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Of a Feather by Michael Daley
reviewed by Jim Bodeen

Of a Feather
Michael Daley
Empty Bowl Press


The beauty of the sound. The rollers, coyote scat on the lawn. What’s wild, what’s domestic, right here. And the dog back and forth between the two worlds rolling in it all. A new book of poems enters the world of banalities, our world. The poet, part observer, part caretaker, relishes being here, before it all, at least in some sort of imaginative nuzzle of the earth himself, watching his dog. The poet, part prophet-priest, part exile.

Look at the book on the table. What’s there that needs cracking open? The poet or the poems?

What’s it going to do to me? There are things I can do at the threshold to prepare, yet preparation alone won’t make anything happen. If there’s nothing here, nothing will show. This is how it is before a new book.

The new book in this case: Michael Daley’s Of A Feather (Empty Bowl Press). I’m reading. That’s quite a task he’s set for himself in that first poem. Like getting out of the car and heading straight up the mountain. A 29-poem title suite, Of a Feather. Let’s get started with the rollers and the coyote scat. Add the tics of my father’s car, this is a dream journey, too. The frog is important, “…the frog’s silhouette.” No ordinary frog, this, the blond child, Michael Daley, the poet, hearkening back, under the car, time-traveling, back further, all the way to Basho and the frog in the pond.

Michael Daley, poet in late middle age, friend over thirty years, transporting me. It’s going to be all right in these pages. He’s got me. We’re going somewhere. “Haven’t you seen… beside the puddle, / he looks like a hairless old man / stretched out with best intentions?” The tradition shows itself without the hammer of a less experienced (and deeper-knowing) writer. Now he’s outside on the deck with coffee, he hears something and goes to take a peek. Ordinary stuff, right, this lyric from poem #8. It’s woodpeckers—but hold on, “A call and response between woodpeckers,” maybe three of them “pileated.” There’s a bee caught in rhododendron blossoms, and a couple of poems later, “First light scoops / a crystal chip / out of the lake.” This is not ordinary reality, and neither are the poems “random observations” as the poet suggests in notes accompanying the manuscript.

This is lyric poet following dream rhythms. Called poet following the call, born into the still-ascending and dominant Christianity of the times. An Irish Christianity at that. A Christianity that had usurped and cancelled out the earlier call, discipline, and apprenticeship of the poet. Responding first to the Catholic Church, and given traditions—and going back beyond the beginnings.

I ask him about this as I read. What about this frog? This child’s sympathy reaching under the car? By tribal chance, after reading the first long title poem, I began a re-read of Seamus Heaney’s Nobel Speech, and find another way into the poems. So many connections. The first one humble enough: St. Kevin and the birds in his held out hands. The poet under the car saving a bull frog. And Daley writes back: “St. Kevin’s was our parish church: First Communion, Confirmation, a few funerals, Lent practices, Sunday School, the nuns who made me pray to be ‘a good boy,’ (and not a horse’s ass). Most of all the loveliest voices I’ve ever heard still singing in memory. Running after Fr. Kierce to ask to be an altar boy—never caught up. Thank you, Jesus! A few years later in the cassock meself.”

Would that call and response could be so easy. That it survives in the North American oral tradition through African-Americans is by necessity, not chance. Vocational calls necessarily bring with them negation, refusal, denial of all sorts—Christian vocation included. Daley’s included betrayal and initiation, but his call was to the earlier vocation, to poetry and the music of the human voice, and how is he supposed to get there on his own? The ancient Hebrew prayer, Who by Fire?—the grand ordeal?

Listen, it doesn’t matter. He got there. Michael Daley, as much as any of our poets, had to live through not only the betrayal of the institution, but to walk through, read through, love through, as he lived towards what Robert Graves calls “the unimprovable original” language of the poet. Robert Graves, who in his introduction to The White Goddess, writes “Who am I you will ask, to warn you that she demands either whole-time service or none at all?”

Enter here, Michael Daley, Of a Feather, late 60s, Irish-American master-poet, olave, in Robert Graves’ terms, refining complex poetic truth to exact statement. “He knew the history and mythic value of every word he used…” Michael Daley’s search of silence leads to here and the quest of the true poet, What remains of the beloved?

