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Down the rocky bluffs, ghost horn comes wailing
onto the floodplain, steel-blue scissoring
of one note through Madison and St. Clair
counties, through factory cutbacks and closings,
refineries and strip clubs needing paint,
brick walls of meatpacking plants caving in,
scattered machines, rail cars, no-trespass signs bent back,
scrub bushes up through asphalt making temples
of rusting abandonments. Sign of life
hanging outside a shack. CHICKEN IN A BOX
AND MUCH MUCH MORE.
Somewhere a shelf of labeled containers
containing formalin and bits of flesh.
Somewhere a book waterlogs in a tub
while three-personed cells batter a body.
Aggressive. Invasive. Metastatic.
Somewhere a container labeled right breast
flanked by four others. Lymph node, sentinel
one. Sentinel two. Axillary tail. Breast skin.
Somewhere Overpass Girl bruises, blows, burns.
Somewhere retreats. Somewhere folds in. Somewhere
enthralled, ravished, betrothed.
Field and Stream
-four curtal sonnets for BBD
It was a field my father was a field
my father my fall and summer ball field
this highway north a long winter field
splitting empty corn field bean field corn field
his shoulders and steering wheel a front field
his cousin riding shotgun a side field
Ten years old and half the back seat my field
beagle dog Duke the car trunk his closed field
unlatched at the old barn to rabbit field
my .410 my holiday proving field
It was a long field
It was a stream I was a stream running
fast as piss a piss of a boy shell packed
with shot and snot nosed boy spray my shotgun
pointed at the clump of grass there see it
a rabbit see it balled up fur its eye
dark right there hot twitching I couldn't see
mine was a hot stream of sight running wrong-
eye dominant across the gun barrel
instead of down it to that hot dark eye
I pulled that trigger pow it was a stream
It was a hot stream
The rabbit a field my father a field
and I was a field of vision rushing
the banks wrong-eyed streaming my shot a click
bang that switched field to stream was spray was meat
was blood of that rabbit splattering us
you should have said he said we can't eat that
1964 and a .410 mine
my father wiping the blood from his face
from the barrel and stock of his 12 gauge
my field of study his hand on my head
The field is a stream
What's holiday is heavy and heavy is hard
and hard is hot and hot is time and hot
in time his barrel up and stopping time
he had a head not a hot head a cool
big boss bald head turning laughing pointing
and the wide car stayed in the lines
What's holiday is father and shotgun
is hard cold ground is .410 and 12 gauge
is air thick with breath with time with walking
is metal smoke is necessary form
The barrel is a long field.
The Sestina Has Been Sinking
Sestina, tonight's the night I push you off the overpass.
I'm done with your six kinds of hell. Your demanding sky,
your French complications, your clouds in my happy wagon,
your forty-two words for rain, your pearl-handled gun,
this concrete and asphalt that leap-frogs the low ground
locals call the Bottom, dirt cursed with industry and blood.
I'm done with your sixes and sevens, the pressure of blood
at the thirty-nine sutures pinning us to this long overpass
you keep calling me to, far above the patchy ground
that only we who grew up here could think deserves a sky,
any sky, even this one with its petro stink. I too have a gun,
this twelve-gauge I'm pulling loaded from my buckshot wagon.
May your pieces make a smart pattern. May the dead wagon
carry a vacuum and glue. If there are forty-two words for hell,
I expect thirty-nine of them to be you. You need a real gun,
Sestina, my dirt under your nails, the rough of this overpass
for texture, the heft of a gunite hose shooting two-up at the sky
to make a holy road for rich pilgrims heading for better ground,
which means rolling or manicured or ode-worthy, any ground
but this petro dirt you call me back to with talk of the wagon
that will save you. I'd do the Crazy Wing through a bad sky
if I thought I had anything new for you and your stale blood,
your long form, the way your returns wrap this overpass,
Sestina, in the same old sixes and sevens. Better someone gun
you down than endure one more round of blanks from the gun
you pull from your obvious garter. Better the hard ground
meet you falling than I waste my love from this overpass
on your history, the stretch marks you earned on the art wagon.
Bottom needs steel, slaughterhouses, freight trains bringing blood
and thump of flesh on flesh to make its rough song, one part sky
to five parts slag and spill, glorious smokestacks praising the sky,
canals, and river, a round of voices joining as I lift my shotgun
and new ashes settle all over this Bottom I love like blood.
Time for us to go, Sestina, double-pumped to sky and ground,
me to open fields, where I'll whistle past the dead wagon,
and you to your forty-two words for life after overpass.
We promise to curse the sky. We deliver our ends to the ground.
We're loaded on the meat wagon. We love the noise of the gun.
Here is the blood we love. Here is where we leave the overpass.
