Jim Daniels is a writer and poet born in Detroit, Michigan. He currently lives in Pittsburgh teaching as a Thomas Stockham Baker University Professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Some of his poetry collections include Rowing Inland (Wayne State University Press, 2017), Apology to the Moon (BatCat Press, 2015), Birth Marks (BOA Editions, 2013), and stories from Eight Mile High (Michigan State University Press, 2014). Daniels is also writer/producer of a number of short films, including “The End of Blessings” (2015).
Greyhound stations and buses
reek with cigarette ghosts of American nerve.
Orange plastic seat rigor mortis, fried spit
and hieroglyphic sweat. I sat here in 1973.
There in 1976. Here in 1981. There in 1984.
There again in ’84. After a run of luck, the luck
ran out the radiator in Joplin, Missouri, so, back
on the hound in ‘89. Early ‘90s. Stumbling out
for midnight Church’s Chicken. Diesel fumes
and raw, unearthed regret. Anxious soldiers
and imposing grandmothers. Gum chewers
and thumb suckers. Unshaven, after-shaven.
Half-sticky slime on railings and poles.
And the bathrooms. The bathrooms.
Schedules and delays and wide sways
into laps and claps, and the drilling patient hum
of the sacred against the scared.
I’m weeping like the stranded opera singer,
though I don’t plan to ride another one ever.
Today a woman drenched in multiple layers
of filth, surrounded by wavy cartoon lines of stench,
catches my eye outside the Kroger's wanting to tell me
the frayed story of a brother in Chicago
needing a brain transplant, and was I
a participating surgeon? I paraphrase, I digress.
She reminds me of August,1983
and the gentle rocking of a large woman
who settled and spilled halfway across my seat.
I was returning from Madison, Wisconsin,
where I’d paid for half an abortion,
heading back to Findlay, Ohio, to move out
of her place. Her boyfriend was coming
back. I’ll stop there. Like I stopped
on that bus, heaving and blubbering
into the woman’s fleshy shoulder
while she patted my knee, and an old man
from the next row clapped a hand
on my shoulder and handed me a chicken leg.
and a surprisingly thick embossed napkin.
We chewed in silence all the way to Toledo.
HANDS IN BACK POCKETS, WIND THROUGH TREES
Your lover puts a hand in the back pocket of your jeans and you put a hand in the back pocket of her jeans and pull her toward you, or she pulls you, and you both put both hands in both back pockets of your jeans and squeeze to erase all space between the front of each other’s jeans and through your underwear and her underwear and her jeans and your jeans heat radiates heat into the lack of space—pressing spontaneous combustion, tectonic plates, friction and glow melting all maps and recognizable landmarks pulse and pulse and pulse and you groan and she groans in the absence of identification cards or pocket combs or red kerchiefs or lists of any kind. Oh, the applause of wind through trees.
HOT AUGUST AFTEROON
Hartwood Acres Park, Pittsburgh
They dance upon the empty stage
five and four, shouting above
the sad echo of their own voices.
They. Children. Mine.
Dancing without music,
a skill lost by mad crooners
and God's holy hymnals.
Down into the green bowl
of the amphitheater
I try to outrun
whatever's not chasing me—
likely my child self
blissful crouched in a giggle,
secret with the absence
of longing. Oh, vast space and
time and lush green dream-nals—
so many people not sitting
on blankets or anticipating
performance. From my slanted
spot below, I see the sweet glisten
and sheen of sweat on their round faces.
Clouds part for the spotlight's burn.
I save my applause
for the rest of their lives.
HAVING TALL KIDS
We held hands early and often
as if we knew what was coming.
I used to carry them both
in my arms up the steps to bed
back when I had knees. We played
games called Beach Chair
and Ski Slope and Rock.
All involved me being some-
one to tickle, traverse, awaken.
I bounced them on knees
hoisted them on shoulders
cradled them correctly,
like the books all said.
Remember when you put the toys
away for the last time, read
the silly book and put it back
on the shelf forever? Out-
grown while I napped on the carpet
after work, listening to music I never
outgrew, on the stereo that ended up
on the curb due to speaker size
and life’s CD-rama. It didn't have
to be that big anymore.
Oh, the pimply heartaches,
the heart’s tiny hairs darkening
into virginity-losing machines.
