ARTS . Art

Heaven’s Gates

David Daniels carves a path to paradise with his shapely poems.


Published: Sep 4, 2007

“The The The The The Before We Get to Know Each Other Let Me Give You the Low Down Gate,” by David Daniels

David Daniels always knew art would be his life’s work, but he had a hard time choosing between his two favorite media. “When I was painting I wanted to be writing,” he recalls, “and when I was writing I wanted to be painting.” It didn’t seem right to forsake one for the other, so he chose to work in both media — at the same time.

For the past 60 years, the Newark, N.J.-born painter and poet has been manipulating fonts, line length and word arrangement to mold his picture-poems (or technopaegnia, as his inspirational Greek predecessors would have called them) into shapes that mirror or complement his subject matter, including kitchen appliances, architectural forms, foodstuffs, monsters and male and female genitalia. These poems are meant to be looked at as well as read, and while they were originally compiled into books or published online, they could just as easily be hung on a gallery wall.

This Tuesday at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House, they will be. “Stars Shine Bright on Shatter Light” features a sampling of 22 visual poems from The Gates of Paradise, Daniels’ second and most ambitious book to date. The book features over 350 poems, each of which serves as a single “gate” in Daniels’ personal mythology. But with titles like “The What is the Pearl Washed Up on the Shore of the Ocean of Being Gate” and “The Transformation of a Nuclear Physicist into a Wormhole Gate,” where these gates might lead, or what they depart from, is not always clear. Daniels’ paradise seems to be as varied and convoluted as the inner constellations of his mind, and his gates are often cluttered with demons both modern (rampant consumerism, New York professionals) and mythical (griffins, dragons).


Apparently, the path to paradise is not without its obstacles. The image of the gate, he says, is a symbol of the entrance into the mind; the search for the “true inner self” that, he feels, most people have lost. But to get there, Daniels has to wade through a lot of false fixes. “People have this myth that they’re missing something,” says Daniels, “but what they’re really missing is themselves.” The true paradise, he argues, “is inside a person, not outside at all.”

Daniels has no illusions about the contents of most people’s minds, though, and his gates are far from pearly. Many, like “The Vegetarian Pacifist Who Got So Angry at Meat He Punched His Penis into a Middle Kingdom Egyptian Column Shaped Celery Stalk Gate,” are dripping with satire, multilingual puns and nonsense words, and few escape his delightfully bizarre sense of humor.

Although the 73-year-old Daniels claims to be “very out of date” (“I don’t like much modern poetry,” he admits), his work is startlingly contemporary. He may have a degree from the University of Chicago, but given his isolation in the classics — he lists Milton, Shakespeare and Homer among his influences — the Berkeley, Calif., resident could almost be called an outsider artist, approaching contemporary poetry with the cultivated detachment of a traditionalist.

The exhibit, curated by University of Pennsylvania sophomore Kaegan Sparks, opens with the first gate in the book: “The The The The The Before We Get to Know Each Other Let Me Give You the Low Down Gate.” Here we are presented with a winged monster of uncertain origin, who wears a circular mock-halo comprised of the words “dinner plate.” Through the suggested creaking of the opening gates (the words “Clink” and “Clank” are interspersed throughout the poem), Daniels calls on us to go beyond the surface of the poem, through the gate, “in back of this white page rack,” to find its true meaning.

Daniels spent 12 years writing The Gates of Paradise, which he finished in 2000. During that time, he says, he never threw anything away: All of his poems made the cut. “Stars Shine Bright on Shatter Light,” which takes its title from a line that reappears at the end of most of the poems, offers a revealing glimpse of the artistic and emotional range of this work, as Daniels’ poems shift from biting sarcasm to joyful revelation. And with a mix master and a wet and dry floor vacuum thrown into the picture, these poems trace an eclectic path to paradise.


“Stars Shine Bright on Shatter Light,” opening reception Tue., Sept. 11, 7 p.m., exhibit runs through Oct. 18, Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, 215-573-9748,



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