Poetry Moment: Jim Daniels and 'The Worn Knees and Elbows of My Alcoholic Uncles'
Poetry Moment on WPSU is a program featuring the work of contemporary Pennsylvania poets. Host Shara McCallum is this year’s Penn State Laureate.
Today’s poem is “The Worn Knees and Elbows of My Alcoholic Uncles” by Jim Daniels.
Jim Daniels’ eighteenth book of poetry, Gun/Shy, was published in 2021. Other recent books include his sixth fiction collection, The Perp Walk, and his anthology, RESPECT: The Poetry of Detroit Music. A native of Detroit, Daniels has lived in Pittsburgh since 1981, where for many years he directed the Creative Writing Program and taught at Carnegie Mellon University.
For the past thirty years, Daniels has been writing poems that document working-class life, set in the cultural landscapes of his native Detroit and his adopted Pittsburgh. Today’s poem features the poet in the role Daniels often occupies, as storyteller and witness. “The Worn Knees and Elbows of My Alcoholic Uncles” feels almost ekphrastic, ekphrasis being a form in which the poem is responding to a work of visual art. While there is no corresponding painting here, Daniels’ poem reads as the linguistic equivalent of a domestic interior. Through the poet’s meticulous attention to detail and description, we are offered a window into the lives of these uncles, inflected—as the title announces—by their addiction. It is not what the poet says about the uncles but his precise rendering of image that allows us to briefly glimpse the uncles’ souls and allows them to be seen with compassion and “to be understood.”
The Worn Knees and Elbows of My Alcoholic Uncles
On family occasions, they bend
at the waist over grim metal chairs—
black coffee and cigarettes—
the task of sobriety scrawled
on the blackboard of their souls.
Ask them a question and be prepared
for large slices of sincere, hard-fought
non sequiturs. Turn your head
from sunken eyes, the human cigarette
smoldering, limbo disguised as purgatory.
Pull up a chair. They don’t
have a prayer—they have many.
What you have is a drink clouded
by smoke and desire. Memory swirls.
A song they once danced to,
dim smile crooked in drunk light.
Flash of crooked teeth and lust and illusionary
fancy footwork sidestepping hours
alone and what they will not discuss
while the sweet voices of someone else’s
children rise above the fray of another
funeral or wedding or garage graduation party.
Look at the neatly printed signatures
on their checks. The strain
of the straight lines
to be understood.
That was “The Worn Knees and Elbows of My Alcoholic Uncles” by Jim Daniels.
Thank you for sharing this moment of poetry with us today.