Four poems by Daniel Brown
We chose Daniel Brown to be our featured poet for September 2023. When we read his poem ‘What Is Man That Thou Shouldst Be Mindful of Him?’ we were intrigued, refreshed, and entertained. Intrigued because we also didn’t know what a bialy is; refreshed because this poem is very far from the self-absorbed navel-gazing we are currently surrounded by; and entertained by his skill – he is light-footed, easy to read, but also serious. Brown does feature in his own poem, but only as an interested observer – all the focus is on the profoundly disappointed woman, and the question that her disappointment provokes in him (and us). We like the contrast between the formal, archaic – almost Biblical – language of the title and the colloquial chattiness of the actual poem; the shift from “what is man” to “more to the point, what’s a bialy” is a delightful swerve. Brown revels in sound – look at what he does with bialy / deli and seismic / sigh. It’s cheeky to leave us without answering the question – what, actually, is a bialy* – and we like this; it allows air into the poem.
Brown exposes our hopes, fears and preoccupations, but deals with them kindly. In ‘Blue’ he disabuses us of any hope for salvation, but grants us instead the image of a gloriously blue sky. Note the contrast between the earth-bound “hokily” and the lyrical “cerulean”. In ‘Why You’ll Never See a Poem of Mine with a Drunk In It’ he takes the idea of the poem representing the poet in the world and runs with it, painting a vivid picture of a drunken alter-ego, and making a gentle swipe at the confessional approach. His “slip / cups / up to this” rounds the poem off beautifully. We also like the way ‘cement’ echoes ‘sensate’ and ‘target’ in ‘The Jackhammer’, and his joke about the ‘gory’ of Rome. This isn’t a funny poem though – it opens with the notion that the very existence of the jackhammer calls for something soft to hammer and closes with a filmic bloody mess, the word ‘jerky’ echoing both the sound of the word ‘jackhammer’ and the movement of a jackhammer in motion.
* it’s a traditional bread roll in Polish Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine – it has an indented centre which contains fried chopped onion.
What Is Man That Thou Shouldst Be Mindful of Him?
More to the point, what’s a bialy
that a woman in the deli should receive
word that they were out of them
not just with a seismic sigh
but with a little rise on the balls of her feet,
the magnitude of her disappointment seeming
literally to exalt her,
this woman not a child by any means,
half a century since she’d been anything like one,
assorted wars, a marriage or so, yet distinctly intact—
and a bialy is?
Expecting help from a sky
so hokily cerulean
is like believing a car on a lift in a garage
in the lifting.
Why You’ll Never See a Poem of Mine with a Drunk In It
Because what if he were to climb
out of a pile of submissions
on a desk at a prestigious journal,
rise to an unsteady height,
and slur forth a case for publication
based on the justice I’ve so movingly done
to his early years in the workhouse?
Or even worse,
were to let slip, in his cups,
that I put him up to this?
It warrants a target more
sensate than cement.
The Romans would have understood.
Long gone, the gory that was Rome.
But must we chain this beast
to a civil use?
Is there not a Hollywood?
In carnage to come,
may the movies exchange
the chain-saw’s ease
of delve and slice
for a jerky mess.