The White Wave

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

The white wave in the title of Kate Daniels’ first book of poetry is a pun. She uses it in “Sometimes When I’m Singing” and in “On the River” to mean a wave of water and a wave of the hand—that is, death and goodbye, separation and beckoning. Of these, separation, or the space between people, is the main theme of the book, as the various things the hand does is its main image. The first section of the book, “Bodies of Kin,” deals with those to whom the poet is bound without choice, while the second section, “The White Wave,” concerns those to whom she has chosen to be bound. Both sections include people who have simply come to her attention. In each case, it is the gap between the poet and those whom she takes up that concerns her.

“Family Gathering” comes before both sections and sets their tone. The twelve-year-old narrator observes the people in her family from a corner where no one seems to pay any attention to her. Just as she is separated from the grown-ups, they are separated from one another: The women do the dishes and care for the babies and keep an eye on the older children; the men digest their meal on the front porch where they also smoke and generally loll about as though they had nothing better to do or were useless. The women’s hands are for work, nourishment, and protection. The men’s hands are for pleasing themselves, though the hand of one of them—the narrator’s cousin Jonathan—once saved her from drowning. It seems that the men are good in emergencies, but they are not so good in the daily tasks of love. The narrator is mystified by this discontinuity—by how she was brought into being by creatures who are as abstract to her as the figures in her picture book, by the fact that one adult (her cousin) saved her life and another (her father) touched her in the wrong spot (on her head, not on her legs where her scars are), and by how the children playing outside touch one another all over and the women touch the babies, but the men keep their hands mostly to themselves.

These are the people that Daniels is connected to by blood, and it is the paradox of her being disconnected from them, and they from her (especially her father and mother), that interests her. In “My Father’s Desk” and “Portrait with Money,” she concentrates on her father’s exhaustion. It has resulted from the time he has spent and the work he has had to do as a family man, and it has made him withdrawn and awkward with his daughter. There is a photograph of her hugging him when she is one year old, but it is only a picture, and when he pats her on the head, he does it differently, at a distance, as it were, without empathy or warmth, as though the contact might damage her.

Daniels’ mother also strikes her as a distant figure. Though her mother worried over her as a baby, she is in love with winter, with withdrawal, as though the season when nothing grows and death comes made the most sense to her (“Why I Don’t Write You Anymore”). In “The Playhouse,” it is her mother’s vanity and nostalgia that cut her off from her daughter. She may beckon her daughter from the window to come inside, but her major gesture is brushing her own hair in the mirror, while her child remains in the playhouse, a fake place full of fake babies—that is, as cut off from live human contact as possible. Not that her mother is without feeling; the example that Daniels gives readers of it, though, in “Small but Strong,” features her mother gripping a candlestick, about to strike her husband in anger, while his own hand forbears the gesture that will make her do it. Both of them end up not touching each other at all, confirming Daniels’ image of the distance between them.

“Self-Portrait with Politics” carries on this motif with the poet’s brother. Though they were close when they were children, their lives have diverged. It is not simply that Daniels has chosen a life of the mind and done well with it, while her brother has become a forklift operator, but that her brother—who has been bright from the start—hates her for becoming what he has not. This is the real distance between them, and there is no way to rectify it: He remains envious and she becomes indifferent on the surface, left with the thin hope that her own children will make up for the separation by staying close to each other in later life, touching each other as they will have in childhood.

Finally, the poet’s grandmother (who appears in the second section of the book as a kind of leftover from the first) frustrates her in “Grandmother, I’m Reading Tolstoy” because she has willed herself to die, adding the remoteness of her view to the separation of her death. Leo Tolstoy may have been able to get inside his characters, but Daniels cannot get inside her own grandmother; she can only touch the pages of the book that reminds her of the problem.

Daniels does not fare much better with those with whom she has chosen to be intimate. These include a friend who was murdered, a child who died, and her husband, all of whom appear in the second section of the book.

Actually, in “Epilogue: After a Murder,” it is hard to tell who was murdered, except that the victim is male. In any event, the murder is an occasion for Daniels to consider how cruelty separates people and how death confirms this separation. The hand of the murderer not only separates its victim from the living but also signifies the distance that marks a lack of feeling. In order to keep alive their personal memories of the dead, the living withdraw from one another...

(The entire section is 2287 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Library Journal. CIX, May 1, 1984, p. 902.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, May 11, 1984, p. 268.

The Village Voice. XXIX, September 18, 1984, p. 52.