On the Cusp:
A Prism From Coal
A Prism From Coal, Michelle Daugherty’s second chapbook, makes the reader think. It is a well crafted, dense book that is expertly organized and thought out. Divided into three parts (Cusp of a Girl, Observations, and Interactions), the reader embarks on a journey with the poet from questioning to resolution, from juvenileness to maturity. Several themes—self-discovery, life in the Los Angeles area, relationships with others—are continually investigated.
In Part 1: Cusp of a Girl, Daugherty explores the blunt boundaries of an adolescent girl growing into her womanly skin. She writes of macroscopic issues, such as growing up urban but still being vulnerable and longing for adult love and respect out of an adolescent relationship, as well as specific issues, such as a childhood surrounded by adult addiction and a personal thank you to someone who has stood by her throughout the hardship, changes, and triumphs. The reader finds herself in a variety of settings, but reinforced emotions ground the poems. This section is about what happens to who we were as we become the next incarnation of ourselves. The girl is “on the cusp,” numb. She is “shoddy machine” and “a little too scientific.” What is left is the material and tools that will be used to create the woman. For all the angst, though, Daugherty’s voice has a bit of melancholy. She tells us, so succinctly, that “even rows of tic-tac-tow can’t bring back childhood.” Sure, remaining stagnant may be easier, but this isn’t an option for our speaker—or our poet. Though in Part 1 Daugherty discredits herself as “not capable of beckoning so much attention,” she certainly is. What is perhaps most striking about this section is that it lacks the overpowering sense of self-importance often associated with individuals (not to mention poets!) at this age. Instead, Daugherty’s voice is humble, yet confident. She knows her scars are “no worse” than the reader’s, that pain—even her personal and very real pain—is relative. This is an important discovery for any of us to make. Ultimately, the reader turns the page on Part I certain of one thing: Daugherty’s voice is “not afraid,/just not finished.”
Daugherty does not disappoint the reader in Part 2: Observations. These poems paint vibrant images of the world through the speaker’s eyes. Part 2 begins with a piece which anyone who has ever gone to or participated in a poetry reading can relate. “Bathroom Poet,” like the other pieces in this section, includes a speaker who relates to the subject. “I wonder if he reads palms/until I remember I never shook his hand.” Daugherty creates an interesting tension: observational poems that include the speaker doing something. How observational is that? Perhaps “Reflections” is a more apt term for this section. Still, the pieces work. The same vivid descriptions and unmistakable mark of the poet that we came to know in Part 1 are present. We find the speaker a bit softer, though, a bit rounder around the corners. For example, whereas in Part I we might have found our speaker describing flowers that one grew, or no longer grow, or never will grow again, here we find her wishing for beauty for herself and others.
I wanted to give you something that grows,
then say, ‘At the bloom you would be healed.’
But I’m afraid flowers wilt.
This softness threads together the pieces in Part 2. This is not to suggest that Observations is without strength or punch (check out “February” and “Negative Emissions”). Instead, these poems again represent Daugherty’s awareness of how her place in the world is shifting.
In Part 3: Interactions, Daugherty actively confronts those around her. In “Woman’s Lib” she challenges the accepted roles of women and men. “Fuck Woman’s Lib!” she says. This is an exciting piece. The reader expects the speaker to take the opposite role, to be a charging bull in her new womanhood. Instead, she explores the power and unmistakable strength of women in their femininity. In “Nathan,” Daugherty speaks to and about a specific person, which makes this one of the most intimate pieces in the section. In “Shooting to Feel” Daugherty shows us how not interacting intimately with one other creates apathy. In “Vampire Movie Screening” we are returned to descriptions of Hollywood, which makes a nice loop to Part 1. Again, Daugherty muses on growing up in the most plastic setting in America, if not the world. She finds a ripple of life, though, which is her gift. “The Reading of My Will,” the last piece in Interactions, begins with a description of people on the same bus she is riding. When she says “I’ve decided to love the despicable,” the reader knows she is talking about herself as much as those around her. What better gift to give the world: a sense of love for life, for others, and for the self. In this piece, the speaker gives up her life to others for inspiration just as she has gotten inspiration from them. She has found resolution in her ruminations. The reader knows her now, and her words ring true and sincere.
A Prism From Coal is a true collection of work. The individual poems work on their own, in the context of their parts, and in the complete book. Daugherty’s voice is strong, confident, and wonderfully haunting and sinister. Daugherty pushes herself a little more with each piece, and it shows. By the end of the book the reader gets the sense that we’re no longer dealing with Daugherty on the cusp of being a girl, but rather on the cusp of being a woman and a mature poet.
Daugherty, Michelle. A Prism From Coal. 2002. 38 pages.