I first met Pittsburgh poet Jim Daniels when he read at an open mike at Bucknell University. Even then, in the mid-1980s, Jim was an established poet, so it seemed odd that he would participate in such a democratic event as an open mike.
I asked Daniels about that, and he said he’d sat through open mike readings that he wished were better, so he thought the least he could do was join in and try to make one better himself.
To know Jim Daniels is to believe him. If the man’s got a pompous, self-aggrandizing bone in his body, he has hidden it well.
Daniels is somewhat familiar to Kansas City audiences because his poem “A Real Comedian: The True Genius of Bob Hope” has been publicly read here by admirers.
Daniels’ frivolous masterpiece bemoaned not just Bob Hope and mimes, but also the presidency of Ronald Reagan. (Twenty years ago, who could have guessed that one day we’d look back fondly on a conservative administration that was — by comparison — benign?)
Revolt of the Crash-Test Dummies, a volume of poetry by Jim Daniels and winner of the 2006 Blue Lynx Prize, is available at Eastern Washington University Press.
Jim Daniels has accolades galore, but he has no website to speak of, so you’ll just have to google.
Abandoning Rita’s Car
by Jim Daniels
From Bowling Green to Cleveland–
two short hours across the flat slab of Ohio.
But when your copper Chevy rattled and died
and we edged to the shoulder, it was easy
to scrape the loose change from the floor,
grab the roach from the ashtray, unscrew the plates,
and walk away down the turnpike.
What if we knew then you’d be a waitress
and I’d bump out dents for the next twenty-five years
of our lives and counting and counting despite two-
and-a-half college degrees? Would we have found
a phone and called AAA and kissed in the false heat
of a smudged phone booth while snow swirled
around us? Would we have squeezed up front
next to the tow truck driver and made small talk
and bummed cigarettes and copped a plea
of neglect? How much, really, would it have cost
to fix? Would we have at least kissed
that car goodbye?
We bummed a ride back to Bowling Green,
then relied on my Plymouth Satellite
with its own tenuous heat. The landlord’s sheep
surrounding our old farm house missed scratching
their woolly asses against our Chevy’s rust.
They stood in the yard shitting their little pellets,
wondering where to worship now. Or maybe they didn’t
think a damn thing. AA and AAA, the letters
of emergency, the silent sirens of our young lives
where we imagined we could abandon anything
without a forwarding address.
The last time I saw you, you told me you’d thrown
a handful of pennies at a cheap bastard
and lost another job. Your hands curled into fists
as if you held those pennies though you held nothing.
First published in Superstition Review
A Real Comedian:
The True Genius of Bob Hope
by Jim Daniels (December 1988)
Was he ever really funny? When? I want to know.
Are clowns ever really funny, even to children?
Do you really have to go to college to be a clown?
Why is the president a clown? What training has he had?
Do you really have to go to Hamburger U.?
I had a girlfriend who went on tour with a mime troupe.
For months afterward, she kept making that big O
of surprise. She thought it was cute when I got mad.
O. Let’s all be mimes. Or do we have to go
to the Marcel Marceau School of Mimery? The President
is a mime. Look how he holds his hand to his ear
look how he shrugs. Can you guess? He is being
an idiot. Here’s the scary part: that Bob Hope’s friend
can be President. That the President can laugh
at Bob Hope like the French laugh at Jerry Lewis.
At least Dean stopped pretending he liked Jerry
at least Bing sang “Drummer Boy” with David Bowie.
Is there a college for becoming Bob Hope?
Is his vault full of jokes there, a whole vault
without one chuckle? Bob entertained the troops
yes, he gets a little goodwill for that.
They laughed at his jokes, but they were desperate.
How many of them would have showed up
if he didn’t have his bimbos along?
The President married a ghost and hosted
Death Valley Days. 20 Mule Team Borax —
What does that mean? I have never understood
the true genius of his acting ability.
I have never understood why America voted for him
twice. Who’s pulling his strings?
All the bimbos on his specials know how to make the O.
Bob tells a joke, they make the O.
O Bob you are old and I should not make fun of you
but you are still on tv. What’s so special
about your specials? Maybe you were good in the 40s
or 50s, or even the early 60s. Maybe you were funny
then, before Vietnam. Packy East. I like that name.
A real name. A lousy boxer. A bad mime. The whole country’s
falling apart, and we’re stuck with you and George Burns.
We’re stuck with you and George Bush. We’re stuck
with Bush and Dan Quayle. Bob, you won’t go away.
You won’t take your millions and millions and leave us
alone. You are so rich. It makes me so sad.
You have to be rich to be the President’s friend,
the President for 8 years, count `em. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8.
has made me so sad I am losing my words, I am losing
my O of surprise. All I can do
is the scene where the walls are closing in.
Nocturne in Blue
by Jim Daniels
On Atwood Street in Pittsburgh
my brother and his two sons from Detroit
walk with me down one side of the street.
Four young black men approach
on the same same side the street.
Late on an empty block.
My brother slants his eyes into mine.
His boys look up at us. We cross
to the other side. Keep on walking.
Perhaps they are relieved. Perhaps
disappointed. We eye them across
the empty street. I have no idea.
The night holds up its empty hands
and the moon bites its lip. Nobody
touches. Our shadows stretch behind us
under the quiet buzz of streetlights.
We breathe, continue to breathe.
The stars sting our skins.
All of us, on Atwood, in Pittsburgh.
In front of us, the sidewalk narrows
until there is room for no one.
First published in Pemmican
Reprinted in Revolt of the Crash-Test Dummies
Posted with kind permission of the author