What Fresh Hell: On Mary-Alice Daniel’s “Mass for Shut-Ins”
By Chloe XiangAugust 4, 2023
Mass for Shut-Ins by Mary-Alice Daniel
In her debut poetry collection, Mass for Shut-Ins, the 2022 Yale Series of Younger Poets winner Mary-Alice Daniel invents her own form of church, one that is not connected to any one organized religion and is instead eager to understand and face mortality in all its inevitability. Daniel, who grew up with Christian and Islamic influences in Nigeria, the United States, and England, reveals that, despite being disillusioned with God, she continues to have a relationship with religion. Myth and superstition are fundamental to her faith.
Although Daniel only mentions the title once in the epigraph-like intro to the collection, noting that she was “baffled by the archaic nomenclature” of the original Catholic program, the use of “shut-ins,” in the context of poems filled with landscapes of hell and pervasive allusions to death, conjures up bodies shut into coffins. The poems in this collection reveal how religion and mortality walk hand in hand. While many religions describe promising afterlives, encouraging believers to let go of any fear of death, Daniel’s modern spirituality refuses any railings or cushions. In the poem “Deathcentric,” she proclaims, “Who will come along with us casually to death’s deep end? / We who know nothing of snowflakes the size of milk pans. / Let’s look forward to that feeling when the Big One stuns—”
Mass is split into six sections, each preceded by a symbol within a triangle, including the universal signs for warning, radioactivity, and flammable materials. This first section, which begins with a generic warning sign, immediately highlights Daniel’s strength in articulating a fundamental contradiction of humanity: we know we can’t control our ultimate fate (death) and yet we pursue control, or, at the very least, try to discover who is in control. These searches come in the form of spells, prayers, and the exploration of outer space.
In “Totem,” Daniel compares struggling to remove a screw in her motel room to the lack of choice we have in who we are at birth and who we become as a result of subsequent life events. “Okay, so try a spell— But realize— // You cannot un-turn what you didn’t yourself turn,” she instructs lucidly in a conversation with her past self. “I swear whoever first fixed the screw was no human,” Daniel continues, exhibiting irony and humor as she does throughout the collection. For this speaker, an ordinary motel screw conjures an unknown force or deity who dictates the unmovable conjunctions of our lives.
While the idea of fate may be universal, one’s lack of control over fate is disproportionately higher and more frequent for those who have been historically marginalized. In “Bloodroot,” Daniel describes an image of a supercell that tore a hole in a local water tower: “We shielded our heads with slavery-apologetic textbooks— / those who knew to hide under underpasses / hid under underpasses.” The use of paper to shield water is an image of fruitless protection. The documents, “slavery-apologetic textbooks,” remind us of the power that our society holds figuratively over Black Americans as false narratives of racist hierarchies are passed down as truth.
Inequality, perpetuated as a natural fact, contributes to Daniel’s growing disbelief in organized religion, which she describes in the book’s endnote: “Religious fusion and fervor long framed my life, even as I steadily turned skeptic.” In “Ode to Our Unnamed Moon,” she writes, “I run a Random Bible Verse Generator and turn scripture into policy. / Call it insurance against a God who seems to be ‘seeing how things go’.” Here, she exposes the way fate is used as an excuse for complacency, and how doing so results in generations of fatal inaction toward people who do not possess hegemonic forms of power. In Daniel’s poetry, heresy becomes a reclamation. In the section’s last poem, titled “Ill-Starred,” the speaker questions: “But what was it my mother always used to say? // Don’t whistle into the dark. You will surely draw devils here … // And what am I doing now but whistling.”
In section two, the “Anti-Noir Series,” which begins with an evil eye symbol, Daniel brings us to Los Angeles, a city that has “[t]he people of paradise and the principalities of hellfire.” Los Angeles, where “God and Evil live a mile apart,” is Daniel’s home. Here, heaven and hell coexist, and human contradiction is inextricable from human nature. Two poems from this section function as “wills,” in which the speaker instructs the reader what to do in the case of her death. In the first, titled “Indifferent Paradise,” the poem’s speaker opens with “In the likely case I die soon,” revealing a bleak perception of her lifespan. The poem plays with an indifferent tone, approaching levity, to consider a topic that is usually portrayed as tragic—“pray to Christina the Astonishing,” and “try Pio of Stress Relief,” she instructs, adding, “If when I go, I am still more a saddy than a baddy, / pester Chad of Mercia, charged to protect losers.”
