Show And Tell, New and Selected Poems

By Jim Daniels

The University of Wisconsin Press
192 pgs. Cloth, $22.95 ISBN: 0-299-18580-X, Paper, $14.95 ISBN: 0-299-18584-2

Sometimes we need to read a certain kind of author because we simply have forgotten everything we knew about writing. We think we need a magic pellet, younger energy, more success, or to perform ritual – say like folding our hands and jumping off a building to get started.
Jim Daniels, we need you right now because we thought it was too hard to be natural while writing. We thought we had to duck into fancy triple plays, turns of phrase, and hide behind tactics. The problem with lying while using language is that the words may go to sleep right there and throw a shadow across the page.

Daniels’ new book has nine sections taken from eight previous books of poetry, plus new poems. His poems are relationships­the theory of relationships ­ people to people, to class, to race, love, work. A real life is here. It lies behind the detail, but the detail is what we want. Jim Daniels’ poems are human on the page, growing within and beyond some divine law of poetic order, far away from writers’ disasters.

Hemingway said if the writer gets blocked, s/he should write one true sentence. I might add, or read Jim Daniels. Here are portions from two poems in Show And Tell,


I step out of the car and stare
at the flat houses with their bristly bushes
wild and short like my old hair.
I want to cut my hair and spread it over this snowy yard
like my own ashes, I want to curl inside a sidewalk square,
my ear to the ground, cupped, listening‑what could I bring
back to life? Would I hear the rough chalk scrawl over cement?
This house the priest blessed over thirty years ago
when the lawn was mud and boards. Bless this house,
I think, standing in the street. The wind blows cold
but I know this wind, its harsh front.
Don’t try to bully me, I say. I am home
and my hands are trembling, I am sighing.
The car door slams. I clap my hands
for the hell of it, a clap on a street comer
echoing a little, among friends.
Once I stood here for hours
trying to hit the streetlight with a snowball,
to leave a white smudge. I have left no smudge,
nothing I could call mine. The gray sky presses
down on these small houses, on my parents’ house
and its square slab. They are inside,
maybe changing the channel on the TV, maybe
grabbing a beer and a bowl of chips, maybe
flushing the toilet, maybe scrubbing their faces,
maybe peering out a dark window.
I am waiting to step inside for the hug and the kiss,
I am waiting to push away this gray sadness-cement and sky.
I grab a handful of snow and touch it to my forehead
where it melts down my face. I smudge my chest
with an X of snow, I toss handfuls on the yard,
on the scraped sidewalk‑ashes, ashes, glowing
in the streetlight before the melting, the disappearing.

… (4 stanzas of 5)

I very much like the persona “Digger” who once occupied an entire book. Here is a piece of Digger:


You don’t know much
about the natural world.
In high school you had print shop,
electronics, power mechanics, auto shop,
and outdoor chef, though no one
believes that one.
They were preparing you
for the life of your parents
but then everything became fuel injection
and they took all the fun
out of tuning up a car.
When you were a kid
the robots in the cartoons were evil.
They did not do what they were
supposed to do. Now they’ve got robots
who do what they’re supposed to,
and that’s the true evil.
It’s like they ripped your name tag
off your forehead and it was taped on
with some kind of super ultra duct tape
that ripped the skin off too. You used to think
it was duck tape.
Now you’ve got time to take walks
and notice things. You drive out
to the county park some sunny mornings
when looking for work seems like a crime.
You were raised on the TV box
flashing its dreams like candy.
And it was good enough just to see
the candy. You didn’t have to taste it.

… ( 6 stanzas of 17)

Jim Daniels holds the inaugural Brittingham Poetry Prize, and he lives and works in Pittsburgh. He directs the Creative Writing Program at Carnegie Mellon University.