Jeffry McDaniel’s fifth book, Chapel of Inadvertent Joy, is an aptly titled collection of poems worth returning to again and again. The book is separated into three sections, each focusing on themes of love, middle-age, and how it feels to bite through life with wooden teeth. Which is fine for many writers, but McDaniel ups the ante, bringing a searing, succinct insight to the world we all call our own. His poems speak with a universal keenness for raw emotion. What struck me the most about McDaniel’s voice in this collection, was how comfortably familiar it felt to read his work. Do it out loud, open the poems in front of a mirror, and reflect on the seriousness with which McDaniel’s breathes life into the ordinary. With a register of wonderful pop culture and literary references, McDaniel’s invites you into yourself, going deeper with the line and metaphor so that you know you aren’t alone. His leaps from image to image are reminiscent of Dean Young, taking serious bounds and unexpected turns, many pleasant, many terrifying, but with the balance and strength of an anvil. I want to believe I wrote these poems about my own struggle, my own surprising love for life despite it all. I’d call McDaniel a people’s poet, and some of the beauty in which he writes will leave you saying, “Damn. Why didn’t I ever see that before?” There’s no room for tricks or fancy formatting, just delicately orchestrated and firmly placed words that will leave you breathless. Regardless of your story, McDaniel is able to illuminate it.
Like many, I discovered McDaniel’s work through his poem “The Quiet Life.” The broad appeal of the poem (having been viewed constantly and made into upwards of a dozen short films since 1998) demonstrates McDaniel’s ability to touch heartstrings with anyone. What I mean in saying this, is that McDaniel’s crafts poems that pull you into the story, blurring reality with the sublime, causing you to become a spectator in your own life.
The first section of Chapel of Inadvertent Joy is entitled “Little Soldier of Love” and projects the lives of various “incredible masterpieces” as Ted Berrigan would say. Fraught with lighthouse keepers, sexy cougars, and Kate Winslet’s eyebrows, the gift McDaniel offers right off is the magic of everyday living. With heavy emphasis on the ‘you’ pronoun, readers should feel addressed by McDaniel. In the poem Attention, Please, McDaniel writes:
Ladies and gentlemen, your life is located
under your sofa cushions. In the event
of an emergency, slip your life
over your head. Connect the clip
and tighten by pulling outward. To inflate
your life, yank the red tabs firmly down…
It is normal that the life mask does not fully inflate.
This re-appropriation of language, here of a stewardess addressing passengers, becomes magnified by the syntax and use of the pronoun. McDaniel masterfully projects the serious task of living onto the reader, creating a uniting front of experience that doesn’t alienate, but rather suspends until the next page.
The second section gets awkward and tough, with a series of poems surrounding a middle-aged man caught with a wife in adulterous affairs. Here you see Dante, the Furies, and even the Miller from Canterbury, rise to share the universal fear and struggle of being slighted in love. The references are apt and provide a fuller arc and range on the timelessness of heartbreak, but McDaniel offers steady persistence and triumph instead of dejected loss. The poem, “from The Cuckold’s Survivor Manual” is a quick jab, but feels like a knockout punch. He guides us:
When you decide to rearrange your life
and find that a neighbor has left footprints
on your wife’s carpet, don’t despair…
Remember: the more often a rug is shaken,
the longer it will live. Dirt trapped
underneath grinds down the threads.
This section is brave, and the meat of Chapel of Inadvertent Joy. Here McDaniel confronts aging, becoming second best, and “knowing your place in it.” In, “The Birds and the Bees,” McDaniel takes you to back to being a teen, where his father warns:
… one day you will have a wife of your own. A man
will come-a helpful neighbor knocking…
and that man will grip your beloved, perhaps
even in your sheets, but that won’t mean you’re weak.
The simple grace of survival and continuity in these poems is a great measure of McDaniel’s ability to know the human spirit, something many poets seem to lack in this age.
The last section of the book, “Return to El Mundo Perdido,” Spanish for “The Lost World” or “Jurassic Park” emphasizes that, “There’s a world out there” full of serendipitous pleasures. With rousing poems on doing yard work, or hitting animals with a sedan, Chapel of Inadvertent Joy is a wondrous collection by a poet capable of steering us through the clumsy accidents of life.
In one of his strongest poems, “Keeper of the Light,” McDaniel unabashedly faces the stormy world for us as a lighthouse keeper. The keeper whispers through the radio static “I cannot save you, but, “I hear you, hold tight.”
Chapel of Inadvertent Joy, by Jeffrey McDaniel. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press. 88 pages. $15.95, paper.
Zachary Fishel is a poet and outdoor educator living in the Berkshires. His poetry has appeared widely and his first full-length, Wind Sock Etiquette, is slated for release from Red Paint Hill in March 2014. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org for word related matters.