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Review of Common Ground

Common Ground by John Daniel Western American Literature
Vol. 24, no. 3. Fall 1989
Review by Ona Siporin

"Common ground" is a phrase used by Wendell Berry in his essay, "Standing by Words." As a title, it gives the reader an intimation of John Daniel's colleagues in the literary world and of his perspective on poetry. Like Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry, Daniel is concerned with living in place and with honoring and celebrating the wholeness of creation.

If this sounds like a religious endeavor, that's because it is, though not in the conventional manner. In the poem "Beginnings," Daniel says:

No god broke these billions of stones
or knows where they will be, or what,…(p. 24)

The poems show an enviable religious sense, a vision for mystery, for a hierarchy that allows man the freedom of humility, and for humor. Daniel knows where he is in the world—at every moment. So, reading Common Ground is like being led by an expert guide into that world that, for many of us, was lost in childhood:

—and every damn bubble-throated frog
in the meadow is chirping its heart out.
Who knows why they sing, but tonight
it sounds like celebration, tonight
I think the only reason they stop
is for the pleasure of starting again. (p. 38)

Daniel's style is as clear as his vision. He has been criticized for lack of technical innovation and for not having enough of the personal in his poems. The reader should cheer instead of criticize. Here is a writer whose personality is a strong presence in his work—without self-centered involvement—with skills as durable and traditional as oak. From "The Great Horned Owl":

In his shed he listens to the barnyard hens
he used to terrify. When I open the door
he blinks in the flashlight glare and seizes me
in his great yellow eyes. Alone with the dark
he stirs my gift of cold mice. He does not eat.

He was the shadow against the stars,
the blur at the edge of my headlights,
the ghost who discarded headless sparrows
in the dust outside my gate, the voice… (p. 6)

Wallace Stegner has called Daniel "a poet of the earth," but this does not mean that Common Ground is "nature poetry" in the unfortunate way that phrase has sometimes been understood. Daniel's power is not in describing trees and rocks; it is rather in knowing place—whether a vacant lot or a forest. We should all have the gentle courage to look as closely and to respond as sincerely to our surroundings—which speak of the values of our lives—as this writer does in his first book.