Guest Post, Matthew Lippman: Sacrifice of Love

Sacrifice of Love: The Poetry of Daniel DeLeon


Daniel DeLeon
Daniel DeLeon

This is what I know. I know a young man—an old student of mine. He loved his poetry. He went off to college and continued to love his poetry. Spoken Word was his thing. The performance of singing a poem, of spitting a poem, spoke to him as both prayer and survival. He graduated college and came back to the school where I am still employed. He is now my colleague. We work in the same department teaching poetry and literature to young people. His name is Daniel DeLeon and he is a force. He told me a few months back that he wants to be the mayor of Boston. A Spoken Word artist as the mayor of Boston. I said, “You should be the president of the world.” God knows we need one now more than ever and why not a poet.

When I said this, he laughed. We were sitting in the classroom as colleagues. 7  years earlier we were in the same classroom. He was writing poems as a 17 year old, writing and reading with such focus and purpose that he blew away anything and everything in his path. Till this day I remember a poem he wrote about the toilet in his grandmother’s house in Guatemala. “You have to move a stone slab in order to take a leak,” he told the class. Danny did not care about the scatological nature of his piece. He was proud of his story. A proud young man is hard not to notice. Daniel, on his quest into the adult world, has not lost his pride. It has gotten brighter. It shines even when he is in pain. I thought about that when we were sitting together in our classroom talking about his poetry and his political aspirations. “It’s just about community,” he told me, “and giving back.” I wondered, “Which?” “Both,” he informed me, “both.”

I have thought a lot about the existence of poetry in the world, in the history of the world, as a glue, or, the potential it has to bring folks together. It used to serve this purpose, think Homer, folks in communal joy under the night sky, the hungry flames shooting up into the dance of Cassiopeia and Andromeda. In the pubs and social halls of Limerick. Story-time at the local library. But, the poetry of America if not, for the most part, performed as Performance Poetry, does not bring people together. Poetry is not about community. Ben Lerner knows this. Jorie Graham knows this. If you go to any AWP, AWP knows this. At any one of these conferences there are 2 very divergent waves coming at each other from different parts of the big ballroom where the book fair hails. There is the wave of ‘we are all in this together’ and then there is the other wave of ‘what nut can I get today?’ It’s sad and scary because it obliterates community. More specifically, it obliterates the community that does not come to AWP–the community of the neighborhood, of the schoolyard, of the rest of the world in its turmoil and beauty. Daniel DeLeon, though in his own BMW of desire, has intentions to allow poetry to be a foundation for bringing people together. At Boston College he created a Spoken Word club that grew from 10 to 200 and gave hours and hours of pleasure and joy to hundreds more. I have seen Mr. DeLeon perform his work. It’s intoxicating both as performance and on the page. It’s a poetry that lives in the present, ruminates on his experience growing up in difficult circumstances, and yet, at the same time, resonates with a population of people in this country who have tasted privilege. It is a poetry, which speaks to everyone because it is a prayer for the living, for all people-kind.

Sacrificial Poet


I remember my first prayer,

I kept my eyes open and carefully watched every syllable fall off my mother’s lips

until it was my turn to talk to God

I was old enough to know that Santa was my uncle dressed in a red suit

with a white beard,

but too young to understand why God, doesn’t talk back.


I couldn’t understand why we were rich in spirit, but couldn’t afford milk for my morning bowl of cereal.

I prayed anyway,

told God to buy mommy a house with an ATM machine in the living room so that she would never have to scrounge up change to buy a loaf a bread, ever again.


I told him, if that’s too much,

then maybe he could help me behave

so that daddy would stop putting his hands on me.

15 years later I finally understand that there is no man in the clouds

just picture frames of a pale-skinned Jesus

and that I was a poor naïve boy worshiping a white man’s image of God.


Have  you ever seen a peasant bow before a king?

Have you ever seen a slave kneel unto his master?

I haven’t, but I’ve see loyal servants bend into submission

at the altar; praising their almighty God.

Palms pressed against the sky begging to receive answers to their prayers and petitions.

Placing unrequited hopes in a being they can’t see, let alone begin to understand

yet they stand, firmly in beliefs


Waiting and waiting, for something I know nothing of,

something they call salvation,

but I’ve been waiting years for someone to save me from myself

and I’m still waiting to be rescued

I’m still waiting to find refuge in a the shadows of a merciful king

whom I was told cold wash away my sin

but I’m done waiting.


I searched and couldn’t find you.

I called you by name and you wouldn’t respond;

I started crying and you weren’t there to wipe my tears;

I had nothing but a pillow to hug and an emptiness inside me,

a void I wanted to fill,

hunger I wanted to satisfy,

until I heard a poem that said,

“Poet, don’t try to fill that void.

Be hungry, it wont kill you.”


And for I second I thought I heard God in poetry,

only to realize God is poetry because poetry is an enormous love for humanity.


