poemoftheweek poemoftheweek.com poemoftheweek.org poem of the week
We've been taken captive
by the world, named by it, taught
to eat from its table. The whetted blade
slides through the flesh, thin veil
that parts to reveal what we think
is the soul. We set fires and burn
the earth because berry canes
won't come back without dirt
as dark as the color of its fruit.
Before the oldest trees were felled
we traveled the watercourse.
Now in the open fields we track
coyote, hoping to save the sweet
lambs we tend. Sadly, as night
stumbles down, all we find
are clumps of wool caught
in teasel's fine comb.
More than two centuries ago
Linnaeus began to arrange all
the names we've given back
to the world. This is how we know
black walnut hulls, when crushed,
smell like lemon, or when we walk
through sweet fern grouse will burst
into flight, dragging the plant's sharp
scent into the air. Near the stream
a tulip poplar blows down, leaves
turning the yellow of mustard
and ragwort. Despite the order
we've cultivated, the charts
we've set to memory, we're likely
to discover our way is one
of unknowing. When we die
may we be a pleasing word
placed in the mouth
of the world.
How do you paint the color of bone, the pelvis where the flesh
has been cut away? For more than two days we've soaked in bleach
the ivory girdle of the deer my son killed. Every few hours I check
the bucket so I can watch the dissolution, the falling away of the life
that can't last. Think of O'Keeffe's inheritance. What her hands
were given by the skeleton of the world. What she was expected
to give back. Who doesn't want to hear a holy word echoing
along the rock's split lip? But to hunt means to stalk in silence, to listen
for the solace in an animal's missed step. Early on I learned
from my grandmother to fish is to search the sea by sending a line
down its length. When my sister caught the eel, we didn't know
what to do. The only other person on the bridge was a black man
seated on a five-gallon drum. He took the rod, laid it on the ground,
and in one stroke severed the head, held the dancing curve until it slowed,
then stuffed it in a bag. We slipped the hook from between the teeth, ran
our fingers across the ridges. My sister peered through the cut hose
and wouldn't tell me what she saw. Today I stare at the shadows
in the valley, see what can be seen through the hole in the pelvis
where the ball of the femur should rest. The sky's different
framed like this. When there's nothing around it, it seems endless.
-After Georgia O'Keeffe's "Pelvis with the Distance" (1943)
We stand over this child and watch the waters
roil, mud surfacing, bluebottle flies boiling
around ears, collecting at the seat of his pants.
This is the body we've made, sweet juice
of love's temptation, a split tomato: yellow
seeds in pink water. Like rain caught in a bucket,
like sunlight pushed flat against tin, I am trying
not to forget how our son spilled into the hands
of that first day. I suppose what's left is to settle in,
to listen to the mortal-song the body sings.
We shouldn't be surprised flesh chants as it does
the work of the body: rain pooling in spent cornfields,
small boy fluttering as if pinned to a clothesline.
Here's what we have left to learn: when the earth
drops away, we can't help but fall.
-from In the Kingdom of the Ditch
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 Poetry Daily, Iowa Review, the North American Review, 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 Jenna Bazzell and Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Jenna Bazzell and Andrew McFadyen-Kecthum: In Tony Hoagland's book Real Sofistikashun, he identifies rhetoric and rhetorical gestures as a means to "create a space in which a poem can take place; they also turn and contour what muscle builders call definition. A rhetorical moment is a moment of flourish" (10). Hoagland further suggests that in poems "we largely stay away from the grand, the public voice, as if we wanted nothing to do with the dangerous intemperance of speech-making [...] to repeat: the most visible rhetorical moments are gestural and muscular, shaping space in the poem, and this notion accords with the popular, pejorative descriptive phrases ‘empty rhetoric' and ‘merely rhetorical.' Such descriptions imply an interior that is vacant" (11). In all three of your poems in this week's feature- "Taxonomy," "Perspective," and "Vigil," -you use a range of rhetorical gestures, specifically the decision to employ the first-person plural point-of-view "we,." point of view How do you think your poems utilize Hoagland's concept of a rhetorical gesture as a space or a moment of flourish?
Todd Davis: I very much like Hoagland's notion that such rhetorical moments "turn and contour" the poem, providing muscular definition. I think of poetry as a bodily art, a sensual place of indwelling. We make much of the distinction between artifice and physical reality. I'm not here to argue that a word is the thing itself, that somehow it is the very thing it seeks to represent in sound and print. But unlike some writers and theorists, I'm more interested in the deeply connected relationship between words and the material world, the miraculous alchemy of language shaping experience and experience shaping language. I value the unspeakable, mysterious ways that words conjure a very real physical experience as I read them, as I write them, and as I send them out into the world.
My poems often meditate upon some lived moment of which I've partaken in the human world, as well as in the non-human, natural world, and when I hunt for language to signify such an encounter, I want the sounds to mean something as they are formed in the back of the throat, as they vibrate in the chest, as the air is expelled from my lungs, and as my tongue works hard to take the proper shape and propel the poem into the air for someone's ears to hear.
