Glittering, polished fragments
by Keith Taylor
In his first book of poetry Raymond McDaniel has created a fascinating, mysterious story and then shattered it into sixty glittering, polished fragments that, as McDaniel puts it in his preface, "describe by accretion, rather than by sequence." The result is an exotic, gothic presence that can almost be touched. Murder (a Violet), one of the winners of this year's National Poetry Series competition, avoids a sequence. There is no easy this-happens-then-that-happens way to read the book.
Yet the story beneath it is interesting. At the risk of doing violence to the poet's intention and of getting the whole story wrong, I'll try to re-create a bit of it. A young woman (known only as "indigo" or "violet" or both) is trained by shadowy faceless bureaucrats (the janissaries) to be an assassin for an unnamed but all-powerful government. She is good at what she does. At some point, either fleeing or overwhelmed by half-understood moral compunction, she sneaks into an abbey. The assassin becomes the penitent, although the possibility for absolution seems remote. McDaniel gives us some clues to this in a prologue: "Imagine an epic from which a minor character walks away. / Epic-adjacent. cloister as the sisters sleep."
All this might sound needlessly difficult, but it's not, really. Once you accept the position (uncomfortable for some readers) that the poet will not give you the order of things, but that you will have to bring the fragments together in your own imagination, Murder becomes an exhilarating puzzle, for which any solution you find feels right. Then you can give yourself over to the subtle atmosphere that these fragments create. That atmosphere is the ultimate success of the book.
McDaniel has a delicate touch. He creates the mood and the moments but seldom gives us too much. For instance, for one poem, "Maker," the gloss in the table of contents tells us that "garden and the gardener are the same." I imagine, although I might
be wrong, that "violet," the assassin, has taken on the task of gardener in the abbey's garden. She cuts an apple with the sensual precision of a trained assassin: "knife into the apple . . . droplets of water beaded on its flesh a bit scary and bit erotic. This is the kind of thing that does indeed build by accretion. And it allows a different kind of statement to rise up suddenly and almost overwhelm the reader who has entered the world of this book. In another fragment, McDaniel writes, "do not underestimate the value / of salvation that appears from nowhere."
Raymond McDaniel reads from Murder (a Violet) at Shaman Drum Bookshop on Thursday, October 7.
[Originally published in October, 2004.]