Five Poems by Jim Daniels

for my father

The end game sneaks up—
        suddenly you’re deciding
whether to buy one more
        before someone—
like your own child—takes away
        the license, and how many more
jumbo rolls of paper towels will you
        need? His own father gave up mid-
way through painting his kitchen. He never
        swore aloud, but the half-painted room
said fuck that. He’s been dead twenty years,
        but he held my daughter in his lap
before exiting stage left. She doesn’t remember,
        but we do. He kept buying tools
until the end, in case of resurrection.
        He stopped eating, despite Meals
on Wheels and a dog to share them with,
        a bag of his favorite potato chips
unopened. He was a cruncher, that man.
        He had a hiding place for money
but nothing to hide. He lived ten more years
        after a heart attack at 85, and it still
snuck up on him—the lack of appetite
        and interest in baseball scores.
A cop stopped him for driving too
        slow, called to tell my father, it’s time—
want me to do it? Dignity has its price.
        I wonder if I’m willing to pay.
Check with me in ten years. Twenty. Thirty,
        if I’m lucky. Forty if I’m not. I should’ve
        talked to my grandfather more instead
of pounding on his fat dog’s chest to hear it grunt.
        So, I’m talking to my father now. Where
will I hide money from my daughter? She looked
        so cute in that fancy hat, sitting on his lap.


Monongahela River, Pittsburgh

Many of you know the shouting man.
He travels widely in small circles
on city streets world-wide.

Today he holds his arms up like wings
in the sleeves of his filthy green jacket
swooping the air, looking for someone

to shout at. Though he’s shouted at me
many times, despite giving him more
and more space, I still shirk and startle

when he catches me in his furious radar.
His clothes weigh a thousand pounds
and nothing, trying to pull him down.

But he has wings and an armory full
of curses. Poison hair and history.

A mile and a half down the river
the eagle-watchers gather below
the hillside nest with matching

eagle-watching chairs. There are
worse clubs to belong to. They linger
below the nest all-year with large lenses

and backpacks of snacks. They always
clean up after themselves. They greet
all passersby with exaggerated cheer.

I’ve never seen the shouting man this
far from his own nesting grounds
near the younger guy with face tattoos

and his own quiet rat-like malice.
I always look up for the eagles.

I don’t have the patience to get any closer.
If you can see where I’m going, you’re

a wiser person than I am. Perhaps
your own shouting man has given you

directions. I’ve never been able to
connect the dots or balance my checkbook

or shout at strangers or wait for eagles
to soar. I walk the same route daily, hoping

to get lost in my search for the holy land.
I haven’t forgotten about today, when I almost

shouted back at him, but swallowed
down my words. I will continue chewing

until they’re soft enough to feed
my lost children.


it’s so crazy, it just might work.
origin unknown

For a time, during peak drinking years
I sometimes ran out of parties and dove
into piled snow on the ground, covering
myself in mad frenzy, as if putting

out the flames on my own skin.
I called it freshening up. I’d go back
into the party, shaking and cold and wet
with appetite for more. Sometimes,

I’d be given a towel. Sometimes,
another drink. Sometimes, a kiss.
A parlor trick for the amusement
of the high and dry and mighty.

Sometimes it worked, and someone
shouted, Here he is, back from the dead.



1. Matching Ties

Jack McCarthy took a knee, then fell flat,
counted out on the slick factory floor.
At the funeral home, my father led me up
to kneel at casket’s edge. Nice tie, he whispered
fingering his own red and blue stripes
as we knelt on white cushions smudged
with pale dirt of endless knees.
For the last time, I took my father’s hand.
We looked at each other, then stood.
For the last time, he wore that tie.

We believe what we believe— stupid,
but it’s my only prayer. In the bathroom,
Jack’s son Steve, my fifth-grade pal,
told a corny joke, his delirious amplified laughter
echoing over tile-glow. Me, I’d wear my
cute little tie again, on happier occasions
like the resurrection of Christ or the death
of the mean widower next door.

I was young enough to stomp out my age
like a pony at the State Fair and old enough
to sneak in the burlie-Q tent and stare in awe
like I did at my first corpse, redefining
prayer yet again. My tie, a clip-on,
easily removed. Nice tie, my father said,
yet his hand trembled in mine.

2. Mistaken Identity

When my grandfather died, the funeral home’s
felt sign with stick-on plastic letters
read Raymond J, my father, not Raymond A.
He yanked off the J, slipped it in his pocket.

When streetlights quivered off the dark, wet street.
When the moon flew its invisible kite
into his forehead and he called it a headache.
When they could not fix his grandfather’s

heirloom pocket watch. When the doctor
sighed, and said more chemo was a waste.
When he denied the x-rays and perjured himself
on the future’s witness stand. When he snatched

that white plastic initial, and squeezed.
When he hung up on yet another
wrong number asking for the dead man,
but the phone kept ringing.

