The Brave Never Write Poetry, by Daniel Jones
Reviewed by Alex Boyd
“Few could have tried harder than Daniel to be honest on the page, and it shows.”
— Steven Heighton, Jones (from The Admen Move On Lhasa)
I can’t remember what teacher or professor of mine said the difference between an artist and an insane person is that an artist takes a diving bell into uncertain mental territory, while the insane are down there all the time, unable to surface. I’m a little torn about this. While it’s a near-perfect image, I resist the idea every kind of artist can’t hold a job, smokes unfiltered cigarettes and self-obsesses about their pain. It’s the sort of stereotype that helps politicians cut grants, insisting we don’t need to hear anything more from this type of person. And to be truthful, a poet is frequently that nondescript person next to you on the streetcar, or in the office cubicle nearby, probably not often advertising in everyday life that they write poetry, as it gets you the same look you’d get if you announced you took a horse and carriage to work. Real poets hold down jobs, take trips, watch movies and even raise families because we know art comes out of life, it isn’t simply found lying around on the sidewalk.
And then along comes Daniel Jones, who smoked, drank far too much and wrote about pain, as though someone needed to help form part of the kernel of truth in the cliché, and he volunteered. As detailed in a lucid and thoughtful Afterword by Coach House editor Kevin Connolly, this is a reprint of a 1985 poetry book, and the only poetry book Daniel Jones (or Jones, as he called himself at the time) would publish. My own education about Jones began after his suicide in 1994. I can’t remember if I first read the essay by Steven Heighton quoted above (from The Admen Move on Lhasa) or After Daniel: A Suicide Survivor’s Tale, by Moira Farr, but for a long time there have been various clues to his existence. Next, I discovered and read several of his various out of print books: The People One Knows (stories), and Obsessions, a short novel. While I don’t pretend to have known him or his struggles personally, I knew enough to look forward to something honest and real from the reprint of his poetry book.
His style is straightforward, and he shoots from the hip in these poems, which is an easy style for a critic to dismiss, assuming they want to appear more sophisticated or somehow above it all. At the time (and when he wouldn’t have been an editor for Coach House) Connolly wrote the only good review he saw. A poem like “Jelly Beans” begins with a birthday party for a child and then quickly blindsides that plain optimism with a later moment of adult pain. A poem like “Steaks” takes a look at desire, and uses our most obvious carnivore moment as a title hiding in plain sight. While a confessional poem, “A Cold Ear of Corn,” nevertheless begins with the image, “Blackbirds filled the trees like insane fruits.”
As a poet, all of his skills are subtly demonstrated here, making them easy enough to miss. He maintains an almost indifferent emotional distance from several different potential kinds of desire, including food, youth and sex in “Fried Chicken,” and then adopts a completely different tone for the delicate and symbolic “Morning Poem.” A set of brief, effective character sketches emerge in poems like “Louie,” and “Justina,” even as the idea of a love poem is turned on its head in “Love Poem,” with lines like “I sit, smoking cigarettes, / And watch the semen run down the bone of his thigh.”
Needless to say at this point, readers should expect a rawness in the poems, though any need to brace yourself before reading them isn’t without purpose or meaning. Jones didn’t turn his pain into anything meaningful as much as document it in quite a potent way. It’s an easy thing to charge into the territory of documenting drunkenness and pain, but another to do it well, and Jones frequently succeeds. Not every poem works, in this collection. “Hate Poem for Lauren,” is so plain it manages to sound a little amateurish, and “Things That I Have Put into My Asshole” collapses under the weight of its own cleverness. I found I also had to work to remember Jones actually lived this life, as the cliché of the drunken poet is so heavy it threatens to get in the way of his own poems at times.
Hopefully most readers will know enough about Jones to know he did actually live this life, and Coach House has done a great thing by reprinting the book (his novel 1978 has also recently been reprinted by Three O’Clock Press). In the world of Canadian poetry, Jones is a little like the mysterious guy who sat at the back of the class in a disinterested way, and while he maybe only stood up once he certainly had something to say. There’s a larger story here too, and I’m trying to resist commenting on it very much, because I don’t want to sound like I knew Jones or the larger sources of his unhappiness, but I’ll say this: every writer feels a struggle to connect, to feel a sense of accomplishment and be found worthy. Books aren’t published, or don’t get reviewed, or are reviewed badly, and finally they float out of print and become items passed around in used bookstores. Jones would have felt this, and it might be fair to say he felt it more acutely than most of us. From what I recall of After Daniel, some of this is detailed. We should all tip our hats to Coach House Books and Three O’Clock Press for greater access to his work, as well as a gesture that surely would have meant something to Jones.