Low Rent Prophet
In Dani Gabriel’s new collection of poems, Low Rent Prophet, God isn’t removed from daily life, banished to some heaven. Instead God is present in the people who surround the poet: “i’m preaching / about the God / sitting behind you on the train” writes Gabriel in the eponymous poem that opens the book (2). Similarly in “Church,” the book’s next-to-last poem, “jesus christ / is depending on two dollars and a bummed cigarette. / he’s sunburnt, skin cracked open, oily hair and a bleached t-shirt” (73). God is also “all over the city today. / she’s tracking up and down the BART train / asking for change, / she’s crying in the bathroom, waiting / for someone to notice she’s not ok” (73-74).
But even if God is easy to find, that doesn’t make God easy to be around, and Low Rent Prophet keeps this tension in view. As Gabriel puts it in “What I Know,” “you can die and still walk the earth. / you can die / and wake up alive one day / sitting at your kitchen table / wondering / whose hands are these?” However miraculous this return from the dead, however grateful Gabriel is to be (later in the same poem) “a quiet resurrection,” we never lose sight of what came before. “What I Know” equally includes “years of struggling to shower / and do one thing. Days of such limited awake, / barely being able to read the side of a can, / conversation running a path so far above me” (30-31).
Low Rent Prophet thus invites us to observe two lives, the first of which turns out to be “salvageable” (a poem title) and to be bound by cords of memory and faith to the second one, both more peaceful and more secure. The most important poems in the book, the ones that evoke my wonder, juxtapose these two lives and examine their continuities. I was startled, for example, by the clarity of “Ideation,” which opens with the imperative, “see the sparkle and rush.” But what are we looking at? In what moment does this poem set us down? It continues, “i breathe glitter and glass, / the world is so beautiful / it might kill me. / it’s a crisp morning / and i’m lonely out here in the bright.” Since “ideation” seems to refer to suicidal ideation, the poem might point to the first of the lives I’ve identified and a time before Gabriel’s metaphorical death and resurrection. But because this poem points to the world’s bright beauty,
its voice seems to belong to the spiritually awakened speaker of the second life—and if so, then the persistence of this “ideation” and the appearance of the world’s great beauty as a threat work wondrously together to complicate that life. Being saved, says Gabriel, being salvaged and being resurrected do not place one beyond life’s daily challenges or one’s calling.
The courageous way forward is to write even when it’s “not a day for poetry” (61) and, I infer, to pray and to preach even when salvation seems an impossible mix of unreachable and mundane. In their unassuming lower-case typography, but with cascading verve, Gabriel’s poems urge us to join this tenacious ministry.
In fact, Gabriel is impatient with the “vague politics” discussed at a party that turns out not to be a place for activism. “here i was with my / lighter ready,” the poem begins. But in the face of stories in which accomplishments are too easily achieved, the poem loses patience: “my eyes fly past the hummus dip / into the rhinestoned night” (11). Security, these poems tell us over and over again, is valuable as a place from which to reach others, but not an end until it belongs to everyone. “we should pray,” the low rent prophet preaches, “for all of us with soft-lit kitchens … and / no courage / tonight” (33). The courageous way forward is to write even when it’s “not a day for poetry” (61) and, I infer, to pray and to preach even when salvation seems an impossible mix of unreachable and mundane. In their unassuming lower-case typography, but with cascading verve, Gabriel’s poems urge us to join this tenacious ministry.
Ezra is the author Habitat of Stones, which won the Patricia Bibby First Book Award. He has published in RHINO, Crazyhorse, Lambda Literary, DIAGRAM, and other venues. He teaches American Literature and Science and Technology Studies at Williams College.