A review of Jim Daniels' Birth Marks by Zarah Moeggenberg
Before sitting down to reflect on Jim Daniels’ Birth Marks, I must mention that I had read it on four separate occasions and in four entirely different locales. The first time, I was home in Marquette, Michigan, sitting in my living room, the book seemingly warm and crisp, having just received it earlier that day from our managing editor. The wind off Lake Superior whistled through my front window as I made my way through the poems. The second time, I was in Ontario at a family-friend’s wedding. Certain images began to resonate in Daniels’ work, but not quite. The third time I read the book, I was in Bay City, Michigan, visiting family. Those moments where Daniels writes of his familial connections with the automotive industry spoke to me as I drove across the Saginaw River to the run-down bars that began my early adulthood, the once vibrant GM plant I passed desolate, having shrunk over the last 15 years from several thousand workers to a measly couple hundred. In “Company Men” Daniels writes
We do not look for new jobs. We take what they give us. We drink our coffee Black. We tip the mailman at Christmas. We mow our lawns and prop up our homes… (50)
In Bay City, the men who would stand at the bar I served $2.25 Budlight bottles and $1.50 Busch Lites to would lean into each other, whisper about what the boss had said that day. Pension this, pension that, pension lost. I’d watch their eyes gloss over. Their wives would pick them up after the fish fry, they’d go to mass the next morning, mow the lawn in straight lines, and roll in on Monday for another buzz. I had left all of this in Bay City until Daniels’ book.
I find it interesting that I was the editor paired with Birth Marks. Perhaps it is because I am the one from Michigan. Perhaps it is because I’m leaving soon. This final time I read Daniels’ work I was in flight from Dallas to San Antonio to look at a PhD program.
…The river has flowed, continues to flow. Its job is to have nothing to say. It says it well and without complaint. (59)
Daniels made me want to turn the plane around. This book is about home.
There is an interconnectedness to home, and Daniels captures this in every poem he writes. When I got to San Marcos, just north of San Antonio, I couldn’t help but read one of his poems out loud to the two women I was staying with. All of us Yoopers in some way or another, I had met one of them because she had gone to Northern Michigan University for her master’s and ended up in Texas to complete her PhD. We had really met over Facebook, myself a transplant to the U.P., herself a true Yooper. The poem I read out loud captured the way, perhaps, that we had come to know each other, its structure entirely dependent upon association of action or noun identification. While Marquette was being hammered by a blizzard, we sat in our tanks and tees in a hot living room while I read Daniels’ poem aloud. The poem “Making a Case for the Letter” begins with Daniels describing opening a letter from a friend whose wedding he had attended several years ago, the bride’s friend a woman that he attempts to have sex with.
in a car parked in her parents’ driveway trying to have sex in December— unsuccessful, despite good intentions and slippery clothing, yet I promised to call her before going back to college but then my friend Jack called from Alma to tell me my autumn girlfriend Anne Devine had died in a car accident in Colorado, asleep in the back seat ...and though we weren’t sleeping together at the time I may have been her last lover— she was kind to my dog and all living creatures… when I open Doug’s letter, a tiny yellow leaf falls onto my red kitchen table… (34)
Part of why I read this poem aloud was because we were discussing where thought goes and how we can map it. Almost every poem in Birth Marks possesses a fossil-like quality, or perhaps some sort of tracing within its structure. We can see this again in “Lip Gloss, Belgium.”
My daughter pulls on my hair to make sure I’m not a witch. She cried when I beat her
at ping-pong—the computer’s red thing just underlined that: I’m supposed to capitalize
Ping-Pong. Red Thing wants to be capitalized, too. A train runs under my chair and crashes into my foot.
I wish I’d grown up in Ping Pong, Wisconsin… (28)
Here, we can see the progression of association that Daniels uses to move the poem forward. Most of the poems in this collection I have found to be this way. It really pulls me in, the narrative braided, complex, and rich. I’ve seen this a lot in the work of Susan Terris and even Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Another place that I found this to be particularly effective was in “Taking the Leap” where we have narratives focusing on the son, the speaker, and the speaker’s mother braided into an exploration of familial intimacy and loss. It really keeps the energy up. Typically, I honestly have a hard time making my way through lengthy poems. Some of Daniels’ poems are three pages long. But, this braiding method he uses is really effective and I didn’t once feel like I was reading numbly.
As a spoken-word poet, it is also difficult for me to find, at times, poets who are heavily focused on the narrative. In Texas, as we drove out to scenic areas, and even some remote neighborhoods I may find myself living in, my friend who’d I’d met through NMU and Facebook would exclaim something that seemed entirely random, myself and her roommate chuckling. We would ask, “Okay, how did you come to thinking about that?”
She would then link all of the associations and we would nod. Where we are, where we are led, entirely hinges on clusters of connections, sometimes not linear at all, but still mininarratives (fine) all the same. In “One Arm Raised” we experience this as readers:
[…]I taught my daughter to make dandelion chains. Our jeans smudged yellow with the jazz of spring[…]
A young man staggered towards us, one arm raised, blood dripping. He knelt in the dirt and ran the cut under water. He asked for a tissue… (52)
This is a very simple example I have chosen that demonstrates how Daniels constructs narrative. Toward the end, we find that all of this poem, which began with the words “In the park yesterday” was generated by Daniels (or the speaker) seeing batches of dandelions. He remarks, “[t]oday [the dandelions] sit loosely piled on our porch, color draining” to close the poem. Many more of Daniels’ poems are more complex and possess that braided quality I was speaking about earlier.
Michigan is all over this book and in this 80-degree weather I want to go back to that blizzard I missed. I want to be next to the man flying home who will tell me about the mine that’s opening, the two up the road shutting down. I want to hear about those moments like in “One Word” where we are waiting for that light to change, or the ones in “Cosmetic” when we are waiting for the right moment to force a white lie to make someone’s day, or the ones that fill us with whiskey breath and dollar menu (no mistake) hamburgers like in “My Two Aunts.” Daniels’ book brings me back to small town Michigan and especially, the rusty clink and clang, the steady whiz and honk of Detroit at rush hour. This book has its hands dirtied Michigan brown.
Birth marks are anything but physical. This book is the blue collar guys sitting at my bar, my Saginaw River, my shrinking GM plant parking lot, my McDonald’s coffee, my students texting on their phones and plagiarizing their papers, the six packs we stole as kids out of the fridge when no one was looking, those girls I couldn’t quite fuck in my backseat either, those empty lots of dandelions, those foreclosed homes, and my Yooper friends showing me everything Texas. Place grounds us so much in how we generate writing, how we explore our words, how we articulate the home in us. Daniels reminds us not to forget how home builds us forward.
Zarah Moeggenberg is a poet living in the upper peninsula of Michigan. She is a Master of Fine Arts Poetry Candidate at Northern Michigan University and has been Associate Poetry Editor of Passages North for the last three years. Zarah's poetry has been most recently published in The Fourth River, ellipsis.literature and art, Diverse Voices Quarterly, SunDog Lit, and Ellipsis Lit Mag. Zarah loves her Pomeranian named Teddy, hiking in snow, snobby coffee of select varieties, and running next to Lake Superior. She will pursue a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition next fall at Washington State University.