While reading Daniel Simon’s 2015 collection, Cast Off, I began thinking about pin lines—the lines in poems or prose that bury into and stay with us long after we put a particular book down. Pin lines aren’t the ones we devote ourselves to memorizing or repeating aloud—they’re just the ones that stick; the ones that reappear in front of us when we’re driving to work or the ones still in our heads when we try to write something of our own. I think we all carry a pin or two, and Simon gives us reason to keep a few more.
In Cast Off, the second installment of E. Smith Publishing’s Emerging Authors Series of Chapbooks, Simon distributes his pins through the doctrines of reinvention and balance. These two currents run beneath many poems in the collection and are the reason so much of Cast Off is worth keeping with you when you go.
“Indispensible,” the first poem in the chapbook, brings us to a night tour through the catacombs of Paris. Simon shows us the “thousands [of skulls] arrayed like stones / in a mosaic” and with that image, challenges our general perceptions of morality. He says, “Like the weight of Yorick’s skull, / our deeds are judged against the absolute, / yet we exist on a scale of approximation.” I must have read this stanza ten times over. It is such a crucial and timely investigation, isn’t it—this breakdown of ethical “rights” and “wrongs”—and Simon, in such a small space, acknowledges the imbalance and begs for something new.
In “Swoon Song,” Simon again considers reinvention and redefinition—not of morality but of the body as both mathematical/physical and kinetic/chaotic. The poem opens with its narrator on a shoreline, watching an egret take off. Simon writes, “the proportion of wing to body / startles the egret’s poise into flight.” It is the geometry of the bird—its mathematics—that sets it into motion. Through flight, though, the bird becomes, in a sense, mathematically impossible; it reveals a “blaze of white” that “blinds the beholding eye.” Simon then quickly reminds us of the “two tail feathers curving forward / as if to restore symmetry of line,” which re-establishes the bird as a kind of equation. The balance persists. Simon is, of course, not the first person to point out this duality, or to marvel at a bird leaving the water, but it is his ability to capture both the moment and its reflection that makes his writing so worth reading.
Now, I don’t think it really matters whether or not the poems in Cast Off are “true” in the way that a memoir may be “true,” but I do believe it is important to note that Simon makes them seem so. Reading Cast Off feels a lot like sitting next to Simon as he flips through an old photo album. I can almost hear him saying: This is the time I almost died when I took the family tractor down the hill, and: Oh, here is the butterfly in the verbena outside my window, and: I was just a boy in this one. My friends and I thought we were tough because we carried BB guns and smeared dirt on our faces. This is how Simon seems to enter many of his poems, and I think it’s a huge reason why they’re so welcoming and easy to dive toward.
Much like someone going through their family photo album, too, Simon’s vocabulary is often reclined and casual; if a poem or line should be funny, he allows it to be so. In “Runaway Tractor,” young Simon slips the brake off the family tractor and careens “downhill / toward the train tracks.” At the end of the poem—once his father catches up to him and steers the tractor to safety—Simon says that the only thing better than stepping off the tractor unscathed was the fact that his father did not “[spank] / the shit out of [him].” The piece is comical, it is lighthearted, and yet is still good poetry. Simon reminds us that these categories do not have to be mutually exclusive (which we know, but because we are human, we often tend to forget).
Many of Simon’s poems pull off the tough and terrific balance between the lighthearted voice we see in “Runaway Tractor” and a more cerebral, read-this-slowly-or-else-miss-it way of speaking. In “Inflorescence,” Simon watches a butterfly outside his window and says it is “Uncloistered by scarcity, unruly / in her / boozy abandon.” In a kind of trademark precision, he pits the intellectualized phrase “uncloistered by scarcity” against the at-ease tones of “boozy abandon.” These two lines even stand apart phonologically—they sound and feel so perfect and strange next to each other. The effect this balance/contrast has on the poem is that it becomes—like so many others in Cast Off—intuitive, smart, and a pleasure to read.
There are poems in this collection for which humor would be inappropriate; Simon approaches these situations with grace and sincerity. In “My Father’s Hands,” Simon remembers his late father, whose “life’s work [was] a litany” of manual labors and “the philosophy of making and doing.” He compares the whole of his father to the beating of a heart; they both slow to an end in “systole, diastole, peace.” In “Oklahoma Burning” (first published in The Adirondack Review), Simon performs a sound and academic unpacking of Elizabeth Bishop’s definition of “knowledge.” These two poems exist in altogether different worlds than poems like “Runaway Tractor,” but Simon shows how well he can navigate each and all of them.
I think we sometimes begin new books—especially new books by authors we may not have read before—with an unfair amount of cynicism. We tend to look for some reason to put them down and refocus our efforts elsewhere. But, however you enter this chapbook by Daniel Simon—an author Edwin E. Smith Publishing considers “under-published”—I think you’ll find a reason to stick around. Then again, part of it may end up sticking with you anyway.
ALEX GUARCO is the editor at a web marketing company in Worcester, MA. His writing can be found in Boxcar Poetry Review, Juked, and elsewhere.