The opening lines of “Public Indecency,” the inaugural poem in Clean, capture the candor of the entire collection: “Relieved, to be frank, it was you, not me / caught on the nightly news…”
In this poem about exposure, Daniels immediately subjects himself to scrutiny, and we soon realize that he and his disgraced friend are not so unlike after all: Daniels admits that he, too, has “circled the park’s / perimeter at night” and that “one / or two have joined me in the brush” for what he finally names “joy.” In “This Is the Pink,” Daniels goes beyond the personal to splice stories of a mugging, Hurricane Katrina, racism, and the poet’s own failed relationship with a woman to unflinchingly interrogate the lies we tell about ourselves and others. We all wear masks: the dying “old queen” who insists on shaving her moustache in the hospital, mothers in suburbs serving “pork incognito” for breakfast, and the closeted groom on his wedding day. Yet though these poems feature urinal troughs, glory holes, sores, and a cast of the criminal, addicted, infected, and deceased, Daniels never fails to endow his subjects with dignity. In “Farmer John,” Daniels suggests his poems attempt a “restorative elegance // for the dead,” but in turn a friend derides the writer’s “over-allegiance / to rhyme,” arguing that “Risk…that calculated // isn’t risk at all.” However, the power of this collection comes largely from its tightly coiled forms — syllabics, meters, startling rhymes, and slant rhymes (“crèche figurine” / “polyurethane” or “quarries” / “Queerest” or “St. Luke’s” / “shaky-shakes”).
The poems’ structures highlight the tension between the strictures of society and those who slip through its cracks, between the ravages of flesh and a spirit that persists. In “Public Indecency,” a statue’s smile goes “grim / the more the sculptor repositioned him,” but Daniels carefully chiseled poems never lack energy or unadulterated auditory pleasure. In “Hurricane David,” (“Both bird / and burial, you rolled // from the pink-flamingoed sprawl / of white America into the immigrant citrus // bungalows below…”) the lines surge down the page like the storm itself. As Daniels notes, “the Lord pronounced to Noah after the flood that ‘on earth / every living thing shall be your meat.’” Daniels makes not only a meal of it all—the clean and unclean alike—but a music.