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Last of December
Cottonwood flames, cherry parallels fire—
out of the crack and hinge, quiet whistle
over the grate: a comfort to know the dead sing
even as they pass into the new year.
And the Dead Shall Be Raised Incorruptible
Everything shines from the inside out—
not like the blaze of the sun, but like
the moon, as if each of us had swallowed
a piece of it. Our flesh opaque, milky,
indefinite—the way you see the world
when cataracts skim your vision.
What so many mistake as imperfection—
bulge of varicose, fatty tumor’s bump—
is simply another way for the light to get out,
to illuminate the body as it rises.
We’re caught up all the time, but none of us
should fly away yet. It’s in the darkness
when your feet knock dew from leaves
of grass, when your hand pushes out
against the coffin’s lid. Just wait.
You’ll see we had it right all along,
that the only corruption comes
in not loving this life enough.
A Memory of Heaven
Ice is talking; water dreaming.
Overhead darkness pinched by starlight.
Below, in the mud of the world, turtle sleeps:
everything fluid, formless without the light
of a lantern. I must remember snow
is enough to see by, and ice will tell us
where we should step. At the end
of the valley limestone swallows water,
moon turns the trees blue, and red
crossbills look for seed among hemlocks.
Beneath the fields, water is talking
in its sleep; ice quiets its dreams.
What I write is always what comes after.
-from The Least of These
BIO: Todd Davis is the author of four full-length collections of poetry—In the Kingdom of the Ditch (2013), The Least of These (2010), Some Heaven (2007), and Ripe (2002)—as well as of a limited edition chapbook, Household of Water, Moon, and Snow: The Thoreau Poems (2010). He edited the nonfiction collection, Fast Break to Line Break: Poets on the Art of Basketball (2012), and co-edited Making Poems: 40 Poems with Commentary by the Poets (2010).
Davis’s poetry has been featured on the radio by Garrison Keillor on “The Writer’s Almanac” and by Ted Kooser in his syndicated newspaper column “American Life in Poetry.” His poems have won the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize, have been nominated several times for the Pushcart Prize, and have appeared in such journals and magazines as Indiana Review, Gettysburg Review, Shenandoah, Image, Ecotone, Orion, West Branch, River Styx, Quarterly West, Green Mountains Review, Sou’wester, and Poetry East. He teaches creative writing, American literature, and environmental studies at Penn State University’s Altoona College.
An Interview with Todd Davis by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: "Last of December is a wonderfully economic poem, covering so much ground in a mere thirty words arranged in four, fragmentary lines. Your third collection of poetry, The Least of These, is prefaced with this poem. Why open this way? Is it a tone-setter, an artistic statement, or simply what you felt was the best piece to start with?
Todd Davis: I suppose I'll choose the last option to begin with: "Last of December" seemed like the best poem to start this particular book. But the reason I chose to start with this fragment-(and it was a fragment in a notebook that I realized quite late in the process was functioning as a poem)-is because it encompasses both a beginning and an end, a celebration of life in the singing even as we are at all times dying. This is a theme that runs through all of my work, but especially so in The Least of These. We are always perishing, one moment closer to our own deaths. But the question for me given this fact is: How can we celebrate the moment we find ourselves in and what becomes of our living matter, our very energy in our dying? I suppose I'm in love with the idea that the material of my life-the cells and blood and bone-will be transformed into something else, as will everything we observe.
AMK: I love how "Last of December" unfolds as a series of sentence fragments linked via punctuation: "Cottonwood flames, cherry parallels fire-" being the first; "out of the crack and hinge, quiet whistle / over the grate," the second; and "a comfort to know the dead sing / even as they pass into the new year," the third. These fragments bring another layer of meaning to the poem that otherwise wouldn't be there: that life is, in fact, fragmentary, often cut short or thrust into the world before it is truly prepared. Was this "layering" via syntax your intention, or is it one of the many natural side-effects of utilizing economy?
TD: Like so much of poem-making, the original lines scribbled in my notebook occurred organically, without forethought or conscious consideration of aesthetic devices. But as the fragment from the notebook began to take shape as a poem, as I began to trust that it could stand on its own, the layering you note became part of the very self-conscious work of revision.
AMK: Poets are always going on about how important economy is, but I don't know that I've ever gotten it straight. Is economy something we're supposed to observe in the line or in the poem overall?