BIO: Steve Davenport is the author of two poetry collections: Overpass (Arsenic Lobster/Misty Publications, 2012) and Uncontainable Noise (Pavement Saw Press, 2006). His poems, stories, and essays have been anthologized, reprinted, and published in scores of literary magazines both on-line and in print. A story in The Southern Review received a 2011 Pushcart Prize Special Mention. His Murder on Gasoline Lake, published in Black Warrior Review and later as a chapbook by New American Press, is listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2007. He has a website: Collected Works of Gasoline Lake.
An Interview with Steve Davenport by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: What's going on with these titles? Almost all of them are titled after magazines...
Steve Davenport: I like what Kathleen Kirk has to say in her review at Prick of the Spindle: "As it happened, I was reading Overpass, by Steve Davenport, in the waiting room of a doctor's office, which turned out to be exactly the right place to read it. The first three poems I read were titled after magazines I might find there. . . . Alas, the reason to be in doctors' waiting rooms in Overpass is to attend the appointments and surgeries of ‘Overpass Girl,' who is being treated for breast cancer and to whom the book is dedicated." In fact, though I wasn't articulating it to myself that way at the time, I was writing those poems in a waiting room.
AMK: Talk to us about the forms of these poems from your second book, Overpass. In your first book, Uncontainable Noise, you use a form you called "yodel sonnets," which are 100-lines long, as well as more traditional 14-line sonnets, some of which we featured at http://www.poemoftheweek.org/id319.html.
Almost every poem in Overpass is in the form of what you call "curtal or curtailed sonnets" in the back of the book: a sextet followed by a quatrain followed by a single-line stanza (is there a name for a single-line stanza by the way??).
How can you call these sonnets? What is it that attracts you to this form so frequently in the book.
SD: Ah yes, the yodel sonnets, both the standard 14-line versions (each line packed with 12 syllables) threatening to explode both thematically and formally. And the 100-line sonnets. Extensions of that idea. Rupture and rapture. Voice breaks pushing the form. Gerard Manley Hopkins' Terrible Sonnets were a strong influence. We talk about all of that in the first Poem of the Week interview.
In Overpass I begin with a form attributed to Hopkins, the curtal sonnet. Curtal as in curtailed. Hopkins' curtailment is 75% of a 14-line sonnet. 10.5 lines. As in Uncontainable Noise, I set out to write a handful of poems in a specific form and one thing led to another. I love what Emily Dickinson does with space and I feel a kinship with Elizabeth Bishop in poems like "One Art. So it felt natural when I discovered the curtal sonnet. I knew immediately I wanted to go shorter than a sonnet. I wanted to see what I could do in an even tighter space. The yodel sonnet's 12-syllable line became the curtal's 10-syllable line, and 14 lines become 10.5, the final half-line a visual and syllabic reduction that might underscore the power of curtailment.
AMK: There are a few variations of form in the book. In "Field and Stream," you use a sequence of this form, "The Sestina is Sinking my Ship" is a sestina, and a number of other forms appear in the latter pages of the book. Why?
SD: A couple of the poems, "Field and Stream" and "True Confessions," are compound curtal sonnets. That is, they're each a curtal-sonnet sequence and therefore, as in "Shore Song in Cinq Cinquain" (a cinquain I multiply), they constitute a stretching of the form. It's in the Sinking, Drinking, and Thinking sestinas where, I think, I do the work of the 100-line sonnets and push the form most fully. I stay true to the number of lines, but I play with the end-line rhymes that are key to the form. In the Sinking sestina, I destabilize the form with "blood," replacing it once with "hell" and shifting its position a tiny bit in the last half-stanza. In the Drinking sestina, I alter at one time or another four of the six end-line rhymes to suggest inebriation or instability. The form, like Overpass Girl's body, is at risk. The final and most brutal of the sestinas, the Thinking one, obsesses over the six words, destabilizing all of them, and makes the removal of a last breast (or "tit" as it's called in the poem five times) the focus. Sestina and Overpass Girl are one and the same at this point. The bodies of both are at stake. These are the things I see when I reread the poems.
AMK: Overpass is, at its heart, a book about the Illinois Floodplain you grew up on near St. Louis as well as a breast cancer victim named the "Overpass Girl." Both this setting and character figure largely in these poems but are always discussed from the side; you rarely address or discuss them directly; rather, you utilize a more lyrical approach via which we receive fragments of these figures but never a complete picture. What's up with that? Why avoid straight narrative so fiercely?