Research shows the mind
doesn’t work right for a few
years. Enough, already, I called
to their long shadows striding
in front of me down the street
to their favorite frozen yogurt
place, the new coffee shop
that disguised coffee in sickly
sweet goo. They used to take turns
sticking fingers in my cappuccino
back in the day/the day/the day—
hello up there! When I rose
from the rug, I no longer met
their eyes. We once owned
four pairs of binoculars
so we all could see far away.
Two grades apart, they each
circled my outline onto a long sheet
of special paper. Same size
both times. Allow for shrinkage,
I said. I painted over—yes, I did—
height lines in the kitchen doorway.
When it came to reaching high
on the shelf, they reached higher.
One day, my son proudly jumped up
and tore down our basketball rim.
He still can’t explain it—that brain thing.
My daughter dated dwarves
and threw their bouquets
for touchdowns. I can’t even put
my arms over their shoulders now
without feeling like the injured player
being helped off the field.
Holding hands? Forget it.
When we visited their best friends—
same grades, genders—their parents
still cuddled them—6tth grade? 8th?
Our kids flinched from us across the room.
Sure, maybe more than size, but still,
their long legs folded awkward
into the back seat on the way home,
We all agreed it was—it was—
we couldn’t agree on what,
the affection we could not
find—tall, taller—stop growing
and grow up! They still call me
to kill bugs for them. I’m shorter,
more bug-like: Rock, Ski Slope,
Beach Chair, till we broke a lamp
and then a glass bookcase.
My tall children stride through
shrunken doorways. All I can do is yell
Duck! My son 6’5, my daughter 5’11.
Statistics show. Studies reveal.
When they come home now,
they pet the tiny heart on my sleeve.
THE HUMAN ENGINE AT DAWN
I drove my daughter downtown to Greyhound
in the new year’s first snow, 6:00 a.m. flakes
ticking hard off bare streets, the scruff
of rough love that hurts without meaning to.
Half-light, two altar boys dragging boots
through fresh light snow behind the grade school
yet to be plowed, on their way to 6:30 mass
to prop up Father Andrews with his bald insect head
and stick frame stooped beneath heavy robes.
We rang bells random to keep him upright—
those dark souls kneeling in grim semi-dark
rose from the dead for communion.
My daughter's watch kept me on edge
over snowy roads, the weighted freight
of her battered suitcase, the dashboard's
dim lit instruments. We are in this together,
my daughter and I, my childhood friend and I,
through the snow gathered, gathering,
regardless of belief or love or traffic.
A lot can happen at 6:00 a.m.
or nothing at all. Blessed are the sleepers.
Look up and see the cracked chandelier.
6:00 a.m. forever up there.
If you are alone and awake at 6:00 a.m.
forever feels stamped with the authority
of silence and ceremony.
All well and good to say
“Stop Making Sense”
as some pronouncement from on high.
But even that is impossible
if you’re making sincere attempts.
In the land of unbelievers,
don’t run out of gas.
We believe in gauges, warning lights
and—oh, the human engine.
Snow, 6:00 a.m. A bus revs up,
ready to take her.
The stiff arms of trees spread
and tremble like Father Andrews
giving his blessing. We didn't
know it would be his last mass.
Do this in memory of me.
Forgive me, father, for ringing
the bells this morning
and every morning I am awake
this early, this late. When
will I see her again? My daughter
breathes smoke, half-waves goodbye,
hurries forward and away.
The hard flakes circle
in the wind between buildings.
NOSTALGIA FOR THREE-HOLE PUNCH
My daughter the list keeper—
neat, deliberate cursive of casual
formality, civilized discussion.
For years, she punched holes in lined
paper for her series of color-coded
three-ring binders with a satisfying
whump. White circles littered the floors.
Don’t ask why loose leaf did not serve.
She had a system. When she left for college
I licked my finger to lift them all up
from floors throughout the house.
The sad confetti of her leaving
in lieu of tears. The crooked shaky steps
of a stack of emptied binders.
The long packing list scotch-taped
to her bedroom wall, everything crossed out.
I pulled it down, removed the tape.
I looked for the punch,
but she took it. We did not have
a civilized discussion before she left.
She hated spiral notebooks, the ragged fray
of torn sheets, the distorted circles
of cheap bent wire. Tears did not occur.
The hard thunk of the punch. Books always
get it wrong. Periods instead of commas.
Commas instead of periods.
Were they the crumbs of abandonment?
Maybe she will some day return—
she trailed ellipses out the door.
