Jim Daniels is back on familiar turf with “Rowing Inland,” a new collection of poetry based on his experiences growing up in Metro Detroit.
In the title poem, he reminisces about a summer vacation “up north” where the family rented a “dilapidated shack,” and Daniels tells readers about his first love, Kim.
“Kim and I kissed in the realm of first and foremost,” he writes, “climbing out bedroom windows when we were thirteen. But we never went to the church of full penetration … ”
In this new book, his 15th collection of poetry, Daniels writes in a long section about his hometown, Warren, and his relationship to it.
“I grew up on 8 Mile Road,” he said. “Growing up, when people asked, ‘Where’re you from?’ I’d answer Detroit. No one had ever heard of Warren.”
There are also touching and poignant poems like “Homemade Prom Press,” where he writes of a classmate who gets an A- in home economics for her homemade dress. Then delivers this kicker: “Though, dropping out, it did not matter.”
Daniels said the poem was a tribute to the number of girls who dropped out of school because of pregnancy.
“(Warren) was a Catholic community, and people were going to have their babies,” he said. “It is impossible to imagine what they went through, and the poem acknowledges their strength to get on with life.”
When it comes to death and loss, Daniels writes a poetic eulogy titled “Calling Out Marlene Miller.” Just before high school, a classmate named Marlene was killed in a tragic fire, leaving her classmates in a daze.
He writes about the funeral:
“We were supposed to whisper a prayer,
But we’d just stopped praying
And weren’t ready to start up again,
But we couldn’t just say Hey or See ya.”
In “Unpregnant Pause,” he uses wordplay to describe a youthful sex tryst — but it’s not what you think. It’s more in the vein of Michigan writer Stuart Dybek’s classic coitus interruptus poem, “We didn’t.”
In the poem “Heavy Stuff,” Daniels confronts the inevitable passing of time as he helps move his parents out of his childhood home. In the poem, a hawk becomes the metaphor for a dying city as it plucks a bird out of a feeder.
“We lived in Fucking Nowhere, a community with no center, no downtown. If it died no one could identify the body, though it’s dying now, the internal organs of factories and machine shops.”
He leaves the childhood home, but not before dumping the last of the birdseed in the yard, “knowing the hawk is out there.”
Daniels, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has long written about the survivors of the industrial heartlands of Detroit and Pittsburgh, hitting on themes of lost industries, lost jobs and lost hope.
“One of the things I have to guard against is becoming nostalgic about things that don’t exist anymore,” he said.
Even though he guards against nostalgia, Daniels, with his sister and brother, returned last spring to what he calls the “old dime store, Bur-Lers, where we bought candy cigarettes and ‘smoked’ them just like we did as kids.”
In 2014, he attended his 40th class reunion and “was surprised by the people who read his poems.”
Daniels remembers scrambling to prepare his family, especially his parents, for his poems’ content after one of his poetry books won a major prize.
“Before that, they were published anonymously in literary journals,” he said.
He needn’t have worried. His father took his books to where he worked, Ford’s Sterling Axle Plant, to sell them at a craft day.
“He got a table and sold a stack of books,” Daniels said.
Daniels keeps a photograph on his desk of his father selling his books, and he considers it one of his most precious items. As his mother aged and lost her vision, Daniels’ father, who doesn’t talk much, began reading his son’s poems to her.
“I’d pay to see that,” he said.
An exhibition at MSU’s College of Law pairs Daniels’ poetry with the photographs of Charlee Brodsky, which explore ideas of patriotism and document Pittsburgh communities grappling with post industrialization. Daniels comes to campus for a Feb. 22 poetry reading to complement the exhibition.
The poet’s next project involves the music of Detroit.
“Music has a big place in my life, and I’m interested in how music connects place,” he said.
Daniel’s current collection gives us a peek into his approach to music and poetry. He writes, “Alice knew what I wanted: black vinyl sheathed in sky blue panties.”
Jim Daniels and Charlee Brodsky
Poetry reading and photography exhibition
Wednesday, Feb. 22 6 p.m. reception, 7 p.m. presentation
Castle Board Room, MSU College of Law
648 N. Shaw Lane, East Lansing
events.msu.edu, (517) 884-1932