Daniel Tobin

Daniel Tobin


Daniel Tobin is the author of nine books of poems, including From Nothing, winner of the Julia Ward Howe Award, The Stone in the Air, his suite of versions from the German of Paul Celan, and most recently Blood Labors, named one of the Best Poetry Books of the Year for 2018 by TheNew York Times and The Washington Independent Review of Books. His poetry has won many awards, among them
the Massachusetts Book Award and fellowships from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation. His critical and editorial works include Passage to the Center: Imagination and the Sacred in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney, Awake in America, The Book of Irish American Poetry from the Eighteenth Century to the Present, and To the Many: The Collected Early Works of Lola Ridge. His most recent work is On Serious Earth: Poetry and Transcendence. He teaches at Emerson College in Boston.

Daniel Tobin Poems


No, you do not ask anything unattainable of me.  You merely, through your revelation and your grace, force what is most human in me to become conscious of itself at last. Humanity was sleeping—it is still sleeping—imprisoned in the narrow joys of its little closed loves.

                                                                                    Teilhard de Chardin


Spira mirabilis, miraculous spiral, and from the one

infinite point my many chambers flowering inwardly

to form the outside this itinerant holds in his hand.

What am I but a translation of symmetries awakened

from the violin wavelengths of things coming to be,

not condemned to drift among possible impossibilities

like so many dead ends in shale, some Bright Angel

or Burgess, a petrified chamber on the planet’s scale,

four hundred million years a wink to my pinhole eye?

When he looks in my lustrous emptiness does he see

how close he is with his kind never to have been at all,

chance roll from the compass-angle palm of the divine?

Still, I am the ensemble that redoubles sum by sum

into pinecone-bract and sunflower—golden array

of assemblages, each uncurling like a fern, unlikely

in their aspects till the eye shoots deeper in—even

their outspread numbered branching on the Earth

a kinship with the kinship of more hidden symmetries.

What will he hear when he lifts me to that near twin

and his inquisitive crown leans closer and he presses

me against the hollow in himself—an ancient wish?

Or this ocean-rush of pre-dawn nothings whispering,

hushing out? Or will it be the true God in all that is,

living and incarnate, altogether apart, not far away?


His wrestling with me is inside, though the errant

wastes beyond the Great Wall assume the vivid cast

of soul, trawling emptiness, terrain in which he sifts

his beginnings from brickearth and loess, sheer-flung

ramparts of Aeolian dust where the species quartered

long ago, not that long in its aboriginal glimmerings.

Knuckle-bone, skull-shard, the patiently-honed edge

of a blade, sheer-gleaned, wholly lithic, he carries back

across the Yellow River to the museum at Tienstin—

all belated relics of the beast who knows he knows,

while the remnant of me slips fleetly from the sieve,

quartz-chaff, first replicator, to run away on the wind.

Still, my older brethren celebrate a silence of lattices

cooling out of liquid into emerald and amethyst,

diamond facets in which the slightest flaw catalyzes

to greater beauty, azure mist from pure translucence

ghosting the stone. Am I not these lowlier tessellations

folding inside the very fabric of things, wanton tilings

crossing even from the inanimate into life, a feigning

of firm ends? Here is the helix with its rooted tapestry

of ties, far-flung from the materials, routed, branching,

the soul inseparable from the universe of being born,

infinitesimal, with the labors of seaweed, the industry

of bees at their hive-work, sweet honey from the rock.

(Garment and Corpus)

Most of what I wear no one can see, my nakedness

the nothing ghosting each barely probable array

from lack to leap to face to galaxy, till all you know

collapses into now: what this man called the bloom

of matter’s marvelous garment in the flesh, a brede

just visible on the edge of what will be, was and is.

To walk these bustling human streets, to go astray

in Shanghai, Louvain, Paris, and in Rome, or clamber

breccia, to find in the teeming dishabille and shards

some sidelong glancing image of my resplendence,

one must have a sightline honed by longing love

that would stitch in its bright gaze what came before

and what will come ahead, and so fathom the circuit

from the arrow of the line, my haunt, my harrowing.

like particles of light fired through a regnant screen,

each double of the other launched to opposite zones,

till the action of his science and the action of his faith

keep impossible counsel across the shattering gulf.

What vision, but mine, narrows the brash infinities

out of the improbable rattle bag of what might be,

warp, woof of a great Thought, not a great Machine?

He saw it first at the front in that dying soldier’s eyes,

the agony like a plumb-line down a bottomless well

ascending there with my own, transfiguring into joy.

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