Thursday, November 15, 2018



The Cataracts by Raymond McDaniel
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2018)

Born in Florida, Raymond McDaniel is the author of three previous volumes of poetry – Murder (a Violet) (2004); Saltwater Empire (2008); and Special Powers and Abilities (2013) –all published by Coffee House Press. He graduated from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in 1995 with an MFA where he currently teaches at the Sweetland Center for Writing. He is also a regular reviewer for The Constant Critic.  I had the pleasure of reviewing two of his previous collections for Galatea Resurrects in 2015.

“Like everyone,” McDaniel reflects, “I could dream before I could see.”  In The Cataracts, “the dream and the sight are the same.”  This is a book about blindspots and insights. McDaniel was just ten years old when his father, who was a draftsman, underwent cataract surgery and so a part of this book is about vision and what enables or complicates it and how it affects our take on the world. Optical imagery permeates the text in a variety of forms. Sometimes it is technical with references to terms such as an “optical encephalogram” in Five Million Years to Earth or the constituent parts of the human eye reeled off in this line from Tertullian: “(the cornea the retina, the iris the choroid the optic nerve)” and at other times it is non-technical with frequent repetitions of the words “sight”, “sightless”, “blind”, “blur” etc. There is also the imagery of darkness and light and the use of common idiomatic expressions such as “keeping one’s eye on the ball.”  

McDaniel is a master of wordplay.  The experience of having a cataract and misreading words as a consequence is aptly conveyed in the frequent linkage of words that look alike but have different meanings: “buff / bluff,” “haven / heaven,” “version / vision,” “curves  / cures,”etc.  McDaniel also juxtaposes words that are so close in meaning that they can be hard to tell apart: “gleam, glint, glimmer, glitter, glisten, glister, glass, glaze.”  The same tactic is employed in relation to the juxtaposition of words that are spelt the same but have different meanings such as “mine / mine,” “well / well” and “soap opera / washing soap.”  All these examples are the lexical equivalents of optical illusions.  The word “stupid” and variations on it, such as “stupidly” and “stupidity” appear at various intervals to remind us that we are indeed stupid to take everything at face value, to believe in everything we see.

Vision is described in various ways: it is all about the things we see or think we see and the things we do not see. In “Sidewinder” it is about movement that we catch for a second from the corner of the eye and in “Claire Lenoir” it is a camera that records our last moments:

…the natural fact of a photographic film

of the cause of death peeled from the lenses

of the dead…

Sometimes it is insight, the act of knowing something rather than actually seeing it (you cannot see without / without seeing within) and sometimes it is the realisation that we all see things differently, not just in terms of shade and colour, but also with regard to perspective.

Careful, reasoned argument in response to questions of a philosophical nature is expressed in poetry that is immediately accessible and follows a pattern of linear progression. It marks a stylistic shift from some of his earlier work. Some of the questions are huge such as McDaniel’s consideration of the soul that is never seen and yet is everywhere.

Strip these poems back to their bare bones and it is fascinating to see how McDaniel builds them up from the base. His sources are many and varied: stories from the Bible (both the Old and the New Testaments), feature films, televised adaptations of novels, folktales, art works and literature. His wide reading and obvious interest in all the art forms is made manifest in the rich tapestry of his work. Stylistically, the collection contains many different forms of free verse poetry with varying line and stanza breaks. Some poems take the form of narratives that extend over several pages and contain long lines that move from the colloquial to the poetic while others are briefer with correspondingly shorter lines.

McDaniel. through subtle phraseology, can even make us think of different situations from the ones he is writing about. In Destiny and Mystique, for example, the phraseology employed in such fragments as

            Are you a boy or

                        a girl are you a boy or a girl


            are you a lefty or a righty

                        a lefty or a righty


            OK are they good guys or bad guys
                        are they good or are they bad

echo an optician testing lenses against the eye: “Is it clearer now or is it clearer now…Now or now?”

For me, the four poems central to this collection are “Blind Man’s Bluff”, a good example of the way in which McDaniel tells us a story and then uses and broadens that story to expound on a point of philosophy; “Cataracts” in which a very moving account is given of his father’s admission to hospital for cataract surgery;   “Five Million Years to Earth” a re-telling of the film adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s novel which takes in the long perspective of history and   “This is Going to Hurt,” in which McDaniel casts himself as a man “reporting from the edge of the world” on intractable problems and insoluble dilemmas imparting truths that are difficult to swallow.

A key theme that runs through this book is that of contradiction. We are contradicted at every turn because nothing is as it seems.  Consider the poem titled “Madness to Believe”.  The title suggests that what is to follow will be of an existentialist nature but the first stanza turns this idea on its head:

            that things happen

                        without being made to happen –

madness to believe there is no maker

Later, in the same poem, McDaniel observes that ocean rollers only look as if they are moving slowly, if at all, when they are enormous and far away. Often, as McDaniel hints at in “Descender” it is a matter of scale – of seeing things from afar and of seeing things close up.

Nowhere is the theme of contradiction made more explicit than in “Hothouse”

Rose is not rose nor violet violet nor jade jade.
But each is what it is, not what it seems.

What each seems is what each gets seen.
Though what we see isn’t the thing seen.

Another key theme is that of concealment.  Consider the title “& Juliet” – a neat example of concealment if ever there was one – and the poem “The Concealed” where veils and eyes are inextricably linked – the seven veils of Salome and Galen’s description of the eye as a series of tunicae or garments that are not of the same weight or color or substance. Here, McDaniel shows his mastery in linking two separate “stories” and reassembling them into something completely new.
Helpful notes act as pointers at the end to assist those readers who wish to do some research to enable them to more fully appreciate the context in which these poems are set and to admire their artistic accomplishment.

The book cover, designed by Sarah Evenson, could well be an artistic representation of the text that accompanies McDaniel’s poem “Structural Color” and the way that the letters are arranged could even pass for a Snellen Chart if it wasn’t for the fact that the letters making up the word CATARACTS are all of the same size but I suspect that this detail was deliberately overlooked for the sake of clarity – readers must, after all, be able to read a book title clearly! As an afterthought, I like the way ART is captured in the centre when the letters are read vertically from top to bottom).
McDaniel is not only a writer of great poetry but he is also a poet who shows compassion for all living things. This generous collection of 58 poems shows us a poet who is writing at the peak of his intellectual powers. The poems are well-researched and deeply satisfying. New meanings reveal themselves at every turn and, just when you think you have mined them for all their worth, there are always more jewels to be found.  Highly recommended.


Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His books include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014) and Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017).