TD: I do like economy and compression in poetry. It's one of the reasons I'm drawn to this form of art, one of the reasons I revere many of the classical Chinese poets like Han Shan, Tu Fu, Wang Wei, and Po Chü-i. But I don't worry over economy. There are certain poems of mine where the line spreads across the page, where narrative and character are thick. If that's what the poem demands, so be it. But I do marvel when other poets compress and compress the snow pack of their verse until they have an entire glacier distilled to five lines and less than 40 words.
To be fair to your question, however, I think we can observe compression both in the line and in the poem overall. I am drawn to certain poems that use radically short lineation to great effect.
AMK: What about word choice? There are some wonderful ones in "Last of December." Cottonwood, parallels, crack, hinge, whistle, grate, sing, and pass are particularly well-chosen words for their embodiment of winter. They conjure up images and sensations of cold weather and flames
within fire places and the meditative mind that seems more open in that time of year...
TD: I think most poets are in love with words. While I'm a writer who uses language like a piece of clear glass so the reader may look through the words to the world I am describing and, in a sense, creating, I certainly understand and appreciate those writers who use language like a piece of stained-glass, as something to be marveled at for its very "language-ness." When I'm writing I often spend time pouring over dictionaries and books that offer words for the things of this world, for the actions we must perform in this visible, visceral landscape we find ourselves in. I'm the happiest as a writer when I can find language that conjures images and sensations-the world we see through the pane of clear glass-yet at the same time highlights the beauty of language as a thing in and of itself.
AMK: I can imagine you sitting down before a fire to read or write and writing this poem in one go. I can also imagine it being part of a longer poem or being an excised collection of lines from a number of poems. Then again, this could easily have been one of those poems you spent years on. Do you mind telling us about how this poem came to be and how it eventually arrived in its final form?
TD: I must admit I can't remember how some of my poems come to be written; in fact, there are a few that I really shake my head at, wishing I could conjure whatever allowed the poem to come to fruition. But I suppose that's a rarity. Most poems are a matter of slow, daily work for me, an accretion of the time I've spent at the desk. However, I do remember writing "The Last of December." My parents' home in central Indiana sits on about 10 acres of woods, part of which is in a floodplain. Cottonwood, cherry, elm, ash, tulip poplar, and hedge apple (also called Osage orange) are some of the common species on the property. My father takes down dead or diseased trees and uses the wood to heat their house. Their fire place is made out of fieldstone and has a broad mouth. When I'm visiting in the cold months it's nice to feed the fire, to watch the flames envelop the piece of wood, to witness its transformation into something else, its body and energy talking, even singing-I mean this literally. Have you ever heard certain wood-and at times this has to do with its moisture content or how porous or dense its fibers are-begin to whine, offering an aria of sorts?
Several years ago I was visiting my parents on the last of December, and the fire was particularly beautiful. The colors of the flame and the coals. The whistling of the wood. The breathing in of the fire place and the sound of its exhalation through the hinges and cracks of its doors. I didn't want this moment to be lost. Much like a painter I set out to frame this moment, to capture it as best I could in words. Needless to say, at the time I had no idea how it would work with the other poems I was drafting, nor would I have expected it to become the opening poem for my third book. I thought of it as a modest sketch, a brief watercolor that could take me back, if only through my imagination, to that time and place.
AMK: "And the Dead Shall Be Raised Incorruptible" opens with a statement and proceeds from there in much the same way. In poetry, it seems to me that statements are almost taken as a matter of fact or, at least, truth. Even when a speaker says something in a poem that simply can't be true (take, for example, Carolyn Forche's opening statement of "The Colonel:" "What you have heard is true..."), we read on. This is sort of odd when you consider that we often question narrative twists in movies or the motivations behind statements made by characters in novels.
In this case, does everything really shine from the inside out? Well, no, not literally. But, then again, I find myself immediately moved to read on when I encounter this line and the rest of the poem proves me wrong. I doubt there are many readers out there irritated or disagreeing with the speaker; rather, they feel illuminated (no pun intended) by it.
Does this have something to do with the myth that poetry is all autobiographical? Is this because readers are looking for illumination in poetry? Or am I just wrong about this altogether?
TD: You make an interesting point. Like those readers you describe, I'm more willing to go along with the assertions made within a poem than within longer narratives, as in novels. I tend to question the reliability of a narrator in a fictional work, and that may simply be a matter of academic training in literary interpretation. With poems I suppose I'm a more generous reader, willing to play along for the duration of a poem. I see poems-or at least certain kinds of poems that address spiritual/emotional/mystical moments-as brief sojourns into the world of things we can only guess at, mere gestures toward the mystery. Therefore, I don't demand of such poetic statements any kind of longevity. I'm willing to say that in that particular moment there was some kind of truth, some kind of transcendence that opened-like the way clouds may open-offering a glimpse of pure blue, before closing.