You mention the decision to employ the first-person plural point-of-view in some of my poems. I do so with some trepidation because I don't want my readers to think I presume to be able to speak for all of us. I suppose in "Taxonomy" I muster the courage to use the "we" because I'm speaking about our dependence on anddebt to the earth, and I can't imagine any human (or any other form of life, for that matter) who is exempted from that debt.
As for the other two poems-"Vigil" and "Perspective"-there is the literal level on which I'm utilizing the "we." This level includes the "we" of a husband and wife, a father and son, a sister and a brother. I suppose I could have continued to simply say "my sister and I," for example, but that desire to evoke a sense of connection and communion leads me to say "we."
JB & AMK: Returning to Hoagland again, how do you think your poems resist the popular notion of rhetorical gesture as "empty rhetoric" or "merely rhetorical"?
TD: I certainly hope my poems resist "empty rhetoric," but that is for the reader to decide. I certainly don't wish to offer a defense of my "rhetorical gestures." Either the poem is working, or it's not. My defense of it, or explanation of it, certainly won't make it a better poem.
However, here's a brief aside that might offer insight into why I make the rhetorical gestures that I do.
When I was in graduate school in the late 1980s, deconstruction was the rage. I was drawn to its original impulse-or at least what I perceived as its original impulse: the oppressed unraveling the language of the oppressor, taking away the power of the word from those who used the word unjustly.
Having said that, I think of my attempts to write a poem as a movement toward another human being, and I hope as someone reads my poem that she or he is taking a step toward me. I understand how we can demonstrate the infinite deferment hidden in the seed of a word, but when I read the work of other writers, I'm trying to move closer to that person, to what they seek to express, to what they are exploring, to the insights they discover along the way.
Certainly not all art seeks such connection. Some writers actually desire obfuscation, to defer meaning or connection, to push the reader away or delay meaning-making. That's not the school of poetics I work within or am drawn to, however.
JB & AMK: About your book In The Kingdom of the Ditch, one reviewer remarks that your poetry suggests that life is consistently transformed, resurrected by what grows out of the fecundity of our dying bodies. First, I want to ask: do you agree or disagree with this statement? Second, can you explain what you hope readers take from the book?
TD: I'm thankful to the reviewer who highlighted this aspect of In the Kingdom of the Ditch.
Yes, this is a preoccupation, perhaps even an obsession of mine, and I do believe that life is consistently transformed, a resurrection of sorts. (As physicists claim, there is no more or less energy in the universe; it's simply changed, transformed, recycled.)
Death entered my life very early. As the son of a veterinarian and grandson of farmers, I was exposed to birth and death in the lives of animals. Some of my first memories are of helping to rub down puppies, watching them nurse, finding one who had died and asking my father to bring it back to life.
When I was six years old, my maternal grandparents moved from Connecticut to northern Indiana where we lived at the time. My grandfather, who had various health problems, arrived in a great deal of pain on that trip, spent a few hours at our house and then went to the hospital. He was dead by the next morning. This certainly marked me, taught me in a visceral way about mortality and the fragility of existence.
My curiosity about our mortal condition has pushed me toward the study of a range of religious texts, as well as many ecological texts. I'm interested in the spiritual notions of resurrection that so many religious traditions embrace, as well as the biological realities of energy dispersal and renewal. Bernd Heinrich is a biologist whose work on this subject is lucid and groundbreaking. At present I'm reading his book, Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death, which explores the various patterns of death and the creatures that help usher new life out of that death. It's a fabulous study of carrion beetles, ravens, crows, vultures, etc.
As for what I hope readers might take from In the Kingdom of the Ditch, put quite simply: the beauty and significance of the world that sustains and holds us.
I spend much of my time in the field, doing the kind of research that helps me write poems in the relatively wild regions of forests near my home. I'm fortunate to live with over 41,000 acres of state game lands above me on the ridges that begin the Allegheny Front. It's comprised of fairly healthy forests with a few old growth remnants. Biodiversity abounds with species of trees and shrubs like eastern hemlock; tulip poplar; red, white, and chestnut oak; rhododendron; mountain laurel; black gum (tupelo); beech; ironwood; witch hazel; basswood; a range of wild blueberry species; and black and yellow birch, to name only a few.There's also a wide range of animal life, such as birds as black bears; bobcats; coyotes; fisher; mink; whitetail deer; wild turkey; ruffed grouse; porcupine; snowshoe hare; red and gray fox; skunk; bald eagles; osprey; kingfisher; green and blue heron; woodcock; barred owls; broad winged hawks; migrating warblers;-and I won't begin to name some of the wildflowers that I adore.
This fecundity, this welling up of life, makes me ecstatic. And when I say ecstatic I mean literally ecstatic. Endorphins release and I'm as joyous as I can imagine when I'm deep in these woods observing what the earth offers up on that day.