THE MACULARDEGENERATION BOOK OF REVELATIONS
Charles Bonnet syndrome: when people with sight problems start to see things that they know aren’t real…the things people see can take all kinds of forms, from simple patterns of straight lines to detailed pictures of people or buildings… People experiencing it don’t talk about their problems from fear of being thought of as mentally ill.
My mother’s tiny people line the street.
A red streak follows her, a green car,
a large dog-dragon. She rosaries herself
to sleep, teeth tight with pain throb,
steel rods poking against skin.
Today, still in her corner chair,
she does not know me till I speak.
Ten years ago, she asked me to bring
my kids home so she could see them
one more good time before
the Big Bleed she knew was coming.
Fifty years ago, Mortified with joy,
I danced with her on the frayed rug
in front of our dying dog, her untapped
grace twirling the small house’s tight corners.
The unraveling spiral, no mirage.
The sprung spring, twisted clock
hands. Nobody saying give or uncle.
Nobody humming an imaginary miracle.
My mother’s Talking Watch
lies, but she knows to add an hour
and seven minutes. Stars go on shining.
How would I describe them to her?
Remember looking up at the dazzling
spray of the wish to live forever?
The long river of oncoming grief
blurs that vision. I recorded stories for her,
a book-on-tape like the Library for the Blind
sends, while what she sees goes unrecorded.
Free for the blind. I don’t edit out stumbles
and stutters, the rattling silence
of finding my place.
Interview with Jim Daniels by Amelia Looney
AL: To start off, can you give us a visual of your ideal writing location? What time of day? Do you have a caffeinated side-kick? Do you write or type?
JD: My ideal writing location has become more flexible over the years, but it's basically somewhere in my house here in Pittsburgh. I don't use my home office as much as I used to because I find that as long as I have my laptop, I'm good. Now that my children have grown up and moved out, the whole house is pretty quiet. I am more of a morning writer now, and I start my day with a double shot of espresso. No more late nights for me. Actually, my process involves scribbling ideas down on 3x5 notecards that I carry around with me all the time and keep a pile at my bedside—then I type them into the computer into an ideas folder, then pick things from the idea folder to develop into a first draft, and so on.
AL: If you could sit down with any author, from the past or present, for a drink and hour conversation, whom would it be and why?
JD: I'm never good at this kind of question where you're supposed to pick one of anything. I tend to be shy around my favorite writers—even the dead ones—so I'm imagining an awkward conversation here with any of them.
AL: Many of your poems feature family members as the subject or familial constructs as underlying themes, how important is your family to your writing process, and do you consider them a muse?
JD: Yes, most definitely, my family is an essential part of my writing. Luckily, they've all been good sports about showing up in my work and getting fictionalized in various ways. My son does stand-up comedy and uses me as material on occasion, which is only fair. I guess I don't consider them a muse, but they are the people I care about the most and know the best, so they inevitably find their way into the writing.
AL: Two of your displayed poems include the Americana image of Greyhound buses, what is it exactly that inspired the poems revolving around them?
JD: I guess the Greyhound poems were inspired when I took one recently—for the first time in a long time—and started having flashbacks of previous Greyhound trips. Maybe I'll write some more of them. Taking long-distance buses always seems more human and intimate to me, and the humanity of those trips makes them memorable.
AL: If all jobs paid the same would you still be a writer and professor?
JD: It was a real challenge for me to become a professor, but it ended up being very rewarding and sustaining to me, and the hours fit my mindset and personality, and allowed me to become a better writer. I continue to be inspired by my students' enthusiasm as young writers—it keeps my own enthusiasm up during otherwise discouraging times.
AL: What is one of the greatest lessons you have learned throughout your writing career?
JD: Well, humility has to be the greatest lesson. And I learn it over and over and over again…
AL: Do you have anything in the works right now?
JD: Currently, I have a new book of linked short stories, my 6th collection, titled The Perp Walk, coming out in a couple of months from Michigan State University Press, and later in 2019, an anthology I edited with my friend, M.L. Liebler, titled R E S P E C T: The Poetry of Detroit Music, will also be published by MSU Press. Since those two projects are finished, I am starting work on a new collection of poems now.
Other interesting projects: Sending poetry to the moon as part of the Moon Arts Project http://moonarts.org/and collaborating with Mark Baskinger, an artist, on a giant steel mural combining his images with my poems for the new Tepper Quad on Carnegie Mellon University's campus.