“The Murderous Sky: Poems of Madness and Mercy” by Rosemary Daniell

Reviewed by Steven Croft

Its possibilities for expression limitless, poetry can evoke many things, but as an art form it reverberates especially affectively within crisis: take for example the poetries of Homer or Sylvia Plath.  Rosemary Daniell, who identifies as a Southerner, has been one of the South’s bravest poets and nonfiction writers for decades.  In The Woman Who Spilled Words All Over Herself (Faber and Faber, 1997), a memoir of being both a writer and writing teacher, she discusses how her writing changed:

When I began reading some new poets – Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath – I was stunned by both their virtuosity and their accuracy.  But when I told Dickey (James Dickey) how much I liked these new poems, he was angry, saying, “They’re just shrill, hysterical females who write about throwing their abortions in the gutter.”  And then I began to ask, who is Dickey – or any man – to say what is right about women’s experiences?  From that point forward my writing began to change. . . . I now began to write directly out of my experience as a woman, including my experiences of anger and sexuality.

In her latest book, The Murderous Sky: Poems of Madness & Mercy (Lavender Ink, 2021), Ms. Daniell writes directly, searingly, of her experience as the mother of a daughter hopelessly addicted to heroin and a son suffering with schizophrenia.  Throughout these poems that move from the idyllic-seeming promise of childhood to the speaker’s children’s harrowing experiences of adulthood, it becomes quickly clear that we are in a realm of literature approached only in its highest and most serious forms; that is, the realm of tragedy.  These poems make a diary of a seemingly cursed mother-child dynamic, times two.  The book is divided into three sections: “Pain for a Daughter,” “Without a Mother’s Love,” and “Beautiful Things.”

The book begins with “Pain for a Daughter,” and in the first poem, “Ancient History,” the young mother/speaker has a foreboding premonition while still in the hospital recovering from childbirth:

“Why so

serious?” the nun asked.

And why was I afraid. . . .


What did I know then?

What do I know now?

Only how this girl-child

already holding in her heart

the seeds of some ancient grief

would become this woman

sodden and raging taken

in handcuffs the small blue stars

of needle tracks at elbow

ankle & wrist.

And the poem evokes the book’s dedication: “For my grandmother Lee, who like me, had a bipolar daughter and a schizophrenic son,” as if the speaker knows her daughter will not have the constitution, like Darl in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, to weather the inevitable catastrophes endemic to her lineage.  In the poem “Freak,” the speaker wonders if her forgiving care is enabling her daughter’s condition:

Is this what

it has come to?  Have I through the power

of my love left you this helpless this hacked?

There is a thread in The Murderous Sky that brings to mind what became Flannery O’Connor’s famous literary sobriquet, “the Christ-haunted South.”  In “Faith Healers” the daughter declares her life transformed now that she has accepted Jesus into it; her mother is unnerved, doubtful she will be so magically delivered from temptation:

And now that daughter –

habitué of needles wrapped

like deadly candies in cellophane

of sugar daddies & the streets &

razor blades of candles burning

down at fast forward tells me

she is Born Again that it is only

the Spirit that will save her.

Where religion appears in the poems, the speaker is identifying with the pain in its stories, as in the last stanza of “Motherhood”:

And then there is the urge

to kill like that mother

in the Bronx who shot

her crack-addicted daughter.

Like God & his only son.

Or the first stanza of “Stigmata”:

always bursts from the palms.

While the actual nails

were driven through his forearms.

And how much of our joy

our pain is illusion?

In the book’s next section, “Without a Mother’s Love,” the speaker gives us a portrait of her son in the poem “The Rules,” stuck inside his apartment, living in a static way that makes sense only to him.  Because he cannot find a way out of this, it is as if he is a man frozen here, captured by the poem like in a depressing Stieglitz black and white:

On your old Royal

you record everything:

minute by minute the messages they send.


They live in the apartment above.

They call your name through the heat registers.

And the lock on your file cabinet?  Broken again.

There are spies everywhere –

the man who comes to fix the thermostat.


And why, you spew an inch from my face

can’t you understand: That you must be

vigilant.  That they will kill you, too?

In the last section, “Beautiful Things,” and in its eponymous poem “Beautiful Things,” I think there is a key to the poetic cycle, the saga, of these damaged lives:


dangerous things are often beautiful

blinding us to the fangs the needles

the peaks that will throw us off-center

to the dogs but still we keep testing

that edge.

The speaker knows her children are extraordinary, extraordinary with problems but also extraordinary with talents. The daughter is a talented visual artist whose precocious childhood work is described in “Sacred Things.” The son is an unusually—almost singularly—caring person described in “Portrait: Boy with Dog,” and a talented musician, described in “Squeezing the Cat”:

“Damn! He’s good looking!”

My son the guitar player

Holds the audience enthralled

In this little bar where a dozen

Women hang on his every note.


Then afterwards

Those who rush forth to touch him

This son who has loved guitars

From the moment he held one.

Throughout these poems the mother/speaker in The Murderous Sky suffers anguish, overactive fear, doubts as to whether she can continue to mother these children. They are well beyond the age now of her legal obligation to do so, but her care has nothing to do with what the law does or does not require.  She will always continue to nurture because it is who, what she is: a mother, their mother.  This is a story of how family should, must belong to us no matter what, no matter what.  One thinks of Sophocle’s play Antigone, of Antigone’s devotion to her cursed family and determination to bury her brother Polyneices despite Creon’s edict forbidding it:

Ismene: So fiery!  You should be cold with fear.

Antigone: Perhaps.  But I am only doing what I must.

Ismene: But can you do it?  I say you cannot.

Antigone: Very well: when my strength gives out, I shall do no more.

Ismene: Impossible things should not be tried at all.

As a story, The Murderous Sky: Poems of Madness & Mercy is this serious.  As literature, it is this great.

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