Daniel Mark Epstein Essay - Critical Essays

Epstein, Daniel Mark

Epstein, Daniel Mark 1948–

Epstein is an American poet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)

Daniel Epstein comes back to [death] in poem after poem. His love poems, watery and tentative as skimmed milk, are the blandest things in [No Vacancies in Hell], but he is more interesting, more substantial, about death. The "Requiem for Christine Latrobe" is too heartfelt to be very good. In fact, Epstein seems most successful when speaking through a persona and least successful when speaking out of his own time, place, and heart, as if … he requires the discipline of distance. He wants to see death, if possible, with someone else's eyes, not brush against it with his own body. "Letter Concerning the Yellow Fever," a verse epistle dated 1818 and written from a Dr. Wm. Martin to the Mayor of Baltimore, proves a perfect medium for Epstein's restrained compassion. He succeeds as well in "The Assassins," a more or less dramatic monologue put into the mouth of John Wilkes Booth, who speaks with accents that recall Prometheus, Brutus, and Milton's Satan, though Epstein improves upon the taste of the man who shouted, "Sic semper tyrannis" after his graceless leap from the balcony.

The best poems in No Vacancies in Hell (an unfortunately histrionic title that might have been chosen by old Booth himself) are contained in the last section of the volume entitled "Mountain and Tidewater Songs." These are a series of short songs sung by denizens of 19th century Maryland: bee-keepers, a sap-miller, and others not so professionally defined. Once again, Epstein is free behind a mask, free to assume a plain-spoken, rustic simplicity…. The language and the images are conventional,… but that is not meant as criticism. A tune can sound as good on the piano as on the krummhorn or the kazoo, and sometimes a reader prefers familiarity to the challenge of unknown tongues. You might, after all, want to sit down in the evening with a book in one hand, a drink in the other, and a few of your wits out to pasture. This is a book for times like that.

Thomas Stumpf, in Carolina Quarterly (© copyright 1974 Carolina Quarterly), Winter, 1974, pp. 108-09.

Epstein's natural style … is abstract. For his personal poems to work, he would have to give more attention to the craft and conventions of such verse. Because he does not do this, his personal poems recur with the distance of misplaced abstraction, that is, with triteness….

The last three sections of [No Vacancies in Hell] indicate his desire to move toward less personal forms of poetry…. The final section of the book, "Mountain and Tidewater Songs", is largely made up of poems that try to capture the tone of a locality and its people. But these places and people seem continually imagined, without real substance. Epstein is an outsider looking in, but pretending otherwise. (p. 48)

Jerome J. McGann, in Poetry (© 1974 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), October, 1974.

In his most intriguing poems [in No Vacancies in Hell] Epstein reveals himself as a collector of odd information and a student of regional history…. Half the fascination of these poems is in the blocks of forgotten or misplaced language they recover; the other, greater half is in their uses of fact and historical irony. Although the poems provide all the information a reader needs to understand and respond to them, they also raise questions which are likely to send him off to the library. Like Ezra Pound in his idiosyncratic and eclectic ABC of Reading or in large swatches of The Cantos, Epstein jolts us into an awareness of histories we didn't know existed and which he finds important. This seems no more irrational or egomaniacal than a poet's assuming his interests are our interests to begin with. (pp. 80-1)

Most contemporary readers of poetry dislike notes; still, I can think of no collection published in the last few years which would benefit from notes more than No Vacancies…. (pp. 81-2)

I enjoy [the four long] monologues for their triumphs and for the aesthetic problems they present when they fumble. I wish, therefore, that I could work up greater enthusiasm for the lyrics that surround them. Most of the shorter poems and songs contribute a regional density to the book … [but] they rarely burst into flame: bit players whose existence is justified by the speakers of the monologues. (p. 85)

Peter Klappert, in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Fall/Winter, 1974.