Review of Daniel Mark Epstein’s Dawn to Twilight: New and Selected Poems

by Miriam Kotzin

Daniel Mark Epstein. Dawn to Twilight:  New and Selected Poems. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, LA, 2015.  157 pp.

The arrival of a volume of new and selected poems by an accomplished poet is a much-anticipated event, as was Daniel Mark Epstein’s Dawn to Twilight, which rewards the reader from the early poems through the most recent, confirming that Epstein is a superb poet and translator. 

The poems in this volume span nearly five decades of insightful observations and explorations, an extraordinary, skilled use of language.  Do you read a book of poems, browsing here and there, choosing poems first by title?  Or, with a volume of collected or selected poems, do you read with some discipline from back to front—or the reverse?  In the first of a series of helpful notes Epstein says that his “longer narrative and dramatic” poems from earlier books have been omitted here; instead, he included lyric poems “in roughly chronological order [to] see if those poems would tell a story on their own….I was surprised by the extent to which these shorter poems, irregularly autobiographical, now emerge as a unified autobiography.”

Even without the extra level of interest, the poetry offers uncommon pleasure in poems in a wide range of subjects: those that invite the autobiographical reading (“The Code,” “For a Child Frightened by Lightning,” “Schoolhouses,”  “The Book of Matches,” “Heading Home,” “The Music Lesson,” “My Desk,” “Dawn to Twilight”); those that are inspired by art or other writers (“Russian Village Suite” after Marc Chagall, “Homage to Mallarmé,” “After Whitman’s Lincoln Speech”); portraits and character studies (“The Secret,” “Miss Ellie’s 78th Spring Party,”  “The Follies,” “Cash Only, No Refund, No Return,” “Beauty and the Beast”); or poems about the natural world (“The American White Pelican,”  “Cygnus Musicus,” “Bobolink,” “The Vanishing Oriole,” “The Comb Bearers,” “Fireflies”).  

Taking obvious delight in its exaggerations, the daring “Night Medallion,” with its phallic “Eager candle,” goes way beyond Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”).
“My woman is sharper than new truth,
            a clean bullet hole in glass.
Winter cuts its teeth on her, the sun
            cuts its hand on her,
she’s too hot for the beach, the golden sand
            goes all to white crystal under her.

She’s so proud, the full moon is her mirror.

What is the greater compliment, that a poet write a poem to express his great love and his being overwhelmed by his beloved’s beauty—or for him to be unable speechless?  In “The Glass,” he writes that the woman

            “with all the tricks of nature to multiply
            leaf upon leaf and heartbeat upon beat
            has come to live in my mind as if
            the world were not wide enough to hold her beauty.”
            “When she walks into the room something must break,
            mind’s image meets her coming with such force.
            My glass is shattered and I cannot speak.”

The musicality of these lines is enviable: the beautiful assonance, for example, in the last line.

“A Book of Matches” is an extended metaphor of a marriage ending—as the speaker sets the house on fire; the poem opens with the answer to a question as yet unasked: why?—  “Because I could not stay with her forever…”   The flames climb from the basement to the upstairs:

            “Because I could not hold her long enough
            The fire wrapped our bed in a cruel curtain
            Where our bodies once shone making love

            And at last it burst into the children’s room
            Furious to find them gone, no longer children
            Any more than we are bride and groom.”

Who is the “The Lion Tamer at 2:00 A.M.”?  The poem begins with commentary on human nature: “The crowd is always on the lion’s side…” The poem develops with another observation, “Hard to survive this art, harder to please.”  Not only the lion tamer, this is the poet speaking, “How can I make a show with ten tame lions?”

There’s more than enough show in Dawn to Twilight.   Daniel Mark Epstein’s selection of lyric poetry in this book makes me want a second selected volume, this one with translations and longer poems.