The Book of Daniel, by Aaron Smith. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press, October 2019. 108 pages. $17.00, paper.
If someone recommended a book titled The Book of Daniel, you might be inclined to believe that it has, in some shape or form, religious content and themes. Or you might suspect that this book was titled as such in order to be ironic, to subtly poke fun at religion and what it stands for (need I say more with The Book of Mormon?). Picking up Aaron Smith’s newest collection, and having been familiar with his previous books, Blue on Blue Ground (2005), Appetite (2012), and Primer (2016), I landed in the second camp, and within the first few pages immediately could see there was nothing religious about this work, at least not in the God-in-the-sky, forgive-my-sins-so-I-may-enter-heaven type of way. The title The Book of Daniel takes its name from the speaker’s obsession with Daniel Craig (who, I know, for some people is God in human form), and through this lens, we witness the speaker’s complex relationship with American society and culture.
To achieve examining the complexity of finding one’s place in a world that on the one hand is alluring, but on the other is far from welcoming, Smith’s writing moves seamlessly between subjects throughout any single poem. In “Thermopylae,” the speaker begins with the topic of this mythological land only to end up on the subject of sexuality and language:
O’Hara and Plath both end a poem with this place. There was
a battle there, because there’s always a battle. When I watch the
World Cup, I cheer for men with tattoos, who strip their shirts
when they score. I cheer for countries that are good to their women
and fags. I can say fag because I am a fag.
On first glance, it may seem that Smith is merely going off into tangents, forgetful of what point the poem was trying to make. But upon closer look we see that although this poem starts with the tropes used in literature and moves elsewhere, it ultimately pivots back to the theme at the end (the speaker recalls how his father asked, quite callously, if a dead girl the speaker once saw by his house was a “dyke”). This poem moves beyond Thermopylae and all its connotations, but the subject the speaker is concerned with (death) doesn’t need to be grounded in any one geographical location to show the psychological impact the speaker is still wrestling with.
Smith is not only keen on examining large and important topics, but his style does so in a manner that is conversational and inviting, always looking to get to a deeper meaning without sacrificing clarity. In “The Book of Folly” we see this when the speaker ponders desire and the body:
“Jesus Awake” is my favorite poem in Sexton’s
The Book of Folly: “It was the year of the How To
Sex Book…” When I stay with my parents,
I masturbate on the bathroom floor. I could do it
in bed, but the dog would watch. I know a woman
whose dog made her come. She’s not ashamed
to talk about it. I love that she doesn’t think it’s
a problem. Did Jesus have wet dreams, wipe
his ass with leaves or paper, get erections when he
preached as a kid?
The answer to Jesus masturbating is perhaps something a lot of us have asked ourselves, but have never said out loud. The speaker wonders why there is such a need to designate a body as “pure,” and although he doesn’t resort to a long-winded monologue about the history of religion and the biological inclinations of participating in such self-gratifying acts, the speaker reaches a final conclusion: he hates both “Jesus and his followers.”
It’s difficult to know whether the “hate” the speaker displays above is genuine or is merely sarcasm (in a way all sarcasm is grounded in a modicum of truth). Whatever the case, the speaker in many of these poems exposes the darkest corners of his mind, and we are left feeling uncertain as to what extent we should believe his comments. This is especially true in the title poem, which details the speaker’s disturbing fantasies:
I fell in love with Daniel Craig
when he was stalked by a man in Enduring Love—
before he was Bond-hot and too famous. I fantasize how
I could kidnap the guy from the gym whose nipples
slip out of his Red Sox tank top. He acts like it’s okay
to love his body. I could use chloroform or a gun
to take him. I’m not sure what to do after that,
but I eat hard candy in bed and imagine it.
By the time you get to the end, you forget that Smith is trying to create a “serial killer” poem, since there are only “two serial killer poems in contemporary / poetry” that the speaker can think of. The speaker is drawn to a world that is promising for various reason (wealth, fame, bodily pleasures), but there always remains a distance between what he imagines and what he can attain. The poem “The Book of Daniel” is fascinated with the persona aspect of poems that show the speaker painted in a different light, and yet, with the creative liberty Smith has to enter this unhinged world, the speaker doesn’t fully commit to such acts, instead remaining on the periphery, where he wonders what it would be like to take someone by surprise.
The poems throughout the collection aren’t told by someone on the fringe of society, but rather by a spectator who longs to make connections that are not superficial. In “Poetry can save the world!”, the speaker, drawn—as already shown—to literature and the need for a deeper poetic understanding, knows that clichéd phrases, such as the one that makes up this poem’s title, do very little to progress our society forward:
and I knew
in the same
world as me.
Yes, poetry has power and the potential to give comfort, which is acknowledged throughout the book, but the speaker wonders, rightfully, to what extent this can help save if not society, then at least his humanity. Wherever he looks, he doesn’t find any right answer to his concerns, anxieties, or questions, and there isn’t a clear-cut revelation we as readers discover either. Poetry doesn’t always know how to respond to our most pressing thoughts and issues, but it does provide moments of clarity about what direction we should be headed. As the speaker states so clearly in the last poem, “I just want to walk through my life unharmed” and hopefully, with such humor, directness, and willingness to be vulnerable, we too can walk through this world content and unscathed.
Esteban Rodríguez is the author of Dusk & Dust (Hub City Press, 2019) and the micro-chapbook Soledad (Ghost City Press, 2019). His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review, New England Review, Shenandoah, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He lives with his family and teaches in Austin, Texas.