James Dalton

Hopelessness Finds a Voice


 Rod Jellema introduces

a selection of poems by James Dalton


Commissioned by his estate to assemble a manuscript, I have selected 39 out of the 120 “Broken Sonnets” written by a fellow townsman, an angry, dying man I never knew. Thirteen of those selections are presented below. Although he wrote them from deep inside his personal despair, deliberately depriving them of the grace and liquidity and flow of traditional sonnets, he gave them a unique power. The tripped spacings and the broken lines raise the pitch of his anger beyond what angry words by themselves can say. We get to hear anger.


Yet his fracturing of the sonnet form shows subtle respect for it. These poems move with the kind of natural iambic cadence of English speech that powers traditional sonnets. Also, this poet’s adherence to the 14-line format, even broken, speaks to Richard Wilbur’s observation about the function of form—the genie gets its strength from being confined in a bottle. It’s a matter of held pressure. Form works. And it works in a different way when a broken man alters it.


The poet’s name is James Dalton. Not much is known about him. Born in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. (1950), he lived in several countries but died in Washington (2014). After his retirement from one of Washington’s IRS offices (2010), he became in his final few years something of a recluse, seldom going out, living alone with a chaos of boxes of unsorted papers and books. These poems, speaking without invitation for the forgotten and forlorn of the world, make us remember something we prefer to forget: Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” staring through a window at a blank wall while answering letters sent to the Dead Letter Office. Bartleby’s repeated “I prefer not to” says it all for both Bartleby and Dalton.


But James Dalton, though he ended up a loner, seems to have come to his very short span as a poet from a surprisingly rich literary background. A disappointed playwright, yes; his after-hours labors created at least seven plays, only one of which was produced. But he was educated in five different countries; he was awarded both a BA and an MA at Oxford University, where he majored in theology while reading Greek and Latin; as a student there he won the Manny Essay Prize and published some literary criticism (The Cherwell, 1971–1974). He left England to live in several other countries, including Austria, Russia, Japan, and Switzerland. In Switzerland he worked at least part of the time in his three years there as an actor.


We know little about those years. Who were the influential professors, tutors and fellows at Oxford? What books moved him? What were the theological questions that caught so much of his attention? Who were the playwrights whose works he performed? What was the subject of his prize-winning essay? The themes of his plays? Other than Poe, who were the poets he admired? Unless his papers are found and released, we may never know.


What we do know is that, in spite of such opportunities and refinements, each of his broken, irregular sonnets contains a regulated 14 lines of rage, pain, disappointment, betrayal, hatred and near-despair, shouted through the certain threat of his own coming death. Written in a rush of physical and mental agony, under severe time pressure, by a writer who by this time had written almost no poetry, these poems sound as though chiseled out of solid rock with bleeding hands.


His poems are not at all a record of noble suffering. Do not expect a final breakthrough to a final resolution achieved at the depth of, say, Mahler’s music. Dalton, refusing pie-in-the-sky, spiritual relief, speaks the loss of meaning as though from a chorus out of Robert Fagle’s translations of Homer, or out of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon.


I am not a natural buyer for this kind of stuff. Nothing has prepared me to like Dalton’s unrelieved suffering as poetry. In my first encounter with literature, at college, I learned from Socrates to dismiss “what Alcibiades did and suffered”; I sneered at Lord Byron’s Manfred, dragging his bleeding heart through Europe. Over rounds of beer with friends I was quick to quote Elizabethan John Webster: “End your moan and come away.” Wary of then-current writers who might exploit personal suffering, Thomas Wolfe for example, I would have refused even to read these 13 poems I have now selected for presentation to the world. All these years later, James Dalton’s difficult squirmings have corrected my judgment. I now contend that poetry must speak for the increasing terrors and nightmares of human experience.                    


I am defending poems that are almost intolerable. I know no other poet, not even Ai in the 1980’s, who is so quick with the slashes of hatred. His hatred of a nurse has him thinking of “the blows to leave her neck upon a thread” and then “to melt her in a vat of blue-green slime.” There’s a brilliantly paranoid view of stethoscopes as “fangs slung about their throats” as snake-like doctors plot his death “beyond the keyhole” of the door to his hospital room. I don’t like such a squeamy word. But this comes close to being the world in which many now live, and myriads more are doomed to live.


Notice, though: Dalton does not scream. He makes poems. We have to wonder how and why this terrible urge to create could be alive in a man so close to a meaningless death. Might it be that the human instinct to create with imagination is what held him back from suicide—a suicide which he never seems to have thought about?


Although the world as he got to know it in a suburban Washington hospital may lay out the angriest thematic stuff in the book, the world outside that hospital it is no less damnable. He hates his son and daughter, now grown, seen by him as a thief and a whore:


               If these be heirs, I give them to the wind

               For I would rather face my death and part

               Unknown than link my name with tumbleweeds.        


He despises the pleasure of good wine or sex almost as much as he despises himself. In a poem called “Silk,” he edges temptingly close to a resurrection—but typically makes it dependent not upon divine will but the survival of maggots.


It is not easy to like Dalton’s relentlessness. Like him or not, we have to respect him. James Dalton is a breakthrough poet. I’ll say once more: Surely someone must speak for people haunted by terror, death, and empty lives. Think refugee families behind fences along national borders. Think the parents of children dying for lack of the clean water alive under their feet. The image that comes to me is the deep mud of a refugee camp. In the present moment of history their numbers are legion. Someone has to craft, in significant phrases and lines that exceed the monotony of manipulated rhetoric, what it is like to stare into the abyss and not look away. James Dalton, who like A.E. Housman is “uncertain and afraid / in a world he never made,” accidentally becomes a poet who, in is deliberately ripped-open stanzas, equipped with a natural ear for the cadences of human speech which he may have learned in his years as an actor, catches what is there as he stares into the abyss—and outstares it.

He knows well enough the world that exists outside of his despair. In “Grapes,” for example, Dalton creates a muted backdrop of Golgotha and of the Christian sacrament of Communion. Grapevines on a hill,


                        Now ravaged canes with nothing more to bear

                        Expire cruciform against the wind.


And it is butchery, not sacrificial atonement, that he sees:


                        My life unravels on this vineyard hill

                        That in these grapes I see what I must yield.


The mythic force of grapes “pressed” and “crushed,” and of crosses on a hill, providing centuries of meaning and hope, are empty and “void” for a consciousness that cannot escape the experience of terror and a meaningless life hurtling toward death.


His poems are not moanings about how everything in the world is wrong except himself. His own guilt is part of what frightens him. He does not slip into the paradox of Housman, whose “lads” really ought to yearn to die young and take death as the blessed escape from a world which is tragic mainly because lads do die young. Dalton, by contrast, sees himself as part of the cruel world. He cannot forget his unjust slapping of a child. As the drunk driver in an accident, he sees himself as the killer of the passenger who died. He seems not to like anyone—and that includes himself.


Poems of social or national conscience are fairly rare in his work. In one of them, called “War,” catching a sense of America’s guilt for the destruction of Hiroshima, Dalton quickly transforms the cause into something personal. His own indifference to such mass murder, he declares, must bear some guilt. With failing eyesight, he protests that


                        These are no tears, this slime that once could see

                        Where these were eyes, this molten ooze that watched

                        The sky erupt and how the cloud took shape

                        To sprawl its mushroom death cap on the wind.


In what he calls “my final leap into the dark,” a poem significantly called “Light,” he affirms that


                        light is how the spirit bursts to feed

                        That inmost spark consuming all the rest.


                        Beside these needles and these monitors,

                        Beneath this air dome in this filmy tent,

                        My soul composes to ignite itself.


                        Tomorrow I shall be a galaxy.


Light eats light. If there is confusion and ambivalence here, so be it. That’s what a good poem can create—far beyond the limits of even the poet’s “understanding.” Reality is puzzling. There is a thread from this poem to the Dalton who reportedly said the Kaddish prayer daily for his departed Jewish mother until his own death some months after.


Still, resolution is never a real theme in Dalton. What is most real, I think, is the line of his with which I am ending. Dalton is imagining “a foundling” seeking Dalton’s name among gravestones that time has washed clean of all names.


Don’t seek me here, he says—


                       “Abandonment was all I had to give.”

A Selection of Poems by James Dalton



I lie and tell myself a hundred times

Of gardens and the great things I should see

When glory will present its spectacle.


I fabricate and then prevaricate

To keep the substance of the dream alive.

But nothing now can save this gossamer

That I have pieced together in my fear.


The gardens rot and great things come to naught

Where glory shows its blot upon the dream.


Here all that I imagined meets the void.

Here every sight is telescoped to none

Till even black is not the way I thought.


I should have filled my head with emptiness

That I must greet this darkness face to face.





What primal curse, what mythic sin do I

Atone that such as you should be my kin?


My child, you are a thief and this shall be

The final embrocation from these lips

That froth on plastic respirator tubes.


I curse this flesh that did engender you

That I should be the dunghill to have bred

Your vice and raised it to the state of art.


In you I heap dishonor on the world

To let your craft so whittle at my name

They now remember nothing but yourself.


You have become my epitaph in shame

Who filched all feeling from my heart and robbed

My soul of even finding peace in death.





I know you not yet there you fidget now

Though I am glad to see your hat, your gloves

To know that some are still in love with style,

That all have not quite made discovery

How trivial are these pursuits of form.


I want you there for you distract so well

This ragged hour yet I know you not.


What must you think to look on withering,

On hair awry, on drug-encrusted eyes?


I find you fair and I appreciate

Your presence for the memory you bring

Of beauty in a world that ransacked mine.


Forgive my ugliness in death that draws

No comfort from the stranger once my child.





Palmettos hide the strangling of the sun

In groves as blind at midnight as at noon.


Here dusk cannot descend upon the day

Nor time distinguish shadow from the dust.


Within the jungle this incarnate mass

Must pivot round the blackness of its heart

That all succumb to sleek entanglement.


Lianas cannot find their way to light

Nor more than we with rootstock well entrenched

Perceive our place on this entrammeled path.


The fragrant tendril with its burgeoned head

Unpetals to the muck that gave it life.

So now do we unknowingly embark

To brave the next continuum of dark.





Dull years inside the maelstrom of my work

Have brought me neither plenitude nor worth

For I have squandered all I had on dross

Through cowardice to practice what I felt.


The little that I saved has cost me more

Than dreams I butchered for this livelihood.


I sold my soul for sheets and soap, betrayed

What I believe for carrots in a stew.


The function of this functionary now

Shall be to die as wasted as I lived.


My life surrendered to the lowest terms.

How then should death become that higher plane

When I who crave no more to be fulfilled

Would gladly settle for the road that ends?





With orchids and mementos I am slid

Across this black conveyor belt to flames

Whose tongues will leave me warm as summer sand.


No longer prone as I approach their heat,

My limbs will rise as I this specter meet

Before it renders me a box of soot.


My destiny has always been to be

A morsel crackling in these raging lips

That scalding grist and marrow cannot sate.


Between creation and cremation now

The letter M inscribes mortality.


I must be churned inside this kiln where time

Will temper me to spirithood and rear

Its halo round the sanctity of life.





Three hundred miles my cousin drove to see

Inertia in a clinic chair that slumps

Beneath a canopy of dripping tubes.


I feel constrained to show my gratitude

Though I am too sedate to show much more

Than narcolepsy gargling in these veins.


My cousin who is ratted from the wheel

Has just attained the purpose of the trip

By demonstrating much propriety

In paying cold respects before the death.


I am a thing of horror manifest

To even those who hated me in life.


One final handshake here confirms at last

My formal cousin dead far more than I.





This clock whose metronome resounds in blood,

Whose hands are claws across thin arteries,

Whose face is like a razor point to slice

The pith and sinews from my ticking heart,

This clock unhinges me upon the wall.                      


It changes shape for now it seems a drum

That raps each moment of my finitude

But equally will tap when I have gone.


I want this clock destroyed before I part

For I would live one hour free of it,

One hour till the second of release.


I beg you bash it with your beating fist.


If not I have no choice but leave this bed

To smash it even if it strike me dead.





Beyond my keyhole I can hear the snakes

Discussing dosages and fate and why

This patient has no cause for one more day.


They splatter low these snakes whose fangs are slung

About their throats in coils called stethoscopes.


They plot my death these snakes and then they come

To stick my arms with venom-pricking pins.


My life is in their scales. These snakes whose coats

Of white are sloughed with even greater care

Than I must fall to their statistic sheets.


Why is this hall now strangely still, this hall

That fills with silence raspier than snakes?

Perhaps their work is done, now nearly one,

All snakes within my veins enlacing me.





Between the pills and venal substances

Suppressing everything but rooted dread,

There comes the cry no medication kills.


From pillows plumped with stupefaction swells

The groan of recognition and the scream

That never sounds in life except in death.


Here muted horrors of the comatose

Arise in peaks to sweep aside the calm

That drugs impose upon these corridors.


Here pain that reinvades the brain cannot

For all the force of pharmacology

Be still and so vents terror on the night.


This is the final cry of animals

Before the dawn divests them to be souls.





The gurney rattles in the corridor.

Decanters and the jars that cannot cure

Soon disappear on tinkling trays through doors

Whose padding sucks them into silent berths.


Then footfalls squeal upon linoleum.

Professionals and staff who cannot cure

Pass fifty times upon these squares to spread

Their deft futility through dying halls.


Now clocks with nervous hands on breathing walls

Are more equipped to deal with suffering

For in their measures are assurances

That beating hearts will make one final sound.


My time has brought me to this symphony.


I cannot sleep until the quaver rests.





My flash is now a grizzled chart to show

The progress of pathology define

Each page and stage of its development.


This intern far too young to be my child

Sets bone-chilled fingers in my gown to forge

A sensual acquaintance with my death.


Before these eyes my carcass is the first

Of many to be lost in full career.


Yet is it wonderment I see or fear

For self that probes me here so furtively

As if acknowledging that one day soon

This intern too will be a specimen?


With death the soul is only virgin once.

Who sees it twice is jaded evermore.





My corpse lies flat, and soon my brain will stop

From tubing that will overcome the heart

By sending through my veins one scorching bath.


Enshackled on the gurney in this room

Much like the room that once delivered me

To life and now to be belabored fate,

I learn how thin a cord sustains us here.


What color will it be, this fatal flow,

This river that transports me to its shoals?


I never studied ceilings quite so hard

Till now they mean to put me through the floor.


How grim these walls that make your worship night,

That make you crave their strange injections, yes.

Enough, this room is uglier than death.



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Bruce J. Berger

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Jonathan Bracker

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Colin Dodds

Sid Gold

Rod Jellema

Edison Jennings

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William Page

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Simon Perchik

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