Depressing & Gorgeous: Joe Sullivan on Daniel Tobin’s Belated Heavens


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,

brain-pans, domes

of thought, each one

fell for you in the blink

of God’s eye

into the basket,

until that morning

your heart

cleaved itself

while the rail hummed

like a razor along

the underground…

 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

And then:

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.

Pastoral as Purgatory: Charmi Keranen on David Dodd Lee’s The Nervous Filaments


David Dodd Lee, The Nervous Filaments, Four Way Books, 2010

To sit down with David Dodd Lee’s fourth full-length collection of poetry, The Nervous Filaments, is, as its title suggests, not an exercise in tranquil meditation. Do not pour yourself a hot cup of tea and curl up in your favorite chair with this book, expecting to wax pastorally serene. Although Lee is certainly a poet immersed in the natural world, informed by its motions, he is also, to use his own words, as “pastoral as purgatory” (A Country Road). Find yourself a glass of wine and prepare to be transcendently transported to a parallel sphere. Poem by poem, Lee is going to deconstruct his world, “I believe in words. One by one/they dismantle everything I have faith in” (Wildlife), and then, reader, he’s going to deconstruct your world, and hand you the pieces “in the gray-green part of your eye–/a busted out headlight” (Not A Landscape, Not A Teaspoon), every piece infused with the emotion of living in an emergent world tragically tilted, perennially askew.

When we meet Lee in the opening poem, Loveless, The Gravel, he immediately lays claim to the reader, through his use of an unidentified “you” that persists throughout the manuscript, and asserts his right to examine and sardonically dismember the world in which they both live, not from a safe distance, but dangerously close. When he says, “I could see ambulance spelled/backwards” we know the universe isn’t in Lee’s rear view mirror, but he’s facing it head-on, all the while trying to make sense of the incoming messages, as frantically jumbled as they appear:

Here is your
story, in my

horizonless competence,

a nevertheless fine
kettle of

mockingbirds

I could see ambulance spelled
backwards

I could see the eels spilling
out of the horse’s head

a crawdad sits in a cold
pool importantly praying

(cumulus nimbus)

and here is your
story

coming from a different direction

a couple of shaved ideas

Loveless, The Gravel also establishes Lee’s kinship with other writer’s works, as he gives a nod to Günter Grass’s Tin Drum, “I could see the eels spilling/out of the horse’s head.” This line works particularly well in the context of the poem, whether or not you are familiar with the work it came from, but at times Lee’s references will leave the reader lost or hitting the Google (what would we do without it!) search button. Fidelity To Rapture might require a little research to understand who Harry Callahan is—first choice, Dirty Harry; second choice, Harry Callahan the photographer. The prize goes to Harry Callahan the photographer, a perfect fit for the poem, but you’re going to have to dig around. Lee’s poetry comes with the expectation that the reader is not a passive recipient, but an active participant in the work of digestion. To come to this table you have to be old enough to hold your own spoon.

Lee is not above a little gentle persuasion to encourage the reader to come along, however. In Romantic he insists the reader’s story is right here, at this unlikely intersection of worlds, “after all that’s your head in the window/looking out/though rain/through snow/lonely lonely,” but leaving the window might not be the safest thing to do. A few lines later he jumps heart first into a snow bank with a scalpel to fully dissect romance with lines like “the myth of the soul mate” and “they shredded the moon again she said about the falling snow.”

Lee is addicted to peering into the convoluted machinations of the human heart which has been set churning through a field sown deep with desire. He is anxious to dismantle the ship and remove it from the bottle (Tachycardia), but he’s just as concerned about how to put the damn thing back in again. He certainly doesn’t want to take any responsibility for owning it,

Natural and pure
coming right out

of the toaster

the sun on a recyclable plate

It’s for you …

Reminds you of the time you got the window seat

a gull flying outside
simply looking in at you

that was a good day …

and then the bag doesn’t even
fit the vacuum cleaner

the tears
the tears

and they won’t take the cups off your eyes …

I keep thinking of that ship

can it ever be extracted from inside the bottle
and if so

how does one stick it back in …

when she took off her shirt
I suddenly wanted to count to two

over and over again

how odd, she said, and searched he palm
of my hand for a lifeline …

no line of credit

it’s called the human heart

The Nervous Filaments might leave you feeling a little on edge, slightly unsettled. And that is, I imagine, precisely how Lee intends it. Through his use of fragments he consistently fights against the reader’s natural urge to draw specific meaning from his poems. There are no pat conclusions, “the lack of punctuation will continue/the absence of church bells” (Geology Of The Lake Superior Basin), only open vistas seen from Lee’s unique vantage point, “I was just saying you never really/come to the end of this pier” (Fidelity To Rapture). It’s possible you might need to pour yourself another glass of wine to finish the book, if “finish” can even be considered the appropriate word in the universe of Lee. The lack of punctuation will continue.

**

Charmi Keranen holds a BA in English from Indiana University South Bend.  She works in Northern Indiana as a freelance writer and proofreader of court transcripts.  Her poetry has recently appeared in The Salt River Review, JMWW, Stirring, blossombones, elimae, The Dirty Napkin, Passages North and Ouroboros Review.