Mass for Shut-Ins Captures “Both Hell and Magic on Earth”

Mary-Alice Daniel’s debut book of poetry, Mass for Shut-Ins, warns of the hazards of modern life in a tone as delicate and haunting as a ghost story whispered over the crackle of a bonfire. It’s no wonder that Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rae Aramtrout selected it as the winner of the 2022 Yale Younger Poets Prize. Armantrout herself describes Mass for Shut-Ins as “explorations of the nature and location of hell” where “spells, demons, totems, and revivals make appearances.” Armantrout even goes so far as to call the collection “Flowers of Evil for the twenty-first century,” comparing Mary-Alice Daniel to Charles Baudelaire, the nineteenth century French poet. 

Prior to Mass for Shut-Ins, Daniel published a memoir in 2022: A Coastline Is an Immeasurable Thing, which spans her upbringing across three continents. Born in Maidiguri, Nigeria, Daniel grew up in England and the U.S. Although her tribe, Hausa-Fulani, is almost completely Muslim, she was raised Evangelical Christian. The mores of the cultures that she was steeped in are the drumbeat and counterpoint that lead us through her poetry. She contrasts African polytheism and witchcraft, Islam and Christianity, superstition and science. 

Mass for Shut-Ins — divided into five sections, each preceded by a warning symbol — alerts us to the fact that the world is a dangerous place: socially, environmentally, supernaturally, morally, biologically. Daniel’s poems remind us that we live among serial killers, cannibals and a bevy of highly contagious deadly viruses on a swiftly self-destructing, overpopulated planet, with the legacy of slavery and the daily threat of racism. In this hell on Earth, we can contract AIDS from a visit to the dentist and the prophylactic medicine for Malaria has side effects that may be as bad as Malaria itself. There’s plenty to fear. 

Daniel also reminds us, with sound and image, of the beauty and magic in the world. We live on a planet where “Moondogs appear when full-moon-light pierces ice crystals,” where holiday trees “glitter and shatter in a washpoint of starshower” and our speaker can be “a baby with a pink Lamborghini / and selfish with birthday cake.” And it’s not just constellations and spells and the Islamic call to prayer heard from the moon that hold magic. There is magic, too, in leprosy saving the speaker’s great-great-grandfather from becoming enslaved.

Similarly, Daniel’s attentiveness to rhythm and the repetition of sounds, or as Rae Armantrout calls it, “the ghost of meter” propels the poems in a way that highlights this magic. She describes that last incident (of her ancestor being removed from a slaveship) with a hiss of sibilance, the hum of the letter M, and a chugging rhythm: “They sent him home, untouchable in the sugarcane, those slavers / moonlighting as missionaries — middlemen of the Middle Passage — / We want a papaya-and-brimstone Messiah: bushman and gentleman.” The sounds are entrancing.

Whereas Daniel shines when she’s telling family stories or describing nature firsthand, the final section of the book zooms out to describe more general descriptions of hell. In her distance from specificity, her poems become less compelling. Even their titles with their not-so-subtle nod to Dr. Seuss, come across as list-like: “One Hell,” “Two Hell,” “Red Hell” and “Blue Hell.” These poems are muted in comparison to the sorcery she spins earlier in the book. 

All in all, though, Mass for Shut-Ins is a satisfying read. Daniel manages to capture both hell and magic on Earth with her stark realism and enchanting use of sound.  

Mass for Shut-Ins
By Mary-Alice Daniel
Yale University Press
Published March 21, 2023