Poetic Voice and Materiality / Reading Material: On Materiality and Idealism in Kate Daniels’s “Reading a Biography of Thomas Jefferson in the Months of My Son’s Recovery” / James Dowthwaite

Picture by J. Amill Santiago.

The grand abstract question of how literary texts respond to new materialism is precipitated by the more anterior question of how they respond to material reality. The poetic voice of the little bird in T. S. Eliot’s rose garden tells us that we cannot bear much reality.1 The critical response has resolutely disagreed. Criticism has often looked towards the material of poetics itself: Nathan Brown, for example, locates the post-war, post-Poundian tradition in a materialist “practice of material construction,” which he refers to as the “limits of fabrication.”2 The premise seems to be that the poetic apprehension of reality has abandoned both imaginative idealism and subjectivity, not to say dualism. With the numerous contributions of new materialism, we have gained a solid grasp of the poetry that comes from the active power of “non-subjects,” as Jane Bennett explores in her Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010), though such things are of course no less poetic, as Babette Tischleder has argued.3 We seem to have dispelled older conceptions of the ideal subject.4 In this short piece I wish to turn to Kate Daniels’s “Reading a Biography of Thomas Jefferson in the Months of My Son’s Recovery,” as a poem of subjective experience that employs an imaginative ideal, showing how poetic voices help us bear material reality. “Being a poet in everyday life,” Daniels writes in a recent essay, “is like walking through the pages of a life-size, interactive novel.”5

Daniels’s poem, the title poem of In the Months of My Son’s Recovery (2019), concerns a mother reckoning with her son’s treatment at a center for opioid addiction by means of reading a biography of the former president. She sees in Jefferson’s own tensions and inconsistencies, as a figure of liberty and slavery, an imaginative space in which to wrestle with the pressing, suffering tensions of her life and her son’s life. I see this as a stark example of what Daniel Tiffany refers to in his discussion of poetics and materialism as “lyric substance,” the point where “corresponding representations of corporeality and the lyric medium intersect.’”6 Crucially in this case, the meeting point here is the searching voice of the poem’s speaker.

The poem opens with a litany of reasons to “return thanks” to Jefferson, “Because he bought the great swath of mucky swamp,” “Because he forged ploughshare from paranoia / About the motivations of Napoleon,” “Because he loved great silences, and alligators, and bustling ports” but also “imported wines, and dark, brewed coffees.” Most significantly, the poetic voice registers his “flawed example of human greatness” bound to Louisiana where on “13th of December 1990,” her son was born. What attracts her to Jefferson for the apprehension of her particular reality is his duality as a symbol: a man, as she writes, “in two minds,” a figure of a kind of manic depression, “the slaveholder / And the Democrat,” with his white wife and Sally Hemings, “enslaved and black.”7 Jefferson is a paradox as an American symbol. His two-mindedness is what makes him instructive for the speaker’s suffering as well as a consummate poetic symbol. As another one-time Louisiana native, Cleanth Brooks, famously argued, the language of poetry is the language of paradox.8 From this point the poem turns on its blending of Jefferson’s biography with the reality of the speaker’s son’s reality in the clinic, the material reality of his life framed by and framing an understanding of Jefferson; the speaker is thus driven by two-mindedness: Jefferson’s and her own, Jefferson’s and her son’s, Jefferson’s sense of the tension between the ideal and material reality; her own sense of the same.

The poetic voice becomes the singular meeting place of the ideal and the material, the one transforming the other in a dynamic interrelation. This can be seen in the third section, in which the speaker ruminates on her son’s genesis—not only the physical moment of conception but also before his conception, back in family history, that “Game of chance, shuffling the genes,” because “Even then, two minds circulated inside him.”9 These two minds are not only those of his parents but the kernel of his own varying narratives, of drink, drugs, depression, suffering back through the generations of a family, manifesting themselves in him; but also no less joy, adventure, a wildness of spirit, a freedom of abandon. This haunts the child as the speaker remembers marveling at him in his bassinet, this potential of ancestral inheritance “Threatening his freedom / And his right to self rule.”10 This final proposition returns us to Jefferson and recasts that family history as the history of Louisiana.

