Seven-Star Bird by David Daniel. 72 pgs. Graywolf Press, 2003.
Notes in the back of David Daniel’s Seven-Star Bird explain that many of the poems were inspired by a federal act of eminent domain; in particular the flooding of Friendship, Texas in the 1970s. This enormous public works project provided water to wealthier towns south of Friendship, and thousands of less fortunate families (including some of Daniel’s ancestors) were displaced. Their houses and buildings were razed, a dam was built, and floodwaters transformed the town into a boggy ceremonial grave.
A lesser poet would tap the tragic value of this event and pour it into emotionally over-determined poetry, but David Daniel refuses to let his subject damper his passion and aesthetic vision. In fact, one of the more admirable qualities of Daniel’s poetry is its ability to draw energy from this historical event, allowing time to swell and buckle visual planes, transmuting the past into a buoyant and life-affirming art. The best example of Daniel’s success in this regard is the fine lyric “Burial by Water,” presented here in its entirety:
The river runs not so deep
That the leaves’ reflections
Can’t echo the wind again,
Like lovers’ words the scattering
Wind, the scattering leaves . . .
All shadows of what passes,
As migrating birds—
Shrill officers of direction and next—
Flash past the river
To the fields of those who live.
The poem offers no discrete account of its historical inspiration. Here one can feel the rippling of history as an accumulation of symbolic, natural forces: scattered leaves, “migrating birds,” and “shadows of what passes.” Another way of saying this is that the energy propelling the poem is sensory and physical rather than historical and cerebral. Time erases the remnants of Friendship, Texas, as it will also someday erase the words of Daniel’s poem. This is a Romantic conceit, and one that breezes into many of the short lyrics included in the collection.
In fact, some of the more successful poems in Seven-Star Bird relate only tangentially to the fate of Friendship, such as “Death, Like Faith,” in which Daniel muses,
Death, like faith, is simple—
(Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered!)
(—Like smoke, like bars jingling
Good-night, good-night, drink up—)
All you say is, I’ve had enough, or,
Is it time already?—
Meaning nothing really, or meaning,
Nothing has worked—and then it comes to you
The way rotting fruit eases through a house,
In this poem the first two stanzas float between biblical allusion and bar-talk. The opening statement is aphoristic and balances death with faith beyond death. Life is the fulcrum between them. The two parenthetical statements that follow are antithetical. The first is cribbed from Psalm 68, (Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered, / May those that despise Him flee away…), and pushes the tone away from philosophical statement and toward an elevated hymn. The second parenthetical echoes the bar scene that concludes Part II in T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” (“HURRY UP PLEASE, IT’S TIME / Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight. / Ta ta. Goonight…”), and seems somehow contingent on the first line of the poem, so that both death and faith are “like smoke, like bars jingling / Good night.” These tonal frictions create a rollicking energy that countervails the elegiac mode. Daniel’s use of setting also plays a role in encompassing multiple tones. In a drinking tavern one is just as likely to find ranters, celebrants, and rowdy groups, as a solitary figure sobbing into his shot glass.
The next stanza presents another surprise when it shifts perspective back toward the speaker, as if the first stanza was a strange collage of expressions spoken to a doubter, someone who has no faith and to whom language “means nothing.” Here Daniel shades the mood, brings death back to the surface. But once again this action sets up an unexpected emotional development. The poem concludes with an intense sensory experience, the smell of “rotting fruit” which “eases” through a house and catalyzes a mood that is “Almost jubilant.” Like “Burial by Water,” this poem is more bodily than intellectual. Daniel reaches through the existential posture and modernistic fragmentation of a poet like Eliot to channel the physical energies of poets like Coleridge, Whitman, and Keats.
Ghosts of all kinds haunt Seven-Star Bird. “Death, Like Faith,” “The Quick and the Dead,” “Ghost,” “Elegy in Two Storms” and “The Dead” are just a few of the titles that forebode death. In most of these poems, Daniel appeals to his reader by spinning ghostliness into a ruse. Again he accomplishes this task through elements of tonal surprise. Here is “The Joke,” the first poem in the collection:
skeleton, my son says,
Can’t cross the road because
It doesn’t have the guts—
Which explains, perhaps, why
It’s still at the edge of our yard
Looking out across the road, into the dark.
I’m just kidding—
You see, it’s us by the roadside,
Our bones the wind whistles,
And the darkness beyond:
That’s ours also.
This poem is a chain reaction of rhetorical turns and reasonings. After the hesitant syntax and predictable punch-line in the first stanza, the tone gets more serious. Suddenly the butt of the joke seems actualized in the real and intimate landscape of the narrator’s yard. The next line is the poem’s central gesture, when the narrator undercuts himself by muttering, “I’m just kidding.” The reader’s natural inclination is to lose trust in the narrator, but in this case the narrator holds our attention because his tone suddenly becomes more tender and personal. He points toward the roadside as if to show that the skeleton (whether real or imagined) is all of us, poised between music and permanent darkness. Daniel’s blending of comical, rhetorical, and philosophical tones keeps his best poems energized and surprising.
Despite death’s shadow, Daniel maintains faith by trusting in nature and sensory experiences, and it is refreshing to spend time in poems where faith exists even when the meanings of words evaporate before our eyes. A poem titled “The Word,” ends with the lines, “The last sound we’ll hear will be the silence / Of our first word finally formed, our first sweet and violent tasting.” Here Daniel presents a condensed vision of pleasure and pain, the spectrum of human experience praised rather than questioned or disparaged. Other lines scattered throughout Seven-Star Bird exhibit his careful mingling of Romantic and existential moods. “God Compares the Soul to Five Things,” ends, “I created you so a beginning might be made, and so too an end: this gives gravity / To the great distance between us, which is also soul… Praise you.” Or consider this paradoxical opening from “The Founding of Friendship, Texas”: “The burial of Anna, age six months, / First dead in the new land, / Was a cause for celebration.” Once again, Daniel skillfully subverts our expectations: the elegy undercut with humor or merriment. In Daniel’s poetry it is impossible to settle into melancholy because the prospect of joy is a moment away… and vice versa.
There are occasions in Seven-Star Bird when this balance between melancholy and joy is upset, usually in favor of a tone and mood too sweetly romantic. A good example is “The Gift,” in which Daniel writes, “The orange berries of bittersweet, / The end of all endings, the tender fall / that flowers forth the world.” Overall, it is possible to forgive these shortcomings because so many of the poems in the collection are skillfully balanced. It is refreshing to see a contemporary American poet taking emotional risks in his first book of poems, using irony to conjure up joy, pleasure, and praise.
David Roderick’s poems have appeared in The Hudson Review, The Massachusetts Review, The Missouri Review, and The Virginia Quarterly Review, among other journals. He recently finished a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Poetry at Stanford University.