Belated Heavens, Daniel Tobin, Four Way Books, 2010
Daniel Tobin’s Belated Heavens is a visceral, masculine work of poetry rooted in the elements of the earth, depressing and gorgeous. It is heavy metal, not inert gas. Though the language may invoke visions, these are visions of earthbound horrors in many cases. There’s little ethereal joy here. There’s mainly consternation and questioning. Statements of the nature of nature. But the work eventually evolves into an acceptance of earthly bonds and a hope of transcending them, even if modestly.
The collection begins with the quote from Christian theologian Jacob Boehme: “We see the external world of stars and four elements, in which human beings and all creatures live. This neither is nor is called God. God certainly dwells in it, but the external world does not grasp Him. We also see how light shines in darkness and darkness does not grasp light, yet dwells in the other. We also have an example of this in the four elements, which in their origin are only one element that is neither hot nor cold, dry nor wet, and yet, by its movement, it divides itself into four characteristics, into fire, air, water and earth.”
This sets the tone: Tobin will be examining and attempting to translate into emotion the elemental of the earth. And like the four elements of ancient times, his book is divided into four sections: In the Neighborhood’s Throat, Fine Dust Sifting, Falling Upward and Bound Raiment. From these, it’s plain that he’ll begin at the very bottom, in a subterranean way, and work his way up, until ascension—though he actually stops just short of it. He knows only death with certainty and has questions about what comes after, whether it may be truly blissful or simply a continuation.
What’s most striking in this work is the way Tobin deals with everyday occurrences. He goes between these and more extreme moments of humanity with equal importance. In the book’s first and second sections, he includes several poems about rats. “Intruders” deals with a commonplace invasion of a mouse into the cupboard and its eventual capture, in a profound statement of power and guilt:
There he was, brown glass bead eyes looking up
at us as though we were gods, and we were,
his hammered frame caught in the clamp’s stirrup,
his terrified paws scrabbling tunnels of air
when I carried him, trap and all, to the bag
whose wide, rearing mouth swallowed his fear
like forethought. Though forty years ago,
it wasn’t him but me suddenly alert
to small eyes watching, vague steps on the pillow
that startled me awake, I think now, like a spirit
come in stealth to whisper the momentous,
then, turning back, thought the better of it.
Then later, in the same section, in “The Shrine,” the rats have become like holy men for carrying land mines into their holes:
Down in their burrow under the battlefield
The rats have crowded, surging, ashen,
Spurred like a congregation of monks arrayed
For the secret rite performed by an elect
They know themselves to be, inquisitive snouts
Tasting the earth and its seepage of bones.
They hauled it here, dank temple underground,
Dragged it through grass risen from the dead…
In the book’s second section, “Financial Statements Eaten By Rats” again paints the rats as intruders, whose remnants give them away but also put them on the same level with the world of men:
Nothing left but this black bullion,
these dots of blithe shit trailing
across the floor like decimals…
In the second section, too, Tobin moves into the more extraordinary realm of humanity and human violence with the death of an executioner in “The Executioner’s Memoirs” about the Frenchman Anatole Deibler, who executed 400 people. He kept a meticulous record of these in his notebook, then one day died of a heart attack on a train platform on his way to work:
Pates, noggins, crania,
of thought, each one
fell for you in the blink
of God’s eye
into the basket,
until that morning
while the rail hummed
like a razor along
The burning at the stake of the heretic is in the fourth section’s “Giordano Bruno In Flames,” and it reflects vividly man’s lingering savagery:
A breeze’s aftermath of sizzled flesh
licked the strafed cobbles of Campo di Fiori,
bore on its serpent’s back winding through brush
the last whiff of Bruno, heretical meat
Four centuries have burned, each one a wick,
consuming its essence like kerosene
since your screams—you must have screamed—erupted,
and the Roman dogs picked over your bones.
Also in the final section, Tobin changes gear slightly, reflecting negatively on the suffering of life and the hope of restful death in “The Wheel”:
A pilgrim pitched along the blind, human track.
The stoned soul mired in its ghost-life of needs.
Who in their right mind would want to come back
To the self and its burdens, thoughts like bees
That fashion the teeming comb and its hive,
The stoned soul mired in its ghost life of needs?
Finally, mercifully, he concludes the book with “As Angels In Some Brighter Dreams,” which paints heaven as a Brooklyn luncheonette for his parents and many others. It’s far from an idealized heaven, but good enough:
Even you gone into a world of light,
Or some metaphysical luncheonette
That smells in death of your shop’s mélange—
Cheeseburger, brisket, baba ganouj.
It’s seven a.m. in eternity.
Egg on a roll, a doughnut and coffee…
The ghost commuters queue at the counter
Of the neighborhood dead eating breakfast
I might see against the iridescent haze
Of your ancient plate glass windowpanes
My parents easing into their booth,
Regular as clockwork or ritual,
Though they wouldn’t see me, still corporeal,
On my stool-perch beside the chalk specials.
How strange to know death made them happy.
How rich they’d seem like the others, Sally,
Who look pleased this modest heaven is all
As they crowd in, ordering the usual.
A dance magazine editor by day, Joe Sullivan is author of a novel, Three Thirds, and recent fiction and poetry in Monkeybicycle, Poets/Artists, Red Dragonfly and Overflow. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, with his family.