Chapel of Inadvertent Joy
by Jeffrey McDaniel,
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013,
paper, 88 pages, $15.95,
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After reading his fifth book of poems, I propose Jeffrey McDaniel as the Louis CK of poetry: He’s sincere and unsanitized, flinging humorously dark insights from a position of middle-aged white-male self-awareness. Like the comedian, McDaniel’s voice makes the recognizable male desires and insecurities seem fresh and relatable, exploring the engaging middle ground between vulnerability and masculinity.
The first section, “Little Soldier of Love,” sets up the themes of lust and infidelity that permeate the text. The book’s introductory poem, “Hello,” deposits the first of many references to Adam and Eve and human failing:
but please, forgive me, because complaining is like sex for old people.
Have you ever cringed with your whole body? Been so filled with shame
you wanted to wriggle out of your flesh, like a serpent in a forest,
like the snake that betrayed Eve?
McDaniel’s humor keeps even loaded passages like the above from turning sluggish or dour. Later, in a persona piece from Eliot Spitzer’s point of view, McDaniel asks, “Lord, /swaddle me in a blanket dipped in smallpox,” and expresses a desire to “open my mouth and bite /into the snake’s Adam’s apple.” Again, playful language buoys the dark content.
Sexual desire, from both the male and female perspective, as a means both of alienation and validation, is a primary concern here. In “Track of Now,” a virile voice experiences “what it feels like to have sex with the universe,” as he imagines that “each woman in Tompkins Square Park /eats her ice cream just for me.” The self-assured male voice reemerges in the later poem
“A Brief History of Immorality,” which features a twenty-two year-old man strutting through Manhattan after a sexual conquest.
McDaniel explores female desire as well, in poems like “Happy Marriage,” which describes a woman’s urge to break free from the monotony of married life:
You’re sitting on the sofa. Your husband
is upstairs, your child sleeping. There are dishes
in the sink with your name on them. A dark sedan
pulls up to the curb of your mind.
This feminine yearning sets the stage for the book’s second part, “Reflections of a Cuckold and Other Blasphemies,” wherein a number of male voices react to the infidelity of their wives. While sometimes heartbreaking, these poems crackle thanks to McDaniel’s imaginative and precise language:
so years later, when your wife stumbles home
with that glazed, seen-god look in her eyes, the sweat
of his trigger-happy fingers still greasing the white
napkin of her thighs, you can settle into that moment,
ask her how it was, if you can witness next time.
The last line here reflects the acceptance that many of these male voices arrive at as the cuckold poems continue. They are defeated in the way that the men in “Track of Now” and “A Brief History of Immortality” are victorious. McDaniel does some of his best work in describing the emasculated male.
In “The Cuckold in Autumn,” an older male voice watches a young couple trying to start their truck:
He shuffles towards me, mumbles
something about a jump. My loins
ignite like a furnace. Welcome
to my world, I think, attaching cables
under the sprung hood, revving the juice.
This mindset reaches a crescendo in the poem entitled “Middle Age.” In it, the speaker explains how his “testosterone feels like watered-down lemonade,” and how he couldn’t even “impregnate an awkward pause.” All of this is in stark contrast to the younger male self, the one who walked next to a pregnant wife feeling so masculine that he imagines “being a crop duster / filled with semen and pollinating all the women /passing in springtime dungarees.”
All of this sounds rather pessimistic, these poems about the fading power of the aging man, unable to maintain either an erection or a relationship. But McDaniel’s cumulative effort reveals the modern male as master of the universe, neutered cuckold, and caring father all at once. He ends the collection
with its uplifting titular poem. In “Chapel of Inadvertent Joy,” the speaker urges us to savor the good moments, whether that’s
“a white horse in a sunlit pasture at the end of summer” or when a “garden hose slips out of your hand /and sprays you in the face,” or simply watching your “wife and daughter lollygag in the grass.” McDaniel’s voice, capable of portraying all this with wit, empathy, and metaphorical pyrotechnics, is one we would be wise to savor as well.
— Michael Christian