SD: I addressed damage to and on the floodplain (AKA American Bottom) directly in essay form in Murder on Gasoline Lake, originally published in Black Warrior Review and later as a chapbook by New American Press. In between those two publishing events it got itself listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2007. Around this time I was already beginning to make poems of the floodplain, curtalizing, if you will, material from Gasoline Lake. And then the cancer-witness work began and took the early form of a highly fragmented essay, "Bomb Fragments 12.11.07," I read at the Hyde Park Center in Chicago for Series A, a podcast of which is still available via WBEZ-FM on the internet. In that essay, I addressed damage underway in Overpass Girl's body and said I would fight cancer with spit balls, with words, with poems. The curtal sonnets became my spit balls. A year after the Series A broadcast on WBEZ-FM, I was asked for an essay by the then editor of the now-defunct Northwest Review. I was already writing the Overpass poems, the spit balls, and wondered how the cancer material might work in a less fragmented form. You can decide for yourself how it worked by feeding some combination of my name, Northwest Review, and "No Apology for Happiness" into a search engine. You can find a copy of it on-line. Why does Overpass, as you say, "avoid straight narrative so fiercely"? If it lacks the long, straight address it might receive in prose form, I suppose that's the nature of a collection of short poems. Or spit balls, which do their best work via odd, sneaky angles.
AMK: I love the language of "Good Housekeeping" and "Entertainment Weekly." They not only wonderfully describe the subjects of your gaze
(the Illinois Floodplain and the mutative affects of cancer) but do so in a way that transmutes the feelings and sensations associated with those subjects. Is this sort of lyricism, is this approach to subject matter what draws you to poetry, what makes poetry uniquely different than fiction?
SD: Don't most attempts at defining poetry and fiction against each other fail? I publish quite a bit of fiction and I've been teaching literature and writing for years. I admit to making the following distinction in the classroom: "The most important page in fiction is the next page. The most important page in poetry is the page you're on." No matter what I write, I want it both ways. I want you to stay in one of my poems even as you want to read another. I want you to want to know what happens next in one of my stories but to be slowed by passages you want to roll around in, read aloud to someone.
AMK: Why the sections in "Field and Stream"? Why no punctuation? How did you arrive at this form for the poem? Are you at all concerned that all the repetition might irk some readers? How much do you worry about your readers in the first place?
SD: Do we ever remember, as writers writing, why we did certain things? In answering, we're writers reading, albeit our own work. Why no punctuation? And why the sections? I wanted the four curtal sonnets that make up the poem to look like fields, and I employed no punctuation to make each section flow like a stream of words. As for the repetition, farm land as experienced from a car on a two-lane Illinois highway, where I grew up and where I live now, is corn field corn field bean field bean field corn field. And there's the shotgun shell at the heart of the poem. Steel shot is its own kind of perfect repetition. Father-son relationships are sets of experiences that are repetitive. Plus, I wanted the poem to be fast to suggest the speed of a stream or a car or a shotgun trigger click bang. I think about the reader, whose participation I need, but often the music that evolves in a poem as well as the ways in which form and content tuck into each other take over and make demands. That's the reader in me answering. The writer in me says he doesn't remember.
AMK: How did it come to you to write a sestina TO the form of the sestina itself in "The Sestina Has Been Sinking"?
SD: I address form directly in all three of the sestinas in Overpass. In "The Sestina Has Been Sinking," I express frustration with the form, its tight-ass sixes and sevens, its predictable thirty-nine sutures (or lines), and yes, I threaten Sestina with a shotgun, with death, if she won't do something to save herself. I charge her with stale blood stale and old skin. I threaten to use my rough hands, my poet hands, to make her (to scrape and shape her) as real, as gritty as the Bottom land I've relocated her to. Rough language is part of it. In "The Sestina Has Been Drinking," I do my playful Tom Waits' best to liquor up the nearly dead form (easy to make one, hard to make a good one) and, in so doing, declare my love (yes, via the old Herb Alpert lyric "this guy's in love with you," in part because it was popular when the woman who's the inspiration for Overpass Girl and I were growing up). By the time we get to "The Sestina Has Been Thinking," arguably the most brutal poem in the book, Sestina has become synonymous with Overpass Girl, the book's central figure of damage, and I'm working as hard as I can to save her as a witness, as a poet. Just as O.G. has lost a breast to metastatic cancer, she is about to lose the other and the nights are long with pain and waiting, pills and liquor her medicine, stirred with my "six words or lines or shots repeating shit." I bend the six words, show the ultimate respect for form by risking showing none at all: "Rough as the moon,/ my hands twist Shot to Shoot to Shit, Six to Sick to Sink,/ beat Bell back to Bowl, Neat to Night, knock Blue to Blow." Sestina becomes, in this rendition, as rough as she needs to be to make it on the Bottom, to survive another cancer night.
