At the heart of Raymond McDaniel’s fourth book of poetry, The Cataracts, is sight and its opposites—blindness, reflections, distortions of light and dark. McDaniel is a poet of great intellect and wit who thrives on opposites; no sooner are we invited to answer questions of philosophy, metaphysics, politics, or spirituality, than we are reminded that this world is one of multiplicity and paradox—that staring directly into the sun will blind us, and therefore we must gaze at “never the thing itself and always its reflection.”

The scope of the subject matter here is as wide as the multitudes that these poems suggest. Poems about X-Men, Star Trek, and Micronauts are placed alongside poems about unjust landlords (spelled “Land-Lords, to make strange the relation between the former and the latter”), fighting on the beach, and “the sighted Audrey Hepburn” as “the blind protagonist” in the film Wait Until Dark.

“Humans are different, and not,” the poet writes in “This is Going to Hurt,” suggesting the impossibilities this book grapples with: whether we are predators or prey, whether we are different than we were in the past, whether we might ever answer these or any other questions with certainty. “One way to be in error is to assume that what there is to know / requires that one merely look around,” McDaniel writes elsewhere in this collection. Yet this gripping book never gives up hope that we might find answers to the existential questions that it simultaneously believes unanswerable. And with McDaniel’s keen insight, we just might.

Coffee House Press.

—Review by Josh Luckenbach