Poetry: Hamburger Surprise by Jim Daniels

Jim Daniels has produced poetry about work with singular focus for the entirety of his distinguished career. At Frontier, we also believe that work is an ever more apt poetic subject—precisely because it affects all the other subjects in a person’s life. We’re very pleased to publish this new poem of Jim’s about that most significant job: motherhood.


Hamburger Surprise

could go a long way on Empty,
and it did, coasting down the highway

to the mirage of an oasis. Even when
the guy with the milky eye told us

you can’t get there from here
we refused our right to an attorney

and carried on.


It was no surprise to see my mother opening
another can of cream of mushroom soup

while hamburger faded gray, and grease
popped in the cast-iron pan seasoned
by generations of salty language.


My father felt a bit sheepish
about eating rice. What would

Mr. Potato Head think? Rice,
and any vegetable that didn’t emerge

from a can. Even frozen veggies—
he’d claw at the frosty boxes

and sniff them in his paws, suspicious
as a polar bear with a granola bar.


Raw burger, a little blood-pond
at the bottom of the Styrofoam.
My mother had some surprises

but this wasn’t one of them.
Our lives had few surprises
as solid as the milk money beneath

six lunch bags on the counter
each morning, one firm nickel
we could trust with our lives.

She lost that last child
and never had another.

The first one, my oldest brother—
well, she had a theory

about the Disposable Child, how
it would’ve helped to have one

to practice on first.
She was 36, and did they really

want another? Did the rhythm
of the calendar drop its guard?

We could make a long list
of things never discussed

in our family, but who has time
for that with everybody

in intensive care or dying
or dead or maybe deadbeat

or floating in the grease
of that frying pan emptied

into the soup can to harden
and be thrown out?

Five kids, not counting
the stillborn one named Fred.

The name, a little secret.
My mother kept stirring

and nothing burned.



Jim Daniels

Jim Daniels’ fifteenth book of poems, Rowing Inland, was published earlier this year by Wayne State University Press. Forthcoming books include Street CalligraphySteel Toe Books, and The Middle AgesRed Mountain Press. His previous book, Birth Marks, was the recipient of the Milton Kessler Poetry Book Award, and the Poetry Gold Medal in the Independent Publisher Book Awards. His fifth book of fiction, Eight Mile High, was a Michigan Notable Book and a finalist for the Paterson Fiction Prize. “The End of Blessings,” his fourth film, appeared in sixteen film festivals in 2016. His poem “Factory Love” is displayed on the roof of a racecar. His poems have been featured on “Prairie Home Companion,” Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac,” in Billy Collins’ Poetry 180 anthologies, and Ted Kooser’s “American Life in Poetry” series. A native of Detroit, Daniels is the Thomas Stockham University Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University.

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