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What Rough Book: Dark Poems and Light
Keith Allen Daniels
Anamnesis Press, 135 pages

What Rough Book: Dark Poems and Light
Keith Allen Daniels
Keith Allen Daniels has been a member of the Science Fiction Poetry Association since 1979 and has been publishing poetry since 1972. His work has appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction, Dark Planet, Pirate Writings and Weird Tales. In 1993, What Rough Book won the National Association of Independent Publishers Fallot Literary Award. Other honours include a Nebula nomination, the Rhysling Award (15 times), the Pushcart Prize and the Clark Ashton Smith International Poetry Award. His other books include Loopy Is The Inner Ear (1993), Dyscrasias: Selected Poems (1997), Notes From The Antipodes (1997) and Apokalyptikon (1996). Keith Allen Daniels' day job is as a materials engineering manager in Palo Alto, California.

Keith Allen Daniels Website
ISFDB Bibliography
Anamnesis Press

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Chris Donner

I like poetry. I was an English major in college, where I had to read poetry, but both before and after my undergraduate degree I read it regularly on my own as well. I still do so now. And I have always liked W.B. Yeats, who provides the reference for the title of this book. Still, I honestly wasn't sure what to expect when I received a copy of What Rough Book in the mail.

My tastes in poetry run a wide range, but I had never read poems specifically in the field of fantasy and science fiction before. I wasn't sure whether I'd be seeing boring imitations of "Jabberwocky," or worse, some self-indulgent rhymes relying heavily on weird scenery, unicorns, and the color purple.

What Rough Book was first published in 1992, for which it won the Fallot Literary Award. Although I'm not familiar with his work, the back cover of What Rough Book states that Keith Allen Daniels has been publishing poetry since the 70s and has won various awards for his writing during that time. So, with a love for poetry in general and such experience and reputation standing before me, I boldly opened to the first poem.

There is no doubt in my mind now that Keith Allen Daniels has a distinct and personal voice in his poetry. His language, whether describing the fantastic or the horrific or the sublime, always sounds particularly like Keith Daniels. This is no small feat for a poet of any type, and it speaks highly to Daniels' credit.

Daniels works the language for all its worth, whether describing a Camaro racing through the desert at breakneck speed or dealing with more fantastic matter, such as when "The athanor simmers/ and the ichor boils/ and the vapors choke me/ like serpent's coils." There is a sense of immediacy through all of his pieces, but there is more than that. Daniels, regardless of subject matter, writes with a clear sense of humour and enjoyment, even when dealing with the most macabre and destructive depictions.

I can't honestly say that I enjoyed every one of his poems, but there were very few that I read that were not at least engaging in several ways. His tone, as I said, often carries a sense of humour, but this becomes difficult and challenging for the reader when the scene being described is so clearly horrific. The narrative voice often draws the reader unwittingly into a certain situation with all seriousness, only to pull back at the final moment and say, "What a lark that was, eh?"

This tendency is often intensified by Daniels' heavy use of rhyming patterns and standard forms like the sonnet. As it often does, the form itself reflects back on the poem and suggests possibilities regarding its meaning and intentions.

A good example of this can be seen in "In the Berkshires of Massachusetts." The opening of this poem held some of my favourite lines in the book: "The years lie thick as dust around those hills/ that loom like boulders in the timestream's flow." This heavy tone of age merges with the narrator's sense of solitude and moves the first eight lines forward slowly but steadily.

The next six lines, however, shift suddenly. This is often done in the sonnet form, but here the shift seems almost to trivialize what came before. Age and solitude have been replaced by "happy children," and the mountains suddenly become "hills." The poem ends surprisingly with what appears to be an allusion to the Book of Revelation, although reversing the prophecy so that the hills do indeed crush the lonely old man.

This poem shows obvious talent and intention. The sudden shifting between age and youth, mountains and hills, loneliness and happiness -- this is too much to simply take for granted. Daniels' comfort with language is clear here. However, the overall effect is disconcerting. The sonnet form is so sharply divided into two parts that they almost seem disconnected, except for the language that strings it all together. In the end, my reaction was to applaud the first few lines and feel profoundly uncertain about the remainder.

This is not to say that all of Daniels' poems left me feeling so ambiguous. There were many that I liked intensely, such as "Turban":

We found it coiled in a dead man's head,
a sucking thing that nestled in a skull;
unwrapped it like a hose around a spool,
and found the skull was empty after that.
A fakir came and charmed it and it fled,
and vanished in the night to find a womb.
The lack of rhyme here is almost painful, since it seems that "skull" must rhyme with something, somewhere, but never does. Instead, he rhymes "head" with "fled" and says, "That's enough." For me anyway, a poem like this explains why he was given an award for this book.

So, I am heartened. With What Rough Book I have expanded my reading and found that fantasy poems don't necessarily have to involve unicorns and syrupy language. Such poetry can be as diverse and interesting as fantasy and science fiction novels. And Daniels shows clearly that the unusual can be just as vivid and disturbing as the day-to-day.

Copyright © 1998 by Chris Donner

Chris Donner is a freelance writer and magazine editor living in Manhattan and working in Connecticut. He will read almost anything once, as it makes the train ride go faster. He is currently writing a screenplay, a novel, several short stories, a collection of poems, and a letter to his mother. The letter will probably be done first.

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