When he sits to write the first poem of the day, Daley tells us this is everyday discipline. Daily work. There’s more than one poem a day. Significant information for the reader holding Of a Feather in the hands, because in this context, the big book in the hands becomes lighter and smaller before becoming large again. Feather-like. Unawares we read, thinking, Wow, look at this opening poem made of 29 poems, a book in itself! We can’t go fast. The poems insist on going line by line. Before long, a week has gone by, then two and three. We’re still here. Demands are being made of the reader as well, and we discover, over time, these poems have been written over time, now, yes, but over a lifetime, too. And these are the poems Michael Daley has chosen to set before us. I find this to be very moving. Moving and courageous. A presentation of the all. We know, now, reading, that Michael Daley sits before his desk this morning, writing one of those poems, his task part of his every day. Some poems of this short book reach back to the 1970s.

The called poet is religious by his nature. “The thing that interests me now is how many religious references appear, and that they were unintentional. Meaning, I think, is built in, a part of my make-up, and so inescapable.

“It begins with the Marcuse quote, but carries through the book—St. Desire, St. Jerome, Paraclete, Lot’s Wife, Thomas a Kempis, the Latin bible quote, the Resurrection in the title. Though I don’t catch any in that first poem, and only the one anti-Jesuit remark in the Haibuns, the notions of timelessness and immortality seem to pick up and become more pervasive by the middle and final poem. They also move through what years ago could have been called pagan references to nature as if animistic, existential, to solstice/equinox reverberations.

“Just a thought, and perhaps references you’ve already noted. I think what Mike O’Connor wrote in the publisher blurb at the back is true: ‘off-hand,’ which to me means unplanned, and a little random.”

“The title really implies kinship, and there are several references to families, mine and families of birds and other species. I think this, which I think of as compassion, is in keeping with O’Connor’s other suggestion of a strain that runs through; Taoist.”

His language of his work piles up, directing one towards a kind of “Ah, shucks,” humility—“ah shucks” being my language, not Daley’s. Reliance on Daley as guide, however, is misleading, too. He’s too close to his own work. When Daley says, “Go small,” that is the time to “Go large.” He says he wants readers to experience delight. All right. But delight with the poet in the pond with Whitman. Daley, big-eared himself, beside those huge, bright yellow balls. that close to cock of bull frog. The scent of it all!

Immersion on the way to becoming frog. Transformational amphibian. “…that frog in a field of frogs,” me, says the poet—“wild note under the new moon.” A fool. Bellowing devotion. Going that far for the poem? Going that far for delight. Getting that close to the chipmunk, counting his scurlings and circles. Eleven times eleven, singing, Let’s do the same thing twice.

Once shown, delight surfaces from the pond and it’s everywhere. Among those doctors creeping everywhere: “We’ll only need a sample / of your blood, just for the record.” How to keep it new, “shadows across sundials”—get the idea. Poet playing, syllabics against the grain, “Car-ruthian syllabics.” If you still don’t get it, lift your eyes “from the nest of garden hose” and listen for it. Look for them, these little epiphanies, moments of delight carrying you, through the manuscript, into your day.

Where Daley won’t lead you can be seen in the Haibun sequence, six of them immediately following the opening title suite of 29 poems, haibun combining prose and poetry. Looking closely at Haibun #1, “The Hawk,” on a windy day. Windy. By the water. The neighbourhood. Small hawk perched, watching the poet. Poet watching, too, guessing, This bird’s injured, maybe poisoned. The two of them eyeing each other, clicking, each moving both ways. Predator eyes, studying. Getting too close. Dangerous here. I could lose my face, my eyes. And then it’s gone. In the air, flying. Name it now. There had been another one, days earlier, between his sister’s house and the cathedral. Reading Thoreau in the between times. Here the poet steps out of the scene: “I’d like to be a good observer and learn from his books…” but this hawk trumps what gets written down, and he follows after the hawk, hoping to find—what? the hawk? Or the poem? Poet wounded too. Poisoned perhaps. Needs to clean himself up. It is the poem that emerges from the grass. The poem is the hawk he’s after, the fall “to its fierce grass/ a clear and sullen line…” Blurred boundaries here. Confusion of hawk and poet. Do with “clear” and “sullen” what you will. This is dangerous country, not academia, a dive and full immersion into desire.

Daley allows us to get a good look without saying too much about it. Don’t be fooled. Listen to Helen Macdonald, writing in H is for Hawk. It has to do with Celtic mythology.

From an anonymous 13th-century poem, Sir Orfeo: “Sir Orfeo is a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and the underworld by way of traditional Celtic songs about the otherworld, the Land of Faery. In Celtic myth that otherworld is not deep underground; it is just one step aside from our own. Things can exist in both places at once—and things can be pulled from one to the other.” As Macdonald writes, “It is the hawks’ flight and the deaths they brought that ushered him into that other world, let him find his wife that was lost. And this ability of hawks to cross borders that humans cannot is a thing far older than Celtic myth, older than Orpheus—for in ancient shamanic traditions right across Eurasia, hawks and falcons were seen as messengers between this world and the next.”

Poet as falconer, shaman-like, more nature-philosopher. Cultural interpreter. Return to the epigraph of Thoreau that opens the manuscript: “Perception of beauty is a moral test.” Daley’s observer is a “charged observer,” watched over by Thoreau. Thoreau says this observer “… would make the most of his life…must be abroad early and late, in spite of cold and wet, in pursuit of nobler game…” And Herbert Marcuse asserting, “…the reality of Hell…asserts that this Hell was created by Man (and by Nature). Not small ball here, this is big stuff. That the poet seeking the beloved, asking, What remains? is enough to keep him humble. Daley lives in this world where mistreatment of animals is fact. Older than the Judeo-Christian-rabbi-priest, in the neighbourhood of God that is older than God, that’s where Daley goes when he goes into the fierce grass.

On All Saint’s Day I return to the sequence of poems in Fall Notebook, stopping on Oct 10, writing the poem in my notebook:

May the deep ink slip
along a surface like an
ice skater from Canada
with years of experience,
polite monk who knows better
than let his enthusiasms
direct his spiritual life,
figure eights for god.

The poet is up early and it’s dark. Clocks have been turned back and chimes from the old clock interrupt the silence. The image of the ice skater surfaces from somewhere in a timeless past, and the emotional life drifts where it will. The boy received his training from the church, but takes his discipline from an earlier time. The lovely figure 8s cut into the ice are lines from his morning poem written in sylallabics, hardly noticeable. To get the poem right is an athletic endeavor. The discipline learned so long ago, his training disappeared from external certainties, settles with bankless dreams. Cold blade of the skates cut into the ice, surface breakers cutting out of time, offered up as music or prayer. The poet does not ask how he arrived at this point. Being outside of time, accessing multiple realities, it no longer matters.

By now, the reader, too, settles in. Arriving here, Oct 20 St. Jerome, the poet’s been here for sixteen days, worked through the fears of his task “…to illuminate/ the letters calligraphed on the granite.” Remember the skater, here, skates laced tight around the ankle, making it possible for the body descending, holding on the ice, the day’s work before him. November’s snow geese cross a white sky, traffic thick and everywhere in the whatever world. Radio squawk, the poet works through the noise of the day, the hucksters for war.

“Why write?” begins the lines of poetry in “The Hawk.” They’re short, these lines. It’s important to remember that opening poem, “as I sit down to write the first poem of the day”, a kind of bow to Basho, as he sits looking at New England hawks in October. “…weathering the wild…corpses all along the stormy beach. Our house…” Daley wants to be a good observer, can’t help himself, and in the moment of confrontation, the haibun completes its task:

Why write? Why else each day
does the hawk fall
to its fierce grass,
a clear and sullen line…
talons stabbing once
aim true as desire?

Jim Bodeen is a Viet Nam vet, a trained theologian, a poet and a high school teacher. He has traveled extensively in South America. Some of his books have been translated into Spanish which he speaks fluently. He lives in Yakima, Washington.

This review originally appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books 20.