Daniel’s comic self-awareness allows her to repeatedly and fearlessly speak of her own death, and poke fun at religious rituals while subverting and tailoring them to her own imagination. Because of this freedom and play, the final note of the poem, announcing that people with little power in life become numbers when they die, ends up surprising us with its gravity: “You must remember how cities become cities … / Corpses create this. Crime scenery and killing field.” The book’s third section continues on this grave note, focusing on Nigeria and the diseases that plague Daniel’s home country. In “Disease Map,” she writes, “You can reduce anything to a number and elevate any number / to a name: Pandemic at 100.”
In Daniel’s debut, religion is both detrimental and uplifting. Daniel boldly mocks religious fervor while also understanding its vitality in a community that must rely on religion as a resource to fight infection: “Welcome all to mourning—Buddhist and born again, / followers of Christ or Kali, ultra-black goddess / of Time and Life and Doomsday and Death,” Daniel writes in “For My Uncle Who Died of AIDS Contracted at the Dentist’s Office.” This litany of religious abstractions reveals that at the end of the day, regardless of our particular beliefs, we all mourn together and seek a way to reckon with our universal fate.
Mass for Shut-Ins is not just a book about what it means to face death or grieve others; it also imagines the unknowable experience of death. In section four, the speaker becomes intoxicated with Mefloquine, a medicine that is used to treat malaria with “serious psychological side effects.” From this perspective, Daniel explores a collection of dreamscapes that depict dying and passing through a radically original version of purgatory. In “Hyperreality,” we see how Daniel’s obsession with death stems in part from her role as witness to what she calls “the ancestry of Infection” and, later “Pan-African Fire.” The journey to death is made up of a list of surreal images, including one depicting that “[w]e each have a customized bacteria cloud around us at all times.”
Throughout the collection, Daniel moves back and forth between her fascination with the mystery and idea of death and the knowledge that death can strike and become real at any time. She is not afraid to contradict herself, to be afraid of her own death yet bewitched by stories of death at a distance, making for a collection that is simultaneously funny, self-reflective, and narrative. In “Recurring Nightmare,” Daniel introduces “The IKEA Effect,” which she describes as a cognitive error where we love the things we assemble, including our own dark imaginations. Looking through the necrology section of her alumni magazine, the speaker admits taking guilty pleasure in the narrative threads of crime. Sometimes it is the randomness of fate that is most alluring, as in the poem’s last lines: “Hippasus was drowned at sea for theorizing irrational numbers. / That’s seriously all it takes.”
The poems in Mass for Shut-Ins locate hell on earth, zooming away from theoretical sin and grounding us in human realities. In “Enquiry into the Location & Nature of Hell,” Daniel describes war as “our only mode of house and home.” She exposes the paradox that we fear death immensely yet are willing to kill most anything, except perhaps our inventions: “Meddlesome unicorns register / in the rare class of Things Never to Kill.” Daniels explores the way popular culture delights in bearing witness to catastrophe. We watch sci-fi movies like 2012, only to discover that they uncannily reflect our moment, or as Daniel claims in “Hell with the Lid Off,” “to prophesize death is to wish it.” Whether through an individual’s nightmares or through omnipresent media, we can’t help celebrating hell and hellish landscapes as much as we fear and resist them.
Daniel puts poetry in conversation with the Bible as naturally as she puts it in conversation with a comic book. Whether such texts are true becomes far less relevant than their common aim of creating something shareable. Storytelling, in any mode, is powerful, if not holy. In “What Fresh Hell Is This?” she writes with searing honesty: “Comics, the Bible, / this book—your primer for my coming iteration—Learn that life is a terrible wrath to pass down!” There is something that prevents the screw from being detached, Daniel argues, and nothing we can do besides dream, imagine, and confront death. The poet thus finds spirituality via her own creations.
Exploring her own life journey through a magical lens, Daniel’s tone is far from accusatory or didactic. Instead, this bold debut contributes to a reverberating zeitgeist in modern society that is rethinking organized religion. The final poem of the book features a line that reads, “Please Do Not Reincarnate,” which refers to the speaker’s disillusionment with an afterlife in all its forms. After belonging to a number of religions, practicing various forms of mysticism and spiritual rituals, Daniel vulnerably invites the reader: “Look at me to see a black rainbow of human vice.” More than anything, Mass for Shut-Ins cements Daniel’s desire to experience everything Earth offers: the sublime, the mundane, and the hellish. In savoring her one life, she refuses the curse, or promise, of another.
Chloe Xiang is a writer and photographer whose work has been published in VICE, Yahoo News, and Teen Vogue.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Victoria Chang and Dean Rader review Will Harris’s “Brother Poem” and Evie Shockley’s “Suddenly We.”
Teow Lim Goh reviews Paisley Rekdal’s “West: A Translation.”
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!