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Where the World is Made

These poems reveal a quest for transcendence with a strong theological impulse, though without appeal to dogma. Centered in the world of human relationships, particularly childhood and family, Daniel Tobin's poems exhibit both lyric and narrative intensity, and are distinguished by their descriptive clarity, formal dexterity, and musical complexity. His is a poetry as passionate in its intelligence as it is in its emotions.

"Packed with articulate, sensitive, accessible poems that speak, in part, from his Catholic heritage . . . His poems resemble vignettes or short stories, each creating a unique image and placing the reader squarely in that image, in that vision, while never verging toward prose or pedantry . . . Tobin's world is, indeed, made of the marvels and of the terror. Recommended." —Library Journal

Co-winner of the 1998 Bakeless Literary Publication Prize for Poetry.


"Bist du Jude? Bist du Jude?" the SS
officer repeated, like a schoolteacher
menacing a slow pupil, the camp for POWs
a train ride from Dachau. "Nicht Jude,"
my uncle told him: "I'm not a Jew,"
his whole body braced while the cold eyes
probed the face of the watch he bought
on Hester Street before the war,
the jeweler's name still etched on the case
behind the steadily turning hands.

Christmas, my eleventh year, a quarter century later,
I watched his unbroken body
ease into the big Queen Anne chair
in my parents' house, the family crowded round,
the creche a tattered barracks under the tree.
He told how his captor twisted the watch
once around his finger,
then tossed it lightly in his lap,
an act, I know now, of unbounded mercy,
given Himmler's boast—"I say who is a Jew."

That was the year of the other impossibilities:
men walking on the moon, my team winning the pennant,
the bishop's question weighing on me like a threat
before my Confirmation. Come Easter,
the tall nun would enter the classroom,
black gown trailing to her nobbled shoes,
her face framed like a mask
inside the peaked hood, and fire another:
"Who of you would give yourselves as ransom
for the rest if the Nazis came here now?"

No one answered, regimented behind our desks.
but I heard my friends' jeers of "Christ-killer" explode
from the schoolyard to the synagogue across the street,
The nuns' veiled slurs, the neighbors' brusque "Cheap as a Jew,"
and saw myself a little Jew-Christ marched alone
to the gas chamber—Christ of the ashen-haired comforter,
Christ of the lampshade—forgetting that God
is no hero, but a child for whom others are killed,
so my uncle's watch could tick on his unslashed wrist
in time without end and without redemption.


It's impossible to say why he keeps coming back,
so out of place in his consul's robes
torn and moth-eaten through centuries
of wandering what he called "this dull earth"—
tired old statesman, so far
from the burnish of eternal forms.
Now, like a lost boy stumbling on
an insistent path through some thick wood
he wakes to low moans, the beacon
of a television dazing the ward.
Here again are prisons where a man sits
in stained pajamas, cheeks sunken, spittle
glazing his stubbled chin; where a woman,
brain blighted like a walnut from within,
her housedress shredded by manic fingers,
stares as through the bars of her name.
The tube's glow throws a patina on their faces,
on the face of this philosopher who witnesses,
via satellite, the over throw of the Good
in the fate of newsworthy refugees,
and the newest Goth mugs for the camera,
pats the head of the young hostage
whose parents, half a continent away,
must accept the sham as consolation….
Pride, honor, power, fame, sweet husk
of the body: for him every desire
withers to chaff in the mind's vise.
"To be anything but what I am"—a crab
scuttling through primeval muck; a wolf
tearing at its prey; an earthworm, slow angel,
bearing the stunned flesh to resurrection.
"Divine Sophia, my physician, you who see
beginning and end, who judge why the fortunes
of evil men flourish like gardens nourished
on richest loam, wipe this cloud of mortal things
from my eyes." And once again, as long ago,
a pear tree blazes up at him, the wind
already alive with the scent of fruit
to be gathered, of the fruit that will fall.