him out. We got him a real dog / for his new house …” The details of the canine ruse read both quirky and poignant.
This perceptiveness continues in “‘School’s Out,’ Alice Cooper, 1972,” a record infamous for its “black vinyl sheathed in sky-blue panties.” The album acts as totem, allowing a grown speaker to describe the frustrations of growing up in a dead-end town. He writes of “A guy named Alice with the face / of cartoon death. Surly mascara barked / from the coffin of my speakers. / The song blew up school. School as prison — / a metaphor made quaint by factories / in our future that offered no graduation.” The image and analysis conjure an angst still felt by many.
While poems like “Soft Side of the Moon” and “Economic Fairy Tale: The Cement House” feel less intimate and strive for edginess, there’s a tenderness in poems about parents that’ll move many readers. In “Prayer Above the Washer,” Daniels writes, “She sent me down to find something, / bring it back up. I scratch my nails into a bar / of cracked yellow soap. They have just sold / this house of my childhood. / I read the prayer / she taped beneath the window. Should it too / be removed, packed?” It’s a question answered in compassionate ways throughout Rowing Inland, allowing Daniels to craft the sometimes-mundane into something notable.