Haven’t you heard of the sacrificial poet?

The ultimate sacrifice, forfeiting fear, and subjecting themselves to scrutiny, yet still

forgiving those who don’t understand this love.

This brave soul crucifies their craft to this stage

puts their expression on display

only to facilitate the salvation and validation of others


For these saviors you don’t have to wait 3 days

just 3 minutes and 3 scorecards that’ll show you everything

you need to know.

See sometimes, when I spit my poems

I close my eyes and picture myself on a pulpit

and imagine that this is my prayer for you.


And even though I no longer praise my mother’s God

I’ve watched myself become a loyal servant, too.

A slave to this pen

pushing it across pages,

a painstaking process

to remind me that just because God doesn’t answer prayers

it doesn’t mean we should lose hope in poetry.



If rapture is the essential driving force behind poetry, some way to use language in form, shape, color, tone and texture to get to a daily ecstatic harmonic temperament, then DeLeon’s poetry is working toward that, not only in content but in exercise. It’s prayer for him, an ongoing conversation between himself and that other thing beyond. If rapture is the thing we lose when we move out of our youthful playfulness and endearment, then rapture is the thing we try and regain, move closer to, with our poetry. Danny writes, “See sometimes, when I spit my poems/I close my eyes and picture myself on a pulpit/And imagine that this is my prayer for you.” Preacher. Teacher. Mayor. President. Poet. His work comes out of a direct service of illuminating some kind of divine community that is, at the core, this human reverence which is love. His poetry is not only word but it is also act. It strives to be body, to take place in the body, to meet the bodies it meets, as body. Part of this comes from the performance element to his verse. It is written to be listened to, to be heard and seen. His writing is both astonishing and astonishment. It is the other side of ‘being cheap.’ His poetry is generosity and gift, for everyone. DeLeon is not interested in contempt, he is interested in the soul to soul, the face to face, the love to love, that comes from spitting a poem in the hottest night, in the greasiest garage, under the fullest moon. What DeLeon knows is that poetry is love. And, if it is love, it has to be God. Any good poem, in the realm of the unsayable, to be said, is doing that divine work to be love. To be act. And you can’t mess with that no matter the landscape of this country, the landscape of the heart and its big boom into the world.

Guest Post, Matthew Lippman: Michael Morse’s Void and Compensation: Poetry and Friendship

PoemI met Michael Morse on the roof of Dia Center for the Arts in the early 90s.  A mutual friend introduced us.  It was summer or spring and the sun was going down over The Hudson River.  Neither of us knew anyone at the party and so we were forced to drink our beers together.  I remember, vaguely, not being too impressed with Michael.  We were both poets who had, 2 years earlier, graduated from The Writers’ Workshop at The University of Iowa.  I had recently moved to Brooklyn.  His mother had recently died. Both of us, although I did not know it at the time, were adrift—floating on the docile waves of our mid-twenties with high aspirations undercut by low frequencies.  What we had in common, we would soon find out, were many things:  A deep love for The New York Mets, mothers with the same name, Carol, Roslyn High School (he, an alum; me, a teacher), Brooklyn, jazz, single malt scotch, and, of course, poetry.

What’s interesting to me about my relationship with Michael is not that we have stayed best friends for almost 30 years or that we both love spring training and have endless amounts of hope in our hearts whether it be directed at The Mets or in our poetry trajectories, but that so much of our relationship has nothing to do with poetry.  I suppose, in many ways, the reason we have stayed so close is that on the totem pole of what is important, poetry is down there at the bottom.  Yes, when we first began to build our friendship we would wake early on Sunday mornings and meet at Harvest, a breakfast joint on Court Street, and share our work.   But, it wasn’t the work that so much mattered—it was the grits, the hash browns, the occasional cup of coffee, the western omelette.  It was the feeling, some indescribable geyser of love that grew out of necessity (as love always does), and a shared desire for a certain connection to the world.  A world that always felt deep with possibility and horror.  That kind of Existential horror that lead us to the F-train, to Coney Island, to the Boardwalk, to the beach, with a copy of Alan Dugan’s Collected Poems in our shared back pocket.  There, at the shore, at the edge of the East Coast, we read out loud, to one another, “The Sea Grinds Things Up” completely shattered by that last line, “It’s a lonely situation.”  And, ain’t it?  But we had each other then like we have each other now.

This is a tale of poetry and friendship, a tale of friendship and poetry.

It took me 14 years to get my first book published after I left Iowa.  It has taken Michael 21 years.  21 years after Iowa.  Can you imagine? That’s an impossibly ridiculous number of years given his talent. Thank god for the folks at Canarium Press who, in their deep wisdom, decided to publish Michael’s first collection, Void and Compensation.  As Michael’s friend it might seem disingenuous to speak on his work.  He is my best friend.  That might make speaking on his poems doubly disingenuous.  Truth is, I don’t give a shit.  They just floor me.  Take for instance, “On Reading.”