Daniels is not content to establish the paradox as a poetic image of ambivalence and let it rest. The practical grandeur of her vision relies on the poetic attempt to reconcile the paradox, to lend the poetic voice to the difficult task of stance-taking; in her dual role as mother and American, the speaker must wrestle with Jefferson. In the fourth section she deals with his greatness (his stature) quoting first from the Declaration of Independence (1776) and explaining that Jefferson’s significance lies in his explaining Americans to themselves before they “were,” giving them “a language whereby / We understood the restless grandiosities of our forebears.” Jefferson, for the speaker, embodies “personal / Liberty and greedy freedom-seeking,” those metaphors Americans still live by and still “clobber” the rest of the world with.11 For all this, however, she says:

Still, I believe
He was a great man, and seek in the painful
Contradictions of his personal life and public
Service, ongoing signs for how to live
In this strange era.12

This “strange era” is also two-minded, referring both to the political state of America and to the months of her son’s recovery. What is most significant here is the sincerity of the voice, apprehending political and personal realities, both material and ideal, refusing the simple choice of either abandoning the difficulty or falling into ironic formalism.13 The speaker is not satisfied to have merely pointed out paradoxes because Jefferson remains constitutive and because her son remains her son.

The following section effects a shift through a docupoetic sleight of hand: Daniels quotes from a letter of Jefferson’s to W. C. Jarvis of 1820 in which he argues for personal enlightenment and government by the people themselves. This idealistic principle—which the speaker suggests ought to be understood within the fullness of Jefferson’s contradictions as the author of liberty and the upholder of the institution of slavery—is applied then to her son. The section revolves around dropping the speaker’s son off at the treatment center. It is littered with the material ephemera of the hospital patient: shoelaces, cigarettes, his phone, a novel, a plastic bag. Then the speaker, reflecting on this moment, echoes the idealistic principles of Jeffersonianism, and asks “indicted by genetics, disempowered / By blood, how should we school him, except by love” and, she adds, “psychotropic medications?”14 Here the brilliance of Daniels’s method comes to the fore. On the surface this appears to be the materialist center of the poem: it is a poetry of objects, of affect, of genetics, of medications—the voice is characterized by these things but it is offset by two idealisms: the first being love, the second the “painful contradictions” of Jeffersonian enlightenment. The material reality of the treatment center is filtered through an idealistic voice, which is confirmed by the following section:

Flight of ideas and verbal grandiosity:
Imaginary master of vast terrains, teeming
With fanciful creatures and fearsome weather:
A Louisiana Territory of a child’s mind15

The last line of this passage is the most powerful in the poem and is a striking example of Daniels’s method. So invested is the reader by this point in the two-mindedness of the poem, the blending of Jefferson’s biography with the limits of the months of the son’s recovery, that it is unclear whether we are dealing with metaphor or metonymy. It draws together the ideal and material in the power of expression, filtering the one through the other; it is the consummation of Daniels’s poetic vision in the poem.

What follows in the final sections is a denouement revealing much about the relation between poetic voice and material reality. “In the long nights when I can’t sleep,” she says, nights in which “anxiety courses,” she lets her mind “Drift to Thomas Jefferson and his famous / Inconsistencies.”16 It is that drifting that is perhaps most instructive of the supposition of real and material with imaginative; the drifting of the mind, as articulated by the poetic voice, might be conceived as the calling of the imaginative space to help navigate the real one, the Louisiana Territory, for example, called on to help map a child’s mind. Jefferson’s inconsistencies help the speaker to focus, in other words, on her son’s inconsistencies. Thinking about how Jefferson could have a lover and children he “legally owned,” asking how he could live like that, leads her to ask how her son can live the way he does. But she does not achieve an answer. Weighing “yes” and “no,” she says, “freedom” and “slavery,” she gets little more than a “little exercise / In bipolarity” that, she admits, does not really help.17

So do we reach an impasse, between materialism and idealism, between the world of the treatment center and the world of her reading material? Is it all just an exercise in bipolarity?18 No, because, she says, in crises “Sometimes it helps to latch on / To someone else’s vision.” And what follows in the final passages of the poem of the speaker’s first visit to Monticello, “terrified by the new world / Of the mind I’d entered,” is a description of how she found a space to read. And, in the ending passage of the poem, she quotes Jefferson saying “I cannot live without books” and by writing so “gave permission for a kind of life / Previously unimaginable.”19 We end with the speaker seeking comprehension in her many volumes.

What Daniels shows in this poem is the process of seeking permission for a kind of life, the kind of life that responds to the material world of suffering with imaginative spaces, offering her poetic voice as the locus where real suffering meets subjective experience.20 Mark Noble suggests that critical analyses in the materialist tradition negotiate between “a materiality that achieves a determinate view of the world and a materiality that dissolves the subject who does the viewing.”21 Daniels’s poetry refuses both positions by leaning into subjectivity, and by retaining the power of the ideal, however contradictory.

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This is part of the cluster Poetic Voice and Materiality. Read the other posts here. 

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  1. T.S. Eliot, Complete Poems and Plays (London: Faber & Faber, 2004), 172.
  2. Nathan Brown, The Limits of Fabrication: Materials Science, Materialist Poetics (New York: Fordham, 2017), 11.
  3. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), ix; See Babette Tischleder, “Theorising Things, Building Worlds: Why the New Materialisms Deserve Literary Imagination,” Open Cultural Studies, 3 (2018): 125-134.
  4. A good account of the problems with such conceptions of subjectivity can be found in Maria Takolander, “Confessional Poetry and the Materialisation of an Autobiographical Self,” Life Writing, 12, no. 3 (2017): 371-383.
  5. Kate Daniels, “The Slow Fuse of the Possible: On Poetry & Psychoanalysis,” Five Points: A Journal of Literature and Art, 21, no. 1 (2021).
  6. Daniel Tiffany, Toy Medium: Materialism and Modern Lyric (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 21.
  7. Kate Daniels, In the Months of My Son’s Recovery (Baton Rouge: State University of Louisiana Press, 2019), 65-66.
  8. Cleanth Brooks, The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1947).
  9. Daniels, In the Months of My Son’s Recovery, 67.
  10. Ibid., 68.
  11. Ibid., 69.
  12. Ibid., 69.
  13. I use sincerity in the same sense that Kevin Clark does in his 2008 review of contemporary American poetry, namely a use of a renewed, tempered belief in the human subject. Kevin Clark, “‘Even Sincerity’: On the Viability of the Self in Contemporary Poetry,” The Georgia Review 62, no. 3 (2008): 624-634 (see, in particular, 624-625).
  14. Daniels, In the Months of My Son’s Recovery, 70.
  15. Ibid., 71.
  16. Ibid., 72.
  17. Ibid., 72.
  18. Here I run the risk, of course, of falling into the trap of treating matter itself in idealistic terms, as David Ayers warns: such a risk is par for the course when dealing with imaginative spaces such as Daniels’s. David Ayers, “Materialism and the Book,” Poetics Today, 24:4 (2003), 759-780.
  19. Daniels, In the Months of My Son’s Recovery, 73-74.
  20. Asma Abbas elegantly and humanely critiques this viewpoint in favor of what he sees as a more representative, materialist ethics of lyrical form. While Abbas’s account opens up our understanding of suffering and clearly offers more basis for political solidarity, it struggles to contend, I would argue, with the intensely personal lyric suffering Daniels records. See Abbas, Liberalism and Human Suffering: Materialist Reflections on Politics, Ethics and, Aesthetics (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
  21. Mark Noble, American Poetic Materialism from Whitman to Stevens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 5.