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The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poemsThe St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poemsThe St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
Hands Pressed into Cement:
A Review of Jeffrey McDaniel’s The Endarkenment

University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008

Reviewed by Rodger LeGrand
The unifying element that brings each of The Endarkenment’s five sections together is the individual’s desire to find his place in the world and understand how he fits within the community—a community of drug users, the North Philly community, family as community, a community of memories packed into the brain—and that individual needs to be known, acknowledged, and remembered. Flecked with social issues, this is a collection about identity and place in the world. The narrator of the poems is constantly trying to understand the group as he strives toward self-understanding and awareness. The Endarkenment, the “cursed state in which the individual is handcuffed to desire and henceforth suffering and attains transcendental misery”, is McDaniel’s quest to seek out transcendence from himself regardless of how dark memory becomes. The collection opens with a focus on the confused and lost self, then moves onto the self in the community, then considers social issues that impact communities, and then shifts to understanding how the self measures up next to such enormity.
RODGER LeGRAND has two short collections of poems, Waking Up On a Sinking Boat (Pudding House Press) and Various Ways of Thinking About the Universe (Finishing Line Press).  He currently lives in Collingswood, New Jersey and can be reached at rodgerlegrand@yahoo.com.
The collection opens with “Confessions of a Flawed Deity” from the perspective of an imagined and flawed deity reflecting on a flawed creation, the imperfections of the human form, both physical (“Looking at your face now, thirty-nine years/ after the fact, is like returning to a crime scene.”) and emotional (“Obviously I poured too much acceleration into your temper….”) “Flaw” is an important word. Our daily lives are wrapped in flaws, and McDaniel intends to make sense of them. The deity in this poem is as self-conscious and apologetic as any person who has made calculated decisions that turned out to be mistakes. He began his work with good intentions, with the compassion and desire to make something and to make it well. However, even carefully measured decisions can turn into mistakes: “I didn’t/ want you getting trampled and figured (incorrectly)/ your slender wrists would keep your fists/ dangling at your sides” And the gift of consciousness, the gift of the brain, that “pulsating estuary”, leads to tragedy—a razor to the wrist, the impulse to jump out of the window, focused on loneliness, just the “I” and the maker, both flawed, both struggling to understand.

As the collection progresses, McDaniel contemplates how the social environment influences a person’s identity. With “Summer of Stationary Road Trips” McDaniel focuses on the way a rock of crystal meth becomes the metaphysical center of two teens’ universe. This poem shifts into the second person, and the “you” in the poem seems to function as the poet and the reader. The use of the second person distances the reader from the poem, which creates a sort of haziness that illustrates drug use. This decision to slip into the second person recurs throughout the collection most frequently around drug use and, until near the end of the collection, the emotional moments. And this struggle between first and second person enacts the point of the collection. Who is the speaker? Who is the “I” or “you”? Who are any of us, and what does it mean that we’re here? What sense can we make of our place in the world, whether stoned on meth or stone sober on the subway?

In “The Quicksand Hourglass” we are given the most direct look at this struggle. We can understand it best by thinking of Ernest Becker’s point in The Denial of Death, that the fear of death is actually the fear of dying with insignificance, the fear of no longer existing and not having done anything that would warrant being remembered. “The Quicksand Hourglass” enacts this. It contemplates loss and mortality in a way that brings worth and meaning to the surface. But what happens when the speaker is scratched not just from the tree of his childhood but from the world of the living? What happens to all those hands pressed into his heart?

The Endarkenment progresses into a series of political poems, including the title poem, “Flaubert’s Bucket of Shit”, “The Real Dick Cheney”, and “Meditations on the Death Penalty”, that add depth to the collection giving us a sense of the world moving forward with or without us. And then “Guidebook to Nowhere” and “Impersonal Ad #47” (“…a halo I can play Frisbee with”) begin pulling us back to see how the individual measures up next to the larger issues in society.

Poems like “Walt Whitman on the F”, “Watch the Closing Doors”, and “Air Empathy” illustrate the speaker of these poems moving toward a desire for a stronger connectedness with other people. This final shift is the discovery in this collection. In “Air Empathy”, for instance, we see the speaker wanting to cry, for the entire plane to cry, with the screaming two-year-old, so they could all share an honest moment together with no hiding, no shame, no guilt, so they’re left only with each other.

And in “Oblivion Chiclets” the conflict between the speaker as an individual, as the“I”, and the other as a separate entity, as the “you”, reaches its climax. The speaker of the poem sees his mother leaving a methadone clinic and walks away without addressing her. We see in the poem the “you” fade away so that self-actualization occurs. There is an “I”, McDaniel seems to exclaim, and there is a “you”. We learn that the growth the speaker has experienced is acknowledging that “it’s far more difficult to put something down”, which has the double meaning of putting down the drugs and putting down words on the page as a way of confronting the endarkenment. This sentiment is continued in “Day 4305” when “eleven years, three months sober” the speaker enters a liquor store to buy gum. At the end of the poem McDaniel writes, “I am the hand reaching/out of the wreck. I don’t care if it’s true. It’s what I need to tell myself to make it out the door alive.” The speaker at this point has become so aware of himself that he is able to directly confront his addiction and find a way not to let it overwhelm him. These two poems, “Oblivion Chiclets” and “Day 4305” are the height of McDaniel’s conceptual lyricism. They create flashes of insight that are delivered by metaphor, rhythm, and language.

This is a collection about discovering where we stand, where we walk, how we negotiate the realities that confront us, while we are alone yet surrounded by people. The physical world is filled with friends, family, and people on the subway; and our emotional lives are filled with memories and experiences that are so present they seem tangible. In the end, though, the “I” surfaces. It’s no longer lost in the haze of it all. And The Endarkenment, the “cursed state in which the individual is handcuffed to desire and henceforth suffering…”, is overcome. In the end, we matter. We are significant, McDaniel seems to write, regardless of our family baggage and past experiences. The fact that we have known each other and made even the smallest impression on each others lives means we don’t need to continually struggle to reach our hands down and press our fingers into wet cement.