Another way to put it: I see poems as brief hypothetical statements, a trying on of a position. And, yes, as I was writing the poem I did have a since that within each of us, including the rocks and the trees and the flowers and the bear and the deer and the fox and the fisher, there was something that shines forth, a kind of illumination.
AMK: There are some wonderfully imaginative moments in this poem: the moon of which we've all swallowed a small piece, the cataracts skimming our vision, our hands pushing outward on the lids of our coffins, etc... How important is imagination to you in your work? Is it something you simply enjoy writing or something you hope we will enjoy reading?
TD: I'm happy to confess that I do enjoy writing from this particular imaginary viewpoint. And like most writers, I certainly hope someone enjoys reading what I've written, that something will resonate with the reader in such a way that they feel connected to something broader than the individual self. But the more pressing matter for me when I think about the imagination's role in the way we live has to do with my desire for all of us-including me, the writer-to have a greater sense of awe for what we are living through, a greater sense of the enormity of this world, its sacred beauty, the way it sustains us. I spend most of my time in the woods, and as a professor of Environmental Studies, I believe firmly in the science that demonstrates our interconnectedness, our absolute interdependency. I'm afraid that many of us-and our myriad actions attest to this fact-have lost a sense of awe and reverence for this world. Imagination is a great tool for jerking us up, for making what some may perceive as the mundane, shine again. I'm quite taken by what is referred to these days as "magical realism" because the "real" world I spend my time in is certainly just that: magical.
AMK: Do you write poems for yourself or for a potential reader?
TD: The act of creation is precious to me. I'm very much a daily writer-whether it be in the collecting of sounds and images, doing research into particular flora and fauna, particular cultural artifacts and people, or the literal act of putting pen to paper-I crave that experience for at least an hour or two each day. When I don't have that experience for a few days, I feel dislocated, like someone else has invaded my skin. For these reasons, I suppose my initial impulse to write is for myself. But that kind of writing, that ultimately is only for myself, holds little allure or interest. I write first and foremost for my family and friends. They hear early drafts read to them. I send them copies in the mail. Art is a means for connecting, a way to play a part in the fabric of humanity and the communities that sustain us. I see writing poems as an act of stewardship. This is one of the things that I've been given to do. To squander such a gift, to misuse it, would be to betray it.
Ah, but this sounds so serious, so formal, and I don't mean to suggest that. Most days I find myself laughing at the absurdity that I write poems, and when someone calls me a poet, I simply blush and find myself sweating with self-consciousness. Maybe that's because of the valuation of certain art forms that I have no control over. For example, I think the work I do in my garden, the time I spend making blackberry jam and salsa from the fruits and vegetables we raise, is just as important and blessed. In other words, stewardship covers it all, including laughing at ourselves while we try do what it is we do-whether gardening or writing poems or helping our children with homework or making love or preparing a meal we will slowly and luxuriously consume. The sensual world we live in thrills me, and I don't wish to betray one moment, to desecrate one gift I've been given.
AMK: "And the Dead Shall Be Raised Incorruptible" is borrowed from Corinthians. Can you tell us about what that lines means in the context of the Bible and in the poem itself?
TD: Among certain forms of Christian theology, there is a belief that Christ will come again to raise the dead. In such a theology, those who are raised from the dead-believers who have been saved by the blood and resurrection of Christ-will live in a new heaven and new earth where death will hold no sway. It really is a fantastical, even fabulistic, notion, one that reaches out for a mystical belief in perfection, a new created order without sin.
I'm not here to argue theology, but I find among certain Christians who hold this belief a denigration of this life and this world we are in. Certainly, some forms of Christianity damn the body and praise the soul. I think this is wrong-headed. Among those who believe in this fashion, at times you'll hear a suggestion that we hurry up and get to that other place, a call for Christ to come again right now, a desire for death and a resurrection into a new world, a new order. I suppose I'm just not that kind of Christian. I see this life as absolutely precious, this moment as full of grace and mystery enough. I'm in no hurry to find out what comes next.
AMK: "And the Dead Shall Be Raised Incorruptible" is an address to an unnamed "you." In poetry, we call it apostrophe when a speaker or writer breaks off and directs speech to an imaginary person. Can you talk a little bit about this form and how it came to be the form of this poem?