I hope that upwelling is woven into my poems and that readers experience a bit of what I've been blessed to experience. Beyond that, I suppose I'm grateful when readers pick up on the threads of religious mythology, the human experiences of familial relationships, and the pain and joy of loss, themes that seem to run throughout my poems from collection to collection.
JB & AMK: Concerning your use of the first person plural "we," why did you choose to use "we" instead of "I" or "you" or "he/she"? What does the "we" allow for or provide that other pronouns do not?
TD: It likely comes from my desire to join with others, to seek solidarity. I worship within a theologically liberal Mennonite Church. The stress within this congregation is on community, peace, and social and environmental justice. Much of my thinking on the ideas of seeking common ground, common space, originate in this experience, and linguistically or rhetorically, my tendency to gravitate toward the use of "we" stems from this perspective.
JB & AMK: In your poem, "Taxonomy," you provide not only a taxonomy of the flora and fauna of Pennsylvania, but also a new way of speaking about death in relationship to living things, while also seeming to avoid the notion of "power in naming." Maybe one of the only times that naming occurs in the poem is the literal naming of Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy. I wonder, what was behind your decision to include his name in the poem, and do you think it would have read any differently without using his name?
TD: The decision to name Linnaeus in the poem occurred naturally. Many readers might not be familiar with the science of taxonomy or the creator of the system we use to organize and categorize our knowledge of species. But, as you allude to in your question, the poem's deeper exploration of taxonomy is the idea that in naming something we do not control it, do not know everything about it. The science of taxonomy is significant and important, often helping to save species from extirpation and extinction. But I never wish to fall into hubris's trap and believe that by studying and naming a thing we "control" it or "own" it.
I'm sure we've all heard very learned people confess that the more they know the more they realize how little they actually know. I certainly would make this confession. Nearly twenty years after completing my Ph.D., I'm far less confident of what I know than I was when I began my doctoral studies. I'm very interested in the mindset that allows for intellectual curiosity, for the pursuit of knowledge, to be held in tension with an understanding that absolute knowledge is a pipedream, and that living between knowledge and doubt, or the recognition that knowledge is always finite or limited, is a kind of exploration akin to faith.
JB & AMK: In , "Perspective," you begin the poem with a question that at first alluded me. It was not until the second or third reading that I finally understood what was being asked of me, as a reader. Literally, how do you do this? How do you think you "get away with" or "pulloff" a question like this, while simultaneously avoiding confusion and possibly shutting out a reader?
TD: I'd imagine there may be some readers who are shut out or turned off by this floating question at the beginning of the poem. But my hope is that those readers will be few, because it's actually a very straightforward question, grounded in other narrative elements in the poem that are equally straightforward.
I'm hoping this means the reader will stay with the question, keep turning it over in her mind as she moves through the lines. In the same way, I hope when the reader arrives at the end of the poem and sees that the poem has a relationship with a painting-in this case, Georgia O'Keeffe's "Pelvis with the Distance"-that one of the levels of meaning in the title is revealed, and the question that begins the poem is brought back to bear upon the reader's act of meaning-making.
I often tell my students that we shouldn't worry so much about "understanding" a poem when we first enter it. How many of us listen to a song once and simply give up on it because we don't understand its lyrics? There's music, snatches of imagery, the shifting of lines as you move down the page, all things that can cause a particular reaction to a poem. Too often in literature classes we demand that students "understand" a poem, asking them to offer rather intricate explications of that understanding. Wendell Berry published a splendid meditation on the poetry of William Carlos Williams in 2011-The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford (from Counterpoint). What I admire so much about that book, which represents Berry's grappling with Williams' poetry for most of his adult life, is that Berry explains what he thinks he understands or apprehends in the poems, while also confessing to the things he still cannot understand or apprehend. How refreshing to grapple honestly, to not put on a charade of intellectual acumen or engage in scholarly bluffing. As Berry puts it in response to Williams' Spring and All: "I have quoted only what is clear to me. Not all the language of these paragraphs is clear to me-not all of it may have been clear to Williams; as I have said, he was in difficulty-but what I understand I admire and am grateful for." This is not an excuse for intellectual laziness, for a bluffing of a different sort, but my admiration for intellectual honesty, which suggests that what Berry or you or I may not understand at this moment in a poem might be worth meditating upon in the coming months and years.
JB & AMK: In "Perspective," you have multiple shifts in point-of-view, and usually these shifts happen very quickly. Can you talk about how you think you accomplish this-whether it's through rhetoric or some other maneuver? What allows you to traverse so many different points-of-view or "perspectives" in such a short poem?
TD: My self-consciousness plagues me. Whenever you suggest I "pulled something off," I think to myself, "Have I really?" But if the poem does work for you and for other readers in this way, I am happy.
Obviously, to create a poem one has to have a degree of confidence in what they are doing. So I don't wish to offer any false humility either. I certