Hopelessness Finds a Voice
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:
these be heirs, I give them to the wind
would rather face my death and part
Unknown than link my name with
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,
ravaged canes with nothing more to bear
cruciform against the wind.
And it is butchery, not sacrificial atonement, that he sees:
life unravels on this vineyard hill
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
are no tears, this slime that once could see
these were eyes, this molten ooze that watched
sky erupt and how the cloud took shape
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
inmost spark consuming all the rest.
these needles and these monitors,
this air dome in this filmy tent,
soul composes to ignite itself.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
I find you fair
and I appreciate
for the memory you bring
Of beauty in a
world that ransacked mine.
ugliness in death that draws
No comfort from
the stranger once my child.
hide the strangling of the sun
groves as blind at midnight as at noon.
dusk cannot descend upon the day
time distinguish shadow from the dust.
the jungle this incarnate mass
pivot round the blackness of its heart
all succumb to sleek entanglement.
cannot find their way to light
more than we with rootstock well entrenched
our place on this entrammeled path.
fragrant tendril with its burgeoned head
to the muck that gave it life.
now do we unknowingly embark
brave the next continuum of dark.
inside the maelstrom of my work
Have brought me
neither plenitude nor worth
For I have
squandered all I had on dross
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
settle for the road that ends?
With orchids and
mementos I am slid
black conveyor belt to flames
will leave me warm as summer sand.
No longer prone
as I approach their heat,
My limbs will
rise as I this specter meet
renders me a box of soot.
My destiny has
always been to be
crackling in these raging lips
grist and marrow cannot sate.
and cremation now
The letter M
I must be
churned inside this kiln where time
Will temper me
to spirithood and rear
Its halo round
the sanctity of life.
miles my cousin drove to see
Inertia in a
clinic chair that slumps
Beneath a canopy
of dripping tubes.
constrained to show my gratitude
Though I am too
sedate to show much more
gargling in these veins.
My cousin who is
ratted from the wheel
attained the purpose of the trip
In paying cold
respects before the death.
I am a thing of
To even those
who hated me in life.
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,
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.
my keyhole I can hear the snakes
dosages and fate and why
patient has no cause for one more day.
splatter low these snakes whose fangs are slung
their throats in coils called stethoscopes.
plot my death these snakes and then they come
stick my arms with venom-pricking pins.
life is in their scales. These snakes whose coats
white are sloughed with even greater care
I must fall to their statistic sheets.
is this hall now strangely still, this hall
fills with silence raspier than snakes?
their work is done, now nearly one,
snakes within my veins enlacing me.
the pills and venal substances
everything but rooted dread,
comes the cry no medication kills.
pillows plumped with stupefaction swells
groan of recognition and the scream
never sounds in life except in death.
muted horrors of the comatose
in peaks to sweep aside the calm
drugs impose upon these corridors.
pain that reinvades the brain cannot
all the force of pharmacology
still and so vents terror on the night.
is the final cry of animals
the dawn divests them to be souls.
gurney rattles in the corridor.
and the jars that cannot cure
disappear on tinkling trays through doors
padding sucks them into silent berths.
footfalls squeal upon linoleum.
and staff who cannot cure
fifty times upon these squares to spread
deft futility through dying halls.
clocks with nervous hands on breathing walls
more equipped to deal with suffering
in their measures are assurances
beating hearts will make one final sound.
time has brought me to this symphony.
cannot sleep until the quaver rests.
flash is now a grizzled chart to show
progress of pathology define
page and stage of its development.
intern far too young to be my child
bone-chilled fingers in my gown to forge
sensual acquaintance with my death.
these eyes my carcass is the first
many to be lost in full career.
is it wonderment I see or fear
self that probes me here so furtively
if acknowledging that one day soon
intern too will be a specimen?
death the soul is only virgin once.
sees it twice is jaded evermore.
corpse lies flat, and soon my brain will stop
tubing that will overcome the heart
sending through my veins one scorching bath.
on the gurney in this room
like the room that once delivered me
life and now to be belabored fate,
learn how thin a cord sustains us here.
color will it be, this fatal flow,
river that transports me to its shoals?
never studied ceilings quite so hard
now they mean to put me through the floor.
grim these walls that make your worship night,
make you crave their strange injections, yes.
this room is uglier than death.