Of taverns, the Sufi mystical poet Rumi wrote, “I didn’t come here of my own accord, and I can’t leave that way. / Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.”
Similarly, the characters inhabiting Jackson poet Matt Daly’s new book, “Between Here and Home,” find themselves stranded in a variety of ways — marked by the mistakes they have made.
Pam, Bertie, Bev, Skylar, Russ, Janie, Richard, Buddy and the Warden. We’re in the West so this last is a game warden, not a prison warden. In addition to these there are characters not usually seen in stories or novels but whose appearance in poems does not surprise us — deer whose existence predates the town and its human residents and whose lives, as the lives of the humans, are marked by mistakes. It’s just that for Deer, the mistakes are not their own but the mistakes of those human interlopers. River and Wind are characters too as is Highway, the strange linkage between human frailty and animal risk.
While Daly’s human characters are trying to find their way home from the Campfire Tavern, it’s unclear if they have any home at all outside the tavern — the site that brings them together and pulls them apart. Pam, for example, is a soon-to-be alcoholic who drives herself home no matter her condition. Another character, Buddy, also drives himself home no matter his condition, but Buddy doesn’t always bother with the tavern — he drinks at the Diversion Dam. Richard, a widower who never came to the tavern with his wife, sits in a booth and drinks alone. Not that he drinks too much. Bev owns the tavern and while she serves what leads to so much loss, she makes fewer mistakes than her customers.
It’s kind of a mess with sorrow leaking out the pores of everyone. Even the residents of the natural world and nature itself are worn down by all the human error. That is what I took to be the primary focus of Daly’s book, this grinding us down when we are unable to face our choices, our mistakes, our lost possibilities.
Take Skylar, a young man in his early twenties, a drug addict, whose mother Bertie appears in the book only as a ghost. Dead Bertie, more alive than some of the drinkers at the Campfire. Bertie was the Campfire owner Bev’s friend, and she danced at the tavern, with one man after another, however unloved she felt. Men only wanted her for one of three reasons, Bertie explains, to get closer, to get farther away — those are the numb ones — or to avoid saying goodbye. Which of course they would one day say — goodbye.
Russ, who is Bertie’s companion and Skylar’s father, stays away from his son. Bertie asked him to. Withheld information. Secrets. Does everyone have such secrets as I, Pam asks herself? She’s lost a child and the child’s father, a man she loved, simply took off. But secrets have a way of being uncovered. Skylar knows more than we might think, more than he lets on. Skylar, the silent observer and sentinel whose role is something like the reader’s.
Skylar’s awareness is marked by the poems in which he speaks, poems so shapely as to surprise us. So elegant. It is this carefully shaped language that offers the reader a kind of redemption, an awareness of beauty resident in the most painful and sometimes ugly places. Through his deep attention to the sound of words, to what we casually call the poetic, Matt Daly implies that however slight the chance, it is language that may save us all and take us home. Daly’s characters, trapped in their tavern, love one another. And Daly loves them — his forlorn and damaged creations.
It is here that I feel some uncertainty about “Between Here and Home.” I am presented with wounded souls who speak in the voices of the angels, so thoughtful, so insightful, so aware of themselves and others. Can I believe they might really speak this way? Here’s Skylar in the poem “Skylar Watches the Evening”:
I watch Russ fall
down in the riffle
where sun cracks
the surface. I see
under the gleam.
dead and gone.
I know something
to see by
clear as glass
when you feel
too broke to fix.
Water all full
It’s quite beautiful but I don’t know if Skylar, the lost young man in his 20s, would speak in this way. Daly gives all of his characters the gift of shining clear language. And I have to admit that partly because they tend to sound alike, I sometimes mixed the characters up. Even the deer who stands before a roadkill fawn saying, “some of us / cross over / never / cross over / never cross back / some cross over / some cross back / all of us / wonder / crossing / at coming back / all of us / flash white / crossing / some flash red.”
Maybe we are meant to mix these beings up. In reading “Between Here and Home,” we must accept that the humans, the deer, the wind and the highway are speaking through Daly and the words come out in his voice, offering solace to both the characters and to us, the readers. Daly offers us moments in which we are more capable than we’d thought. Redeemed no matter our mistakes.
Rumi said that whoever brought him to this place would have to take him home when he knew all along that he’d have to do it himself. That’s what Daly shows his characters and us.
“Between Here and Home” by Matt Daly, published by Unsolicited Press, Portland, Oregon, 2019, ISBN 978-I-950730-04-9 is available in bookstores now.
Studio Wyoming Review is supported in part by generous grants from the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund, a program of the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources and the Wyoming Arts Council with funding from the Wyoming State Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts.