2019 New Issues Poetry Prize
Jericho Brown, Judge
“Daniel Becker’s 2nd Chance is harrowing in its examination of life and death—or more precisely, that space in between the two. This book, then, is about that time and space where we depend on the doctor, or where the doctor tells us he’s been called too late: ‘It’s just us, but she’s expecting Jesus, / sweet Jesus.’ If poetry heals—and we know it does—Becker brings all he knows about the science and the body to us through a language we need for survival. This is a debut, but its poet is already experienced in the power of remedy and restoration.”
“Daniel Becker’s 2nd Chance gives its readers two simultaneous chances—to perceive at once the acutely physical and the expansively spiritual. Like his doctor-poet predecessor William Carlos Williams, Becker studies ‘where to draw the line / between uncertainty and mystery,’ listening often with a stethoscope, often teaching others to listen: ‘the student wants to know / if he heard what I heard when he listened to the heart…. Here it comes, there it goes. Here it comes.’ In “Sleep hygiene,” the doctor’s advice extends beyond the patient’s bedroom to include the entire world, its history and pre-history:
Use pillows to solve or suppress all of the above
a pillow shaped like the horizon
or the supine profile of your partner, or even better
a partner who won’t mind being your pillow—
together you become the mountains and their clouds,
between the two of you a hidden canyon,
lost in your slopes there are deep limestone caves,
hot springs, the occasional tremor
of tectonic plates and knees.’
The frank, reassuring voice of these poems ranges with ease from the somatic to the ecstatic and back. “Among the deep listeners in Deep Listening 101” suggests
‘Look around, listen up: there are worlds beyond our thresholds.
During the field trip inside the sound free chamber:
those strangers pounding at the door?
And in “After life and in between” what’s intimated is thrilling: ‘That first breath would taste like lightning.’”
Daniel Becker was a physician long before he was a poet. In 2nd Chance, his first collection, the mindful, dual imprint of medical practice as narrative art and clinical treatment is beautifully and uniquely wrought. Pairing poetry’s affect-laden lexicon with the lucid discourse of science, Becker plumbs the liminal territories that separate life from death, health from sickness, and wellness from dysfunction. His words carry us deep inside our bodies and our brains, alike. There, he finds the metaphors concealed within modern medicine that poetically bridge the terrible gap between the embodied intimacies of illness and the dehumanized technologies of contemporary bio-medical practice. Like Robert Frost, Becker is a storytelling poet, devoted to quiet discursiveness, unafraid of long poems, and unintimidated by the psychological complexities of human relations in sickness and in health.
A book chronicling a life in medicine, 2nd Chance tells the story of one doctor’s empathy as it reckon with “the usual slings and arrows” that eventually take us all down (and out) until our charming speaker himself must “shuffle into place and grieve in stanzas.” But there is much humor here too, and a great sense of the close relations between all things, or that energy source called metaphor. Memory-driven, meditative, associative, and fully human, these narrative poems will renew your faith in how attentive, loving, and wise our species can be. Read them.
Daniel Becker practiced and taught internal medicine at the University of Virginia School of Medicine from 1985-2018, when he retired. Since then, he has un-retired in dribs and drabs: covering some general medicine clinics, working at the addiction clinic, teaching medical students and residents at the Charlottesville Free Clinic and in the classroom, doing home visits. With Covid 19 his un-retirement is almost a full time job: mornings doing telephone care and afternoons meeting and planning for the “what if what if what if” pandemic resource allocation committee. After the pandemic, during the new normal, he’ll keep his promise to go fishing.