Chapel of Inadvertent Joy, the fifth full-length collection from Jeffrey McDaniel, takes its title from a Marina Tsvetaeva line: “I shall lead you, as a guest form another country, / to the Chapel of Inadvertent Joy.” Like Tsetaeva, McDaniel connects to the reader by emotional audacity and always with lush, figurative language.
In this collection, McDaniel continues to display his skill in writing into common experience while jolting the reader awake. With inventive diction, a sonnet about a tree feels utterly new. Similarly, a long poem “Satan Exulting Over Eve,” which clearly doesn’t shy away from its timeless subject, finds the random but charged pieces of our lives and incorporates them seamlessly.
Part of this rhetorical power is in McDaniel’s command of metaphor and similes–they feel as elegant as equations, or geometric proofs. That’s not to say they’re careful or too crafted; they’re just believable. (Two examples out of many: “His mouth roves over you like a searchlight” or “When I hit thirteen, the noun between my legs / turning into a verb.”) They appear at opportune moments and become one of the joys in reading this collection.
In the same manner, the metaphors in Chapel highlight McDaniel’s’ attention to image. In “A Brief History of Eyebrows,” he writes:
Kate Winslet’s eyebrows
are the arms of an Olympic swimmer
in the last length of the butterfly [. . .]
John Keats’s eyebrows
are two maple coffins
being carried across a field of snow.
Inventive figurative speech can invoke the kind of marvel one finds in good stand-up comedy. When successful, it provides a sudden awareness that, indeed, that is what (in this case) their eyebrows must be like. Here, there is serious comedy bound to heartbreak. Notably vivid poems appear within the book’s section, “Reflections of a Cuckold and Other Blasphemies.” In the poem, “The Cuckold Explores the Subjunctive” McDaniel shows an ease with the evocative pun:
If I were a flag, I’d be Japan:
the white of surrender
with a red throb in the center.
If I was a fruit, I’d be uneaten.
If I was money, I’d be unearned.
If I were an organization, I’d be the UN.
If I were a pronoun, I’d be them.
If I were a fluid, I’d be smuggled rum.
In these poems, McDaniel writes into a relationship’s complex range of shame and exultation. Considering the figure of the wife intimately with another, McDaniel writes of:
fingers still greasing the white
napkin of her thighs
(“The Birds and the Bees”)
Each brazen image amplifies the emotional pull of these poems. In the poem, “Youngest Brother Turning Forty,” McDaniel writes,
some nights the mirror looks as dark as the bags under mom’s eyes
each morning at the breakfast table, as if all the pills
she’d been popping had clumped into a hand in her brain,
and the hand was applying makeup from within.
Here and elsewhere, McDaniel shocks with lines that are at once painful and visually convincing, that balance grief with imagination.
The poem “Keeper of the Light” employs Whitmanian anaphora and a harrowing awareness of suffering. He writes,
I read you sixteen-year-old girl,
getting jabbed with the t in the word slut
as you tremble on the train platform and lean back
into the broad metal arms of eternity.”
Here, McDaniel brings in a demotic spirit of compassion. It is that compassion that bridges a vast range of emotions. Often devastating, this collection also includes the generous, heartening, eponymous poem, “Chapel of Inadvertent Joy”:
When they said smell the roses,
they didn’t tell you that every day the rose changes,
that first you must identify the rose [. . . .]
Feel the convergence of all your stray voltage. Don’t pull out
of that feeling. Let the father standing next to you
see your eyes well up, the inverse of how the neighbors
sometimes hear you yelling fuck. It’s true—you don’t deserve this,
but it’s yours anyway: