Jim Daniels: Portrait of a Family Man in

Blessing The House

By Megan Parke

One thing about being a parent is suddenly you're not just looking up, but you're looking down.

Jim Daniels, professor of creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University, poet, and husband, is anticipating the publication of his fourth collection of poems, Blessing The House, scheduled for print in late spring. As a new father of two, his life has changed in the last few years, and his poetry has a new focus.

Daniels' first three books, which center around growing up in a Detroit suburb and working in the Ford factory, address issues of blue collar work, adolescence, and discovering one's role as a poet. Blessing The House differs thematically and stylistically. It focuses on the importance of the home and family roots. Daniels, in fact, addresses the thematic shift his works have undergone. In the title poem of Blessing The House, he contrasts his life growing up in the Detroit area and his home here in Pittsburgh. In the poem, these two worlds come together and create conflict.

I am waiting to step inside for the hug and the kiss,
I am waiting to push away this grey sadness -- cement and sky.

The most prominent theme in Blessing The House is the speaker's dual roles as child and parent. Daniels' children's reactions give him ideas for poems: "The day before the lunar eclipse, we were coming home from getting ice cream. We were in the driveway, and my son, Ramsey blew the moon a kiss and said `Have a good dream' to the moon. That struck me." Children have a way of reminding us, with such innocence, of the beauty life can hold. In the poem, "March", Daniels talks of the birth of his baby.

My parents just left after a surprise
visit-- a baby fix with my new child.
I'll see if he cries-- one more new thing
in this world.

In Daniels' earlier works, he did not focus on the three generations of his family as a theme. They focused more on his relationship with his parents and Detroit. Blessing The House adds this new ingredient into the pot and shows a more emotional speaker. "A Day of Sainthood" illustrates this tenderness.

Sometimes I think calmness is love.
Peace, the small caresses and no words.

Daniels' strength and passion are still present in the new book, By no means. His portrayal of the reality of everyday life is gripping, and the emotion is universal.

I have lusted inside my heart and outside my heart
I have not stepped behind the purple confessional curtain
to lay out my sins in years("Sin Sandwich").

While Daniels' background is not the center of attention in Blessing The House, it is not absent from his work. "You play different roles in different poems." In poems like "Faith," "Birch Bark," "Dust Mop," and "My Mother's See-Through Blouse," his parents, siblings, and Detroit still reappear. "You are (now) a dad or a mom, but you're still a child to your parents." The different roles that Daniels assumes give his poetry its energy. All of the roles he plays and has played are intertwined in the book. In "My Mother's See- Through Blouse," the speaker is a child coping with his mother's role as a parent and a lover to his father.

I can pile up the facts:
My father was never home.
They were both forty.
She cried. They went nowhere.
We never saw the blouse again.
It was rose- colored.

In another section of the poem, the speaker deals directly with his feelings for his mother.

Someone had to cook and clean
and it was my mother.
Who loved her?
We all did.

"Death is a big, scary thing that weights us all. It's always looming there-- spiritual issues in dealing and coping with it. It's hard to ignore." Death is the second major theme in Blessing The House, particularly how death affected the speaker. Primarily in the works "Day Of The Two Bodies", "Three Bridges, Pittsburgh", and "Skull And Crossbones", the issue of death is addressed directly. "Day Of The Two Bodies" addresses death with particularly powerful images:

A boy kicking a ball.
A woman holding her head
like a ball. A kicked ball.
Her husband,
the landlord, dead.

Daniels touches on his own mortal fears in "Skull And Crossbones".

The doctor's call, a white kindness
falling on my day. Outside,
the snow keeps falling
on all our skulls, all our bones.

"Birth and death are difficult subjects to wrestle with and come to terms with," Daniels says, "But it is not something that I am preoccupied with, it just slaps me in the face from time to time."

Daniels also writes about religion in Blessing The House. Being raised in a Catholic home and attending Catholic school led Daniels to question his beliefs. "I saw a certain level of hypocrisy in the church that really turned me off." Niagara Falls, a long poem that Daniels published in 1994, traced his fall away from the Church. "I was always questioning things, even in Catholic school. There are no answers, so I try to make peace with whatever I can. What does it mean to lead a good life? What is moral?" Visiting Italy on his last sabbatical brought religious issues back to life for Daniels. The poem "Faith" reflects on how he felt about religion as a child.

Trying to stuff Palm Sunday palms
behind the crucifix, I broke off
Jesus. The dog grabbed him and ran,
held on like he was a prize bone.
I pried open his jaws. We kept
that empty cross on the wall.

When asked what he hoped readers would get out of Blessing The House, Daniels replied, "Maybe some insight into their own lives, some deeper understanding through my struggle to be a decent human being in these poems." And that is the feeling portrayed in Blessing The House. We strive to be as moral and decent as we can, and we find ourselves battling with right and wrong. Daniels successfully shows this through colorful imagery and descriptive language. This new collection of poems is a remarkable portrayal of the magical moments in the life of a poet and father.