The Endarkenment
Jeffrey McDaniel

University of Pittsburgh Press

For more than a decade, Jeffrey McDaniel has been a widely known and published slam poet. His stage performances are fiery, passionate, full of laughter. And while such a label surely flatters, it does little to suggest the overall scope and worth of McDaniel’s work. In fact, if you pick up The Endarkenment (and I recommend you do), McDaniel’s fourth collection, you’ll encounter one of the finest young poets of his generation, someone whose poems prove too dynamic to be boxed into any one school.

Throughout the book, McDaniel’s lines strive to reconcile the past with the present—whether through a careful and comic study of one’s family tree, a meditation on the struggles of sobriety, or brief lyrics written in the aftermath of recent fatherhood. What sets McDaniel apart, however, is his tremendous gift for metaphor, not simply the themes of his work. “The Pool,” for instance, is a simple enough poem; the speaker reflects back on a moment in adolescence, swimming at the community pool with a young girl he’s got a hefty crush on, which sound fairly straightforward, until you get to lines like these that explode off the page:

In twenty years, we’ll climb out,
grab towels, slide on wedding rings, and sink

into our respective lounge chairs.

In other words, it’s easy to get in the pool, but another thing entirely to get out, if we ever can. Thus, “The Pool” reminds us that metaphor is not just a way to comment on human experience. Rather, human experience can also become the metaphor, and the commentary often gets left floating in deep end on a blow-up raft your mother bought you at Walgreens with the spare change in her purse. Perhaps the finest poem in this volume, however, is “Day 4305,” a poem in which the speaker unexpectedly revisits the last night of his life before he embraced sobriety:

Eleven years, three months sober, I enter a liquor store
to buy a pack of chewing gum for a friend

and find myself surrounded by bottles filled with liquid
that can kill me, like inside each one there’s a switch

that could unfreeze the drunkard within. The drunkard is on ice.
To him it’s still December 6th, 1993.

At their best, McDaniel’s poems remind us how the past still nips at our heels, no matter how fast we run. More importantly, McDaniel’s work reveals how sometimes the best way to confront the ghosts trailing us can only be done through poetry and its unique asset of metaphor. Or, as McDaniel writes in “Self-Portrait as a Stick of Butter, or the four-day anniversary of my daughter’s birth”: “I am a stick of butter. / I have not been cut into yet, / but I have been unwrapped.”

--Jay Robinson