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For the Thoreaus Among Us:
Todd Davis’s In the Kingdom of the Ditch
Brett Foster

Early in his fourth poetry collection, Todd Davis explores the question of our relationship to the world and our interdependence with it, a giving and getting. Despite our capacities for naming (symbolized by the botanist Linnaeus in the opening poem “Taxonomy”), we merely give back names after the world names us. In this collection, dedicated to his father’s memory, Davis implies the ways our physical lives both limit us and define what are later called “these transitory days.” There may come a health, a wisdom maybe, from confronting this humbling fact: “our way is one / of unknowing,” that first poem declares. This relationship assumes artistic dimensions in the next poem, where the world gives Georgia O’Keeffe something, and she gives something back. This also describes Davis’s book-long project well: how do we make something from our inheritances and losses? Or at least, how do we make peace with them? In the finely observed wooded settings of Davis’s poetry, the world is quite garrulous: “stream talks on and on,” one poem says, much like those “tongues in trees, brooks in the running brooks” of Arden Forest in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. If one can infer its message, one may even find in nature a “gospel of beauty.” Frequently, Davis is a worthy listener.

book coverThe world he tracks (in the Alleghenies for instance; Davis resides in central Pennsylvania) presents fruitfulness in the midst of decay, life and death nearly paired: dark fruit turns sweeter as the vine withers, or a coyote watches from the bush as a doe births a fawn. “Bees have made honey under the ribs of the dead,” begins one poem. That tension exists in the human realm as well, and several poems here provide elegiac scores to the “­mortal-song the body sings,” most memorably in their treatment of a father’s dying. One poem describes him in a hospice bed. The days when he could eat “seems like a hundred years ago,” and the exploring speaker surrounds him with our human options in the context of suffering, a grandmother’s assurance in angels, the morphine pump kicking in every ten minutes. Poems with this subject are not without surprises, or even displays of humor: in “What I Told My Sons after My Father Died,” the speaker wishes for another mode of comfort rather than explanation or even poetry—“If I could play three notes / upon the fiddle, I’d do that instead”—while another broods in the key of Tom and Jerry: “How odd it seems that happiness / can skitter away into the small door along the baseboard / of the body, like a cartoon cat chasing a cartoon mouse.”

Davis concentrates the paradox of existence in a memorable image of light and dark: “Deerberry hangs its pitch / black fruit like lanterns / carrying bits of night / into daylight.” Readers of Chinese poetry will find much that is admirable in this poetry, whose sensory sensitivities reflect the author’s hunting experiences. And those Chinese poets clearly influence him (one title mentions Li Po). Attention to the power of spare images prevails:

After the first snow
the tallest stalks of goldenrod
bed down in the far field.

Elsewhere, saws bring down trees “restlessly like hummingbirds among the honeysuckle,” and “Heliotropic” begins, “In the evening light the dove’s undersides / look yellow[.]” Noticeably lengthy titles and anniversary poems also mark this Chinese influence, as does a penchant for reflection: “At 44 I’m not sure if I’m halfway to my death. / How many of us know what’s coming when the first / heavy snow starts down?”

Davis devotes the middle of this book’s three sections to a series of poems from Thoreau’s point of view, ranging from a praising psalm to a poem about emptying a bedpan. This conscious shift in focus is welcomed when it comes, but more welcomed is the way that this naturalist poet values throughout the book, in Thoreauvian spirit, those places where daily life meets natural surroundings. The signs are many, literal or imaginative: two bucks who rub antlers on the slats of a deck railing, or an adolescent son who like a pine snake “leaves behind / the skin / of his former / self.” In a few poems, the woods’ dark is happily left behind for the warmer comforts of home and family: a spouse is seen from outside, moving in the window’s light, or bedside moonlight traces the curve of her back. Overall, Davis’s sustained vision here is one to make proud those thoughtful, independent Thoreaus still among us:

These are the beautiful deaths
of usefulness. Imagine your life
taken to feed another, your very
being consumed in the belly’s
furnace, awaking to heavy
wing-beat as you fly above
the tallest spruce.

 

Brett Foster is the author of two poetry collections, The Garbage Eater (Triquarterly/Northwestern University Press, 2011) and Fall Run Road (Finishing Line Press, 2012), which was awarded Finishing Line Press’s Open Chapbook Award in 2011. He teaches Renaissance literature and creative writing at Wheaton College.

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