Give me the J, I told him,
but he never did.



My mother lost her mind one year
        and gave me two birds
from the dime store for my birthday.
        Parakeets? Eleven,

I was already spending
        my allowance on being alone
in the basement or behind the garage.
        The other four kids paired up

to laugh or fight equally in love.
        When one bird died, my mother
bought a mirror to keep the other
        company. When it died

she handed me the mirror and took
        the cage away. Maybe she
was the other bird, lonely nights
        with cigarettes and beer

waiting for my father to come home
        from work, or recover from work.
I could not explain my solitude,
        and looking in that mirror

taught me nothing. Did those birds
        ever sing? Her song was
the metallic fizz of pull tabs lifting
        and the scratch of matches.


Jim Daniels’ latest poetry collections include Gun/Shy, Wayne State University Press, and two chapbooks, The Human Engine at Dawn, Wolfson Press, and the forthcoming Comment Card, Carnegie Mellon University Press. His new fiction collection The Luck of the Fall, Michigan State University Press, is also forthcoming in 2023. A native of Detroit, he lives in Pittsburgh and teaches in the Alma College low-residency MFA program.

Five Poems by Jim Daniels

Basement Bathroom

The ache in the fist
from punching through the wall
forty years ago, angry
at my father and the world.

Ordered to repair it myself
I left the faint outline of spackle
around the new drywall.
No matter how many times

I repatched and sanded
it comes back. The ache
it comes back. I’d be lying
if I said I remembered why

the fist, why that time.
I moved out of that house
a long time ago. My father,
and that world, died.

Bones burned or buried.
The bones never heal right.
The imperfect fist
sanded smooth.



Landscape in Early November 

The cat in the grape arbor above me
hunts birds hunting the last shriveled grapes
knocking November’s leaves onto the patio.

Wild and dreamy, the cat blends into leaves’
brown-yellow crackle. And the birds! Shitting
on the glass-top table. Why am I out here

amid killing and dying? I hunt for pockets
of light emerging after leaves fall. I imagine

I know how these things play out,
but the green bug upside down beside me
cannot right itself. Someone has to write

the graceful shadows of its legs
flailing in the cursive of the dying.



My God is a Superstitious God


with his mismatched socks

and rabbit’s foot, his knocking

on wood and rubbing the belly


of the Buddha who himself

is making the sign of the cross.

But rainy days and Mondays


still get everyone down.

Did you pick up the new Grim Reapers

record? They got back together.


Bring your souvenirs and lucky charms

to the reunion tour. The Four-Leaf

Clovers are the opening act, but their set



to be short.



Beating The Dog to It


When you spilled cereal on the floor

—which happened often, handling

those no-brand plastic bags

of puffed wheat and puffed rice—

you were ordered to sweep it up

and dump it back in your bowl.

You had to beat the dog to it.

If you asked nice maybe

a brother or sister might slip you

their daily spoonful

of sugar. If the cereal had a little grit

it was family grit. Almost

a comfort. Your mother stood

at the sink—coffee and cigarette.

Your father long gone to the factory.

How did they make them puff?

Add the milk, and they floated

on top and spilled on the table. Of course

you ate that too. She didn’t smile

much in the morning. Up early to make

the six bag lunches lined up next

to the door. If you poured Tang

on your cereal instead

of powdered milk, the Tang rule

went into effect. After all,

some families had no tang.




The Sad Cookouts

start asizzle: family, neighbors, beer,
and hardy-hars. Then, the heat, the beer
(already, more beer?), the tears (already, tears?),
dropped hot dog, nipping dog(s), screaming child,
(another screaming back), the horseshoes,
the bullshit, more bullshit (already), the lack
of horses, men and women in flushed, huddled teams,
scoreboard broken, potato salad starting off bad, turning
badder, weak bladders, errant water balloons, the affair,
(the other affair), the manic smokers, the angry cigar,
the amateur, the professional, the charred, the raw,
eat, eat, eat, ice cream melting down sticky sticks, hurt
feelings, the shove, the tackle, the bugs,
the spray, the burns, the sun getting the hell
out of town, melted ice, warm beer, coals
abandoned to dust, then windblown into ashes
of expectation, what could go wrong, gate left open,
who kicked the nipping dog, the toddler, the new bike,
the skateboard, the feigned apology, the short hug,
the long hug, the hard kiss, the sloppy kiss, the changed will,
the home improvement rusting in weeds, the soiled
deck of cards, anteing up, doubling down,
work in the morning, but first the drunk-
driving home.



Jim Daniels is a poet, fiction writer, and screenwriter. Born in Detroit, Daniels currently teaches at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He has written and edited many books, most recently The Perp Walk, fiction; Street Calligraphy, poetry; RESPECT: The Poetry of Detroit Music, anthology.