TD: As I said in my previous answer, this relates to a particular theological belief and the folks who hold it. I grew up in the Bible Belt and certainly have many friends and family members who hold to such a conviction. While the unnamed "you" I address can function as most any reader of the poem-because there are plenty of folks (atheists, agnostics, Jews, Muslims, etc.) who still don't seem to be in love with this life all that much. The original unnamed "you" I address could be one of any of these folks I've rubbed shoulders with. Maybe I'm a missionary for the incarnated world, for the preciousness of the moment we are in now. For years I've been drawn to certain Transcendental ideas and ideals as put forth by folks like Emerson and Thoreau.
AMK: "A Memory of Heaven" is a wonderful lyric, reading much like a prayer or meditation on the speaker's love of the natural world and her/his trust of it. Tell us about the lyric: how it works, where it comes from, and how it differs from narrative.
TD: Whew! I'm not sure I can offer you an answer to all of this. I wrote an essay called "The Body of Poetry" that was first published in Review Revue and is included in the anthology I co-edited, Making Poems: Forty Poems with Commentary by the Poets (State University of New York Press, 2010). In that essay I focus on the role the body plays in the writing of lyric poetry-how our breathing patterns determine the line; how we can only speak on our failing breath; how to inhale, for the sake of keeping our bodies alive, demands silence, which has the potential to lead us into reflection, into listening to the other. So the lyric works for me as a form that must move in concert with my body, with its habits-the way my heart beats, the way my mouth opens and my lungs fill with air. I think "A Memory of Heaven" was my attempt on one of my winter walks to listen to what the creek was saying, what the water beneath the fields was saying. The locale of the poem is a place called Sinking Valley, rich in limestone, where water runs beneath the surface and slowly eats away at the stone creating underground rivers and caves.
AMK: "A Memory of Heaven" seems to be essentially about the immediacy of the natural world and how, no matter how hard we poets may try, we can never truly get our experiences with it down on paper. Is "A Memory of Heaven" an ars poetica, a poem about the writing of poetry?
TD: Yes, it's a poem about the writing of poetry, and my acceptance that the thing itself is, for me, always better than the representation of that thing. It's also an acceptance that to work at that representation is a good in and of itself. It's also a poem that is suggesting a metaphor for a kind of spiritual life and an acceptance of that life.
AMK: The first line of this poem opens in trochaic meter, which consists of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one. It then utilizes a number of double anapests in moments like "in the mud of the world" and "At the end / of the valley." Can you talk a little bit about meter and why you use it in these instances and in your poetry in general?
TD: Because I seldom work in given forms, I do not set out with a specific metrical pattern in mind. Often I hear a certain pattern in words-a phrase I may have jotted down in my journal-and am drawn to that pattern. Or in drafting a poem, the music is established by what is running around in my brain. Having said that, I am at all times mindful of the meter in my lines as I revise a poem. Often I tell students in the workshops I teach that all language has rhythm and rhythm creates a certain kind of music. We need to be conscious of the music our poems are making and whether we like the way the music interacts with the ideas or stories or images our poems try to carry. I think this act of evaluation-does the music/meter in a poem perform in concert with the ideas/stories/images-is intuitive and comes from years spent with poems, as well as the rhythms we are born with, that we are drawn to.
AMK: What are you working on right now?
TD: I'm writing poems that will comprise my fourth collection, which at this point is called In the Kingdom of the Ditch, and I'm also working on some essays about our relationship to animals. I'm the son of a veterinarian and have spent much of my life around animals. I suppose I should mention that my first chapbook, Household of Water, Moon, and Snow, a series based on the life of Henry David Thoreau, will be published by Seven Kitchens Press in November 2010. I've never worked on a series of poems focused upon a historical figure. These "Thoreau" poems were accidental. I'd been reading around in his journals, as well as some biographies, and the poems just started to show up-some written in the first person and others in the third.
AMK: If you could only have five books on your bookshelf, what would they be?
TD: Well, first, I'd be in a whole lot of trouble. I'm a bibliophile. I just love books. They are the voices that speak around me as I walk through my house. These voices can be so insistent that I have to stop and pull a book off the shelf and read a poem. I guess this is my way of saying that ordinarily I wouldn't choose to play such a game as you propose, but since it's only a game-which means like all games I could start over and pick another five and then another five-I'll do it. Here are the five I'll pick for the first round of the game, and they are in no particular order.
Galway Kinnell, Selected Poems
Jane Kenyon, Otherwise
Robert Wrigley, Earthly Meditations
Jim Harrison, The Shape of the Journey
Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems
AMK: Thank you.