Revolt of the Crash-Test Dummies
By Jim Daniels
(Eastern Washington University Press, 84 pp, $15.95)
Jim Daniels' poem "Cry Room, St. Mark's Church" navigates a world toured inside-out: from an enclosed space to outdoors, where a weary mother indulges a single-minded child. The kid is Daniels, enduring Mass with his mother and little sister in the windowed box reserved for small children. Walking home through urban neglect circa 1963, they pass the ditch where a boy he knew, named Larry, was found dead. Daniels gets his mother to buy him doughnuts, which he wolfs down -- then, once home, taunts his older brothers with his sugary triumph.
Home for young Daniels is an invalid grandmother watching Mass for Shut-ins on TV; for the poet, there are questions about cry-room theology ("Why would He [God] want criers in a separate room? / What about a room for laughers?"), and a rumination:
Nobody explained about Larry till I was old enough
to understand. The church stretched yellow police tape
around our lives like in those fancy stores where you couldn't
touch a thing. Usually, some kid started bawling, but not that day.
Oh the sweetness of the glaze,
and how the greed made my mother smile.
"Cry Room" succinctly introduces Daniels, a Carnegie Mellon English professor: His narrative impulse, characteristic tone (conversational, perceptively wise-guyish), and his roots in Catholic, working-class Detroit. But in his latest poetry collection, Revolt of the Crash-Test Dummies, Daniels demonstrates both an admirable range of subjects and a sure grasp of tone, verses flowing seamlessly between humor, poignancy and cutting observation, a sense of social justice at one with a wry, leveling wit.
Revolt's first section comprises riffs and meditations, often philosophical ideas vividly grounded in everyday life. The title poem suggests that generals taking guidance from "the wind tunnel of the president's skull" might better consult Daniels' own relations. In "The Land of 3000 Dreams," an increasingly absurd litany of the self-improvement uses of heavy weights ("They say if you just wear a cast-iron hat / and tip it to your enemies / you will learn forgiveness / or vengeance") resolves by questioning the validity of the very notion of expectations.
Most of the poems are brief, but "Sizing the Ring" consumes all of section two as it immerses Daniels' boyhood in the rippled waters of memory surrounding a teenaged mother and her brother, "who died looking for a prostitute in downtown Detroit." It's a narrative of knowing digressions that blends earthy humor ("A dope-smoking priest / named Mike corrupted Lisa Grabel ... He had lame-ass dope, but it must've been / hard for a priest to get good dope") with a sense of fate. "The Our Father written on the head of a pin" is the poem's prayer, as useless as any, as good as any, written "[o]n the head / of a bullet, on the inside of a ring / some young boy threw away or gave back / or hid somewhere and couldn't find."
Section three offers vignettes from what sounds like a youth fully lived, if not entirely well-spent. "Cement Mixer" beautifully calibrates the distance between children and a parent; "Outdoor Chef" is a hilarious take on a blow-off high school course. ("Charcoal lighter was routinely abused.") In "Wonder," Boy Scouts tour a factory bakery, "[t]he workers silent as we passed, staring over / our heads, numb with what they could not share. ... They offered no tours of auto plants, / yet that was where we ended up ..."
In the book's final section, Daniels offers poems on his neighborhood, his kids, the city -- soulful but funny stories about race, violence, compassion. "Big Bang," describes an anticlimactic confrontation with a kid over a deafening car stereo, with Daniels admitting that "my bones benefit from a random jangle now and then."
Revolt of the Crash-Test Dummies finds Daniels in top form, such self-effacing humor informing personal stories with universal resonance.