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.

Endlessly Rewarding: Joe Sullivan on Shya Scanlon’s In This Alone Impulse

Shya Scanlon, In This Alone Impulse, Noemi Press

Shya Scanlon’s In This Alone Impulse is impossible to categorize and endlessly rewarding. His ability to play with words, to jumble them and change their meaning through the jumbling, is what makes it unique and, ultimately, moving. By altering the construction of sentences beyond the conventional (especially earlier in the book), Scanlon creates more of a mood with many of these poems than something to be taken literally by the actual words. It’s like an impressionist’s painting in many instances. Case in point, the poem “Killing, riding” has a title that seemingly refers to something vigilante and deadly, but its words at face value don’t necessarily go along with that:

This like we, likely, is this is, undo. Take this out not far but take it
widely, so it sits beside us. It should serve as something undid, or else,
dust. I hurry to touch it. I hurry to peel me up, and finger, and hurry
to hand it over as something, something over more than, breaks from
over what, from that unbroken smoothness. This sums us up. This is that
knuckle we said would carry things into a broad, clear brightness, and
bend and watch them burn.

But after careful reading and referring back to the poem’s title, the words, in their way, do conjure movement (“hurry”), as in a ride, and they do create the mood of an end (“undid,” “dust,” “sums up”) as in a killing, carried out with witnesses, it seems: the “we.” Or maybe the “we” refers to a conversation between the killer and the dead. The poem could be interpreted as a prayer over a necessary ending.
All of the poems are in a seven-line format, and within those lines are many quick-witted, playful conversations between the author and his mind, or between his mind and his external environment. At times, the mind works through dreams, and many of these poems, with the way words are arranged or used and misused, hyper-used even, seem to emulate dream dialogues. Scanlon meets and converses with images from his past and present, his family, his childhood, a day at the beach, his loves and his struggles.
“Wicked toes” is a good example of this playfulness and unconscious dialogue that might seem garbled in real-life, but perfectly logical in the context of a dream:

The sand is well, oh my, is clear. Is sees us through it. Is rakes over us.
Is be in the beginning. This sand is bare is, bore is, is cannot crack or
crease. Please within this. Please to something, not enough than, sander
than, more sand etc…

Prior to the poems about poet Tony Hoagland in the last quarter of this collection, the book is floating, metamorphosing, getting ready for something. But in the three about Tony (and beyond them), the abstraction that came before crystallizes into something more concrete. These poems strike the reader as more direct:

Tony shows me the money. Nice, I say. How much is it? Who knows, I
say. We went to all those rides with just one ticket. It was a marvel… (from “Stench it, period”)

A moving forward and an illumination occurs. There is a little less wordplay and more references to specific physical entities and beings. It’s as if Scanlon’s awoken from his dream or out of the alone-ness of sleep or meditation back into the physical world and its social activities:

Erin wags a little finger on her fist. I pass out of the kitchen with the
chicken. The television is on; the stereo is on; the lights are on, and she
bends down dancing with Hansom. There is a memory in my head that
is trying to escape… (from “Imagine next”)

But even in the mundane trappings of real-world exploits, the latter “realer” poems in the collection still contain lines that awaken goose bumps. “Tape around the Wait,” a poem that refers to an office co-worker, holds what may be the loveliest line of the book: “Can I take you to the copy machine and draw light across your skin?”


A dance magazine editor by day, Joe Sullivan is author of a novel, Three Thirds, and recent fiction in Monkeybicycle and Overflow magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, with his family.