On Reading

    for Larry Levis


When I read in bed, the book above me 

held high, arm extended, I hold 

the top right corner with my left hand

and let the finished pages rest on my wrist— 

as if I’m denying the rays of a small sun

or keeping the printed word at bay.

It’s Chekhovian, how everything descends, 

the protagonists, their stars and their sun.   

This morning it’s my friend: I haven’t learned 

to say his name in death since what he left

of his life on paper—tuberculin ink 

spit up and out as darker rubies that 

his body couldn’t keep and went to pages—

stains that snow crystal-by-crystal, persistent

and held above the head and kept at bay. 


It’s Valentine’s Day and I’m reading in bed.

I’m with my lover and we’re breaking up

although neither of us knows it yet—

I am reading and she is sleeping.

The book is still above me but I’m gone

(prescience disguised as daydreaming): 

I’m at my lover’s apartment years later

and I’m holding her baby, not mine and yet

a ruby of my making, my ambivalence.

Love’s less and less about someday and more         

of a resuscitation of someone:

Come, friend or lover and child fast asleep, 

come dawn, all clock-tick and sparrow-chatter

and daylight starch waiting for ink and wanting—

The books are by the bed, and they are dead and ready. 

The first time I read “On Reading” I got jealous.  You know, that good kind of jealousy that starts—Oh fuck, I wish I wrote this but then slowly fades into appreciation and awe.  I remember reading “On Reading” in Ploughshares where it was first published and feeling like I was stupid and in love at the same time.  I kept thinking, How can you write a poem like that?  So, I called him up to ask him.  But, I didn’t really care; I just wanted to talk smack, that boy banter that makes us feel free. The love thing.

That’s how it is with Michael, with a Michael conversation—we talk poems which leads to sports which leads to Coleman Hawkins, which leads to Felix Milan, which leads to stupid banter.  That’s the progression and the one that makes most sense. It’s one that I count on and cherish because it provides a holding, a containment that, on the surface, is built out of words but originates, if you will, out of the soil.  I am lucky that Michael is a poet but if he weren’t a poet we’d still be best friends and that is why this friendship of ours has lasted.  But, the poetry is a piece, no larger or smaller, than everything else.  Shouldn’t that be the way it is?  His poems are a celebration of that kind of everydayness that is the everydayness of human interaction, of friendship, of love, of romance and family.  Take for instance “Bake McBride,” or “Tsimtsum,” or “Facebook.”  Check this out:


My friends who were and aren’t dead

are coming back to say hello. 

There’s a wall that they write things on. 

There are status updates. What are you doing right now? 

For the most part, they seem successful. 

They have children, which I can only imagine. 

The hairy kid we called Aper, I haven’t heard

from him and wonder if in every contact

there are apologies inherent

for feelings hurt and falling out of touch.

You know what’s funny, once, a long time back, we were in a little guest house in Sag Harbor, 10 years ago, looking at all these poems on the floor.  They were spread out like the ocean a few miles away.  We stood over them trying to make sense of how they might fit together in a collection.  10 years later, here is that collection.  10 years.  That’s how old some of them are, like whales, like accordions, that sing on and on over miles and years.  All of them now in his first book, some of them go as far back as the ocean of Iowa.  That’s history.  It’s a history of his poetics and it’s a history of our friendship.

Void and Compensation is a triumph of perseverance.  More than that, it is a triumph of love and words—the lasting power of both.  It’s one of the great poetry books of the last quarter century.  I say this as Michael’s best friend; I say this as someone who is a Poet; I say this as someone who has a general dis-taste for poetry.  But, don’t take my word for it.  Go get the thing and put it in your back pocket.  Walk around the countryside with it.  Get on the F-Train to Coney Island with your best friend and read “Rand McNally” at the ocean to make your own road map of love and friendship.  These poems of Michael’s, you see, are about finding one’s way; they are all about the breaking of the waves, and the sound barrier inside the chest, broken in half.

Michael Morse is my best friend and so none of what I have written matters.  It’s tainted with Technicolor subjectivity.  But, I don’t give a shit.  I sing the love songs I sing.  You sing your own.  That’s what’s important.  That we sing them.  Alone. To one another. I love Michael’s songs.  The ones he has sung to me at The A&G Pork Store, at Shea Stadium, from the car on his cell, asleep on rocks in the middle of rivers in Pennsylvania, where and whenever.  I love them as much as the ones in Void and Compensation— it’s own set list, concert, at The Garden, sold out performance, sung to 15,000 screaming fans, one after another, as lonely as they’ll ever be and never more thankful.

Hell, I am lucky to be in the front row, my left hand in the air, my right hand gripping tight a BIC lighter in this long and graceful encore that just keeps on going, shining the light.