AMK: "The Sestina Has Been Sinking," as well as much of your work in general, is a rather violent poem. The voice/tone of the poem is rather gruff and working class and images of guns and dirt and blood appear time and time again. Where does all this strife, all this poverty and violence come from? While I realize you grew up poor, you're now Associate Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Why dwell in the floodplain? Why not write about the academic life or iPhones or travel?
SD: First, I've never been poor. My father, protected by a union, worked steadily as a pipefitter at a Shell Oil plant. My mother was an R.N., who could always find work if we needed it. For a few years we owned a corner grocery store and reaped the economic benefits of that added income. And so on. Still, I was the oldest of four and therefore the one who most fully felt the early pinch and understood the landscape of the Bottom as rough and the aesthetic I grew up in as working-class. Is that synonymous with "poverty"? No. Is there "strife"? Sure, for some, for many folks at different points in their lives, their weeks and days. As I write elsewhere, the landscape in Overpass is a largely depressed industrial area across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. American Bottom runs from Alton down past East St. Louis. As is true in many places around the world, folks need work. Too often settling for scraps is the only deal on the table. That doesn't mean they're without dignity or complexity, those with and without iPhones, those with and without jobs, those who stay and those who go. It doesn't mean they live in poverty or they're without hope. It means they're alive and insisting on staying that way for as long as the clock will let them.
Where does my preoccupation with "violence" or the "violence" in my poetry come from? Life. Birth. It begins there. I've watched four daughters being born. Though each delivery was successful, birth is an inherently violent act. In both of my books, Uncontainable Noise and Overpass, I write about the body under pressure. If you want some joy, go back to Uncontainable Noise. There you'll find real, explosive joy ("rupture and rapture," as I explain in the first interview I did with you). The second time around, in Overpass, I take on multiple forms of damage in a particular location. I take on cancer. I settle for scraps. Like scrub bushes through asphalt, I insist on life in spite of the odds.
Steve Davenport's Overpass Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, first published at Prick of the Spindle
As it happened, I was reading Overpass, by Steve Davenport, in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, which turned out to be exactly the right place to read it. The first three poems I read were titled after magazines I might find there—Entertainment Weekly, Good Housekeeping, Consumer Reports, and then I flipped through the pages and looked back at the table of contents, and, indeed, that was what was going on, and I could look forward to Rolling Stone, Field and Stream, Better Living, and even the Journal of Speculative Philosophy. Alas, the reason to be in doctors’ waiting rooms in Overpass is to attend the appointments and surgeries of “Overpass Girl,” who is being treated for breast cancer and to whom the book is dedicated.
So it’s a devastating collection, full of terror and wild humor, anger, and song, and echoes of T.S. Eliot (“etherized and spread out / on a white table”), Wallace Stevens (“a palm at the end of an arm”), and Tom Waits: “The Sestina Has Been Drinking.” And “…Sinking.” And “…Thinking.” Davenport takes it on, love and grief, shared suffering, the blues, and connects the personal story of Overpass Girl to changes and losses along the floodplain of the Mississippi River, the Bottomland “cupped by bluffs,” compromised by “factory closings” and “rusting abandonments,” and birthplace of the great jazz musician Miles Davis. But, as Davenport wails in “Rolling Stone,” “Bottom was never saved by a song.”
Here’s a gorgeous, scary sample of the beauty in these poems, the hard edges, the technical knowledge, the flat statement of what is, with a title that, like so many of the magazine titles, also mocks what is, what humans have to suffer:
Once again she becomes as clouds veiling
the fucking moon. She’s mutability
on display. Life principle #1.
She floats there, twenty-one bruises, waiting
until it’s light and she descends, veins
opening and singing anemia,
bird song of her bone marrow biopsy.
This poem goes on to give the patient, and us, a “long, hollow” needle “for twisting, crunching into, rotating / out an answer 2mm wide, // 2cm long.” The lines are excruciatingly sensory, digging into the heart of our bones, as well as hers, and coming up with too small an answer and not the one we want.
Dark as these poems are, they are also full of word play and plenty of fun. They conquer the fear of death and pain with joy and rhyme. The repetitions in a villanelle can be a kind of morphine. The struggle to organize a sestina can be a welcome pain in the ass: “Sestina, tonight’s the night I push you off the overpass.” And most of the poems are curtal sonnets, shrunken (or “curtailed”) to eleven lines, and ending with a half-line and often with a bang, not a whimper.
This is a fine book of steady lamentation and healthy cursing. It makes me question human geography, why we stay in a place with a Gasoline Lake and a Dead Creek, both part of the desired economic stream. “American Girl” begins, “I love the Bottom like I love a song / about trouble and people staying put / despite the spills that pool under their feet.” (And make them sick.) And “American Boy” begins, “Smile. Spills happen.” And ends, “This song’s // trying to look up.” This book’s trying to make the best of it.