The pen and the sword

Local poet shuns conventional constructs

Dec 1, 2004 at 12:00 am

Poet Raymond McDaniel’s debut collection is an aggressively avant-garde little affair, experimental in all the ways guaranteed to frustrate readers who don’t have much patience for experimental art. It purports to tell a (very sketchy) story about an unnamed female assassin, from (maybe) training to (perhaps) contrite retirement. It (sort of) tells this story through a series of cryptically titled lyric pieces, arranged without regard for chronological sequence. The book’s pages are unnumbered, and a rather coy prefatory note suggests that readers create their own overall “shape” for the book by selecting a reading order.

This is, obviously, heady stuff. Even the segment of the general reading public that also reads and buys poetry — a small minority, we all know — tends to shy away from writing like McDaniel’s, which demands not just close reading, but actual creative involvement with the text. And while Murder (a violet) is at times inscrutable, it should also be noted that McDaniel’s poetry is both startling and moving, which is a remarkable enough accomplishment for a book as willfully difficult as this.

Most of the collection’s success comes from the rigorous imagery provided by McDaniel’s unerring word choice. Unhooked from the comforts of straightforward narrative, the reader must piece together the story of Murder’s nameless killer by inference and misdirection. McDaniel wisely anticipates some level of reader frustration, and largely keeps his imagery austere and resonant, revealing its implications by the sheer force of the visuals, as in “Maker”:

knife into the apple droplets of water beaded on its flesh
knife sheer of the seeds
the seeds shine against the nail of the thumb

It’s a brutal description of the process of rending and splitting, ending with the somehow sinister command: open and eat.

Or consider the evocative scene presented in “Concave,” which tells us

the assassin aspires
because privileged and gifted
lazy also the apprentice janissary
wanders windows
neither responsible for the instruction of youth
nor youthful herself
apprentice reports to the afternoon
special sunlights of the academy world.

Note how McDaniels implies the hushed confines of the assassin’s training ground by referencing windows and sunlight, and the aimless wandering between the two.

Also notable is McDaniel’s use of the fine archaic term “janissary” — a word that recurs throughout the book — to refer to a member of a loyal but clearly subservient military cadre. The linkage of languorous boredom, unquestioning servitude and the technology of murder feels at once ancient and modern, and it’s a lovely connection.

It’s hard to guess whether McDaniel, a Florida native who now lives in Ann Arbor and teaches at the University of Michigan’s Sweetland Writing Center, intends Murder as an overtly political volume. The content is oblique, and the dominant mode seems to be rumination, not caution. But it certainly ruminates, and at length, on the cost levied by the gaining of murderous knowledge. When McDaniel writes early in the book of the assassin’s desire “to determine if she can be else, be other, than the violence / that inheres in her reflex and imagination,” he underscores the way in which knowledge costs us more than the bliss of ignorance; that some ugly skills, once learned, change you permanently, and they’re impossible to unlearn.

That’s an observation that transcends the political, but it’s certainly one of the critical, and very contemporary, themes in Murder (a violet) — which is a dark and challenging, but very rewarding, first volume.

Eric Waggoner writes about books for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].