Saturday, January 5, 2013

Entering the life of all around us: The poetry of Kate Daniels

"I am not fancy.
My days are filled
with wiping noses
and bathing bottoms,
with boiling pots
of cheese-filled pasta
for toothless mouths
while reading Rilke,
weeping. "

Kate Daniels
Payer to the Muse of Ordinary Life

While researching a recent post on Muriel Rukeyser I stumbled across the poetry of Kate Daniels who edited Rukeyser's 1992 book of poems Out of Silence. And so pleased that I did. 

Kate Daniels writes narrative poems that draw from her experience growing up and living in the American south in a working class culture surrounded  by poverty, family, trauma, racism, and Southern culture. 

Daniels is an academic, poet and writer who is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Vanderbilt University.

I really like the way Kate Daniel's poems move between  profoundly personal moments to larger universal and political questions. How many poets use a poem about a Pedicure to ruminate on Karl Marx and class exploitation?
Yet here I was
with my sympathy for the workers, my love of Marx, my hatred
and fear of the bourgeoisie, the robber barons, the planter class,
all kings and queens, the Ferdinand and Imelda Marcoses, the Richard
Nixons and George Bushes of the world. Here I was, swooning
(not too strong a word) at the pricey ministrations directed at my feet.

Her long poem
In the Marvelous Dimension is a gut wrenching poem about a human tragedy of profound dimensions.
Here is a link to an excellent interview with Kate Daniels in which she talks about the ways in which anger and rage have to be tempered so as not to deform poems.

by Kate Daniels

His last name is lost now, misfiled
In the archives of my personal history
But I've never forgotten him,
That cute, black, pre-med sophomore
From Lafayette, Louisiana, who wore
Aviator glasses and tattered khakis,
So intent on becoming a surgeon
His roommates called him Doc.
I remember he lived on the ground
Floor of a garden apartment with sliding
Doors and vertical blinds that one of us
Must have locked and twirled shut
To ensure our privacy. Grilled t-bones
Decorated our plates, and while we cut and chewed,
I regaled him with an anecdote of poor Ted Roethke,
So psychotic in his mania, he believed
He was a lion. "Bring me a steak,"
He said to the waiter. "Don't cook it. Just
Bring it." And for some reason, both of us
Laughed. Then I quoted the phrase I had always loved,
"Suddenly I knew how to enter the life of everything around me."

In the silence after that, the end of the evening
Approached quickly. I could taste the beef grease
On my lips, and feel its heaviness in my gut.
The hot, arousing smell of cooked flesh
Filled the air between us. And before I realized it,
Doc was leaning toward me, his eyes limpid
Behind the huge lenses of his glasses,
His mouth relaxed, his hands soft.
I could find nothing in his face
To frighten me, and something old
Inside was punctured and started to empty,
Draining itself like a boil, or a chancre.
And though that felt like a healing, poison
Still poured out dampening the space
where Doc and I now stood, close enough
To smell each other...

No one who could possibly care
Knew we were there, alone, reverberating
Inside the prison house of history,
Longing to touch each other
Free from context. One kiss
Would transform me to the n***r-lover
My old friends determined I'd become.
And Doc would be pilloried beside me
For impersonating the race-traitor
A black man loving a white girl
Was called back then...
All it would take to free ourselves
From the old narratives and continuous
Loop reruns of our national nightmare
Was six more inches and a slight elevation
Of my quivering chin. The lower halves
Of our bodies were already touching,
And Doc's arms looped loosely, encompassing
My ass. But when I touched him,
When I raised my hands and fit them
On the smooth brown bulges
Of his muscled biceps, the automatic ignition
Of cultural reproduction switched on,
And the feeling that filled me then
Was something like a rush of wings
Unfurling and souring the room
With a musty odor... For a few hours,
Doc and I had cleared the air
Of racial difference and met
Each other in a rare element, debrided
Of color. Now, as our bodies clamored
For the culmination, clouds of old history
Reverse-fumigated the room, and something
As ominous and unambiguously black
As Poe's raven, croaking its warning,
Nevermore, infected the room. Thus,
I tensed and flexed before I turned my cheek
To make a landing pad for the silken slide
Of Doc's sweet lips on my schoolgirl's skin.
And then, without looking again
Into his beautiful eyes, I picked up
The cage I had brought, and turned to go.
I fitted the quilted cover down over the silver bars
And listened to that darkness quiet
Instantaneously the creature that lived

Then I bore it away with me, swinging
In my hands, and walked home alone,
through the darkened, shuttered streets.
by Kate Daniels

On my knees in my office,
leaning over the metal can
of waste, I squeeze my breasts
to express the milk that’s accrued
in my graduate seminar on postmodern
poetry. Six hours since the last feed
and only eight weeks postpartum,
the pressure’s enough to kill a cow.
Talking head reduced by hormones
to a pitiful creature on bended knee,
weeping and milking her own hot tits.
It’s thin and blue, this milk intended
for my daughter’s mouth. Instead,
it’s spurting coolly on my ink-stained hands,
dribbling in a painful start, then flowing
unencumbered on the paper detritus
of my chosen work – the dean’s agenda
for the faculty meeting, a debatable
policy on sexual harassment,
the first draft of some idiot’s
poem on fraternity love: unprotected
rutting on a bed of crushed empties.
–Life is so unutterably
weird, isn’t it? Organizing my thoughts
on the cultural disjunctions of the end
of the century, and how they break their way into
our literature and art, and how bizarre
is the era that has stranded me here
wastefully wringing the milk from my breasts
in the same office where I scheme to procure
permanent tenure.

Copyright © by Kate Daniels, 2010. Reprinted by permission of the author from Four Testimonies (Louisiana State University Press, 1998)

After Reading Reznikoff
Kate Daniels

When I think of those mothers giving up
their children at the gates of the camps
or choosing one over the other, or accompanying
their youngsters to the showers of gas,
when I think of that wrenching, that
wailing, the force of those feelings, the
terrible potency, the fear breaking
their bodies in sweat and hives,
the vomiting and shitting, the mindless
lunging for their infants and toddlers,
their sons and their daughters, when I think of
that universe of last images, the eyes, the
unspeakable eyes of mothers knowing, the backs
of the children waddling away, being led
away, being pulled away, recalcitrant curls,
fallen hems, toys dropped on the gravel paths,
the little waves, the dipped heads, the incessant
weeping, when I think of the bleeding wombs
of dying mothers, pleading mothers, the bellies
of mothers with unborn babies, the breasts bursting
with unsucked milk, when I think of the various
ways the weather must have been—the cold
crunch of snow, the flowery delight of early spring
—when I think of the camps and the deaths of the Jews,
the millions of Jews, I think of the mothers
and their bodies, their childbearing bodies, their bodies
following their children to death, I think of
the noise of trains, the terror of trains,
their engines cooling into inert steel,
their clatter and steam, the scenes enacted
in the railroad yard, and the trains
remind me to think of the men, at last I think
of all those men in their greatcoats and their boots,
no children inhabiting their rational bodies, the mystery
of it all, the bodies of the women so alive
with emotion, the bodies of the men so dead
to it all, I think not of God, desperately I try
to not think of God, my good, great God neither
woman nor man, circling above in heartbroken panic,
the beating of wings, the cacophonous
suffering, the pungent cloud rising
of dark, dark feeling that silenced even Him.

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