Other People’s Children: Kate Daniels’s In the Months of My Son’s Recovery

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In the Months of My Son’s Recovery: Poems
by Kate Daniels
(LSU, Southern Messenger Series, 2019, 116 pp. $ 19.95)

The poem “Molecules” anchors the latest collection by Kate Daniels, a volume whose subject of opioid abuse is approached through a mother’s intimate familiarity with human cravings:

Whether it’s true or not, that all our
molecules replace themselves each seven
years, his body seems halfway new again,
one year into sobriety.  I keep my distance now
but recall his painful, ten-pound freight, the torpor
of late-term pregnancy.  All those final weeks, I rested,
famished, calling for food I could spin into blood
and bones so he could thrive.

“Molecules” opened Daniels’s chapbook Three Syllables Describing Addiction, though here it follows a short preliminary section entitled “Her.” Beginning instead with a present “aging Female Body,” In the Months of My Son’s Recovery‘s time-shifting narration takes the reader on a verbal joy-ride through various forms of sexual desire (both experienced and observed), as well as their consequences:

……………….. So we gawked and gaped
as she flung her diaphragm, unwashed,
in the corner of a bedroom at party’s end,
then mated, again, in the dirt, peeling the used
condom from the sole of her boot,
and walked out to breakfast, bra-less in a thin
tee shirt and someone’s boxer shorts tightened up
at the waist with a safety pin.

As this remarkable string of clauses illustrates, Daniels does not shy away from the reality of “the juice that made it all go, the oil.” In fact, “grease” and “greasy” regularly recur in these poems, indicating substances essential for fast-moving vehicles and (like Harley-riding brothers) lovers of thrills. Its sources may be problematic, to put it mildly, but that sensation of ecstatic impulse (despite the subsequent care of poetic composition) is what propels Daniels’s book forward. Absence of “lubricant” (“the not-quite-greasy wetness of excitation”) is mourned with the howl of an addict’s detoxification. From “the dip stick whose greasy / level [a husband] always understood” to the most domestic of settings (“the greasy sheen of olive oil / From last night’s salad slicking up / The floor tiles”), meaningful associations keep arriving unbidden.

Yet the slippery, twisted shape of sentences that emerge from forms of intoxication alternate in Daniel’s collection with the sober syntax of recovery.  The poet is both inside and outside the phenomena she writes about, alternating between breakneck impulses and clinical prosiness. The book’s second section in particular inhabits the cold light of morning-after realization. With titles like “Support Group,” “Detox,” “Getting Clean,” and “Relapse,” no coy surprises await the reader as to what’s at hand. What are those “Three Syllables Describing Addiction”? The poem so-titled answers with its first line:  “Time breaks down.”  Such poems inhabit the agonizing endlessness and institutional lighting of waiting room and church basement, weekly locales where the narrator-mother endured hour-like minutes “like a solitary hen hatching poisoned eggs,” when “nothing / softened the blow or diluted the force of awful / feelings that slammed up inside her chest.”

More deeply explored here than in Daniels’s addiction-focused chapbook is the profound, and never-ending, blood relation between mother and child.  Is it ever really possible, even during gestation, to determine where one person ends and the other begins? Setting aside matters of legal definition and a woman’s right to make decisions about her body’s future, there remains the ongoing physical interaction that began, and evidently continues, on the molecular level. No maternal psyche can remain unaffected by violent change. And so the loss of a child, whether to death or drugs, is also a loss of the mother’s self:


Is what she’ll never be
Again.  Not ever whole
Or complete. Never fit
Tidily back together
The way she was when she
First was…
……… Before the junk.
Before the junkie who once
Had been her daughter.
Or her son.  Before all
That.  Back when she was
Of a piece. When she
Was whole. Intact. Complete.
When she could still believe
Her child and she
Had once been

The longer collection also provides a fuller “backstory” to such loss, an “archetypal” narrative of female experience.  “Her” history unspools as a set of vignettes about what’s “been done” to a woman’s reproductive self. The communal stories are familiar: From girlhood’s sexual realization to date rape; from free-spirited youth to marriage; from pregnancy to the trauma of childbirth; from nursing to breast cancer; and then from divorce to social invisibility. But of course throughout there’s also “Mind,” that “genderless cloud” which makes note of and processes the experiential roller-coaster.  That all this doesn’t come across as the familiar lament of the “angry and noncompliant” is due to the forceful excellence of these poems’ composition, as well as to Daniels’s daring in taking the word “BITCH” head on. Here she nicely sets her well-wrought fearlessness alongside

the male gender’s
elegiac yawping about all they’ve lost:
submissive spouses and cowed kids;
the ability to control the flow of urine,
to achieve and sustain a workable
erection; the freedom to compete for jobs
unhindered by dark-skinned applicants uplifted
a bit by affirmative action…

Given the poems’ attention-grabbing subjects, in fact, it would be easy to overlook the poet’s subtle craft.  The sentences may be syntactically complex, or they can be as jarringly imperative: “1. Define dread. / 2. Describe horror.”  Here, for example, Daniels weaves in and out of a stanza with the you-are-there deftness of a hand-held movie camera; in her work, as in powerful films and nightmares,

……………………………… … Images
still slay however, driving themselves deep
in the center where language peters out

and words merge new territories, spreading
into flat puddles, all color and shape. What can’t
be given voice still announces itself in other mediums.

At other times, it feels as though a poem’s formal devices buckle under the “bone on bone grinding” reality of what is being said:

The single lesson I have learned
is this: A person can only feel
so much.  Eventually, affect overflows
and loses shape as it escapes
from its container.

To be perfectly honest, I came to In the Months of my Son’s Recovery with more than a few reservations. The book would seem to fall into a category of poetry I usually despise.  Hailing as I do from North-central West Virginia, where opioid abuse has destroyed almost all remnants of community and personal responsibility, I am especially sensitive to the subject and the possibilities for its exploitation. Where I come from, those ultimately responsible are indisputably the pharmaceutical companies who took profitable advantage of native pain, physical and psychic — both of which were certainly real enough.  And, after all, who doesn’t want to escape from agony? But I am also familiar with a certain Appalachian recklessness (“charged-up narratives of drugs and drink… of melancholic unmodulated / Moods”) and with the neighborhoods Daniels refers to when she writes of “walking out on poverty and trash when poetry / Caught our ear, and turned us on, and helped us flee.” But I am cynical about ”topical” poems that, in my opinion, too often serve as self-important excuses for lyric self-indulgence and self-promotion.

Nevertheless, even with my initial doubts, I was held and convinced by these poems.  And despite all my technical analysis and appreciation, in the end I would argue that the triumph of Daniels’s book is ultimately due not to its prosodic accomplishment but rather to the work’s complete lack of falseness. Just because sincerity may also belong to a lot of mediocre verse does not diminish its importance. In both tone and intent these poems consistently ring true.  With all the blood-knowledge of classical anger and grief, Daniels presents for us her keening cast of women. Our sons and daughters, as Daniels puts it (echoing Thomas Jefferson), have “lost the safe depository” of themselves. These are not a young person’s poems, embodying as they do all the contrarian emotions born of a mature pain:

The sun is on our shoulders
In the graveyard, and it is hard
Not to exult in that warmth.

And while I remain dubious about poetry’s responsibility to take social issues head on (after all, these should really be the concerns of the Department of Health and Human Services, among others), the absence of effective political action has made for poetry not opportunities but obligations. Political rhetoric and journalistic witness clearly no longer suffice. So as our democracy’s tragedy continues to be played out on street corners, it once again falls to the poets to make understood what exactly is at stake, what the terms are of our shared dispossession. A national crisis demands a national stage, and Kate Daniels is ready to fill it with her unrelenting choruses:  “Poetry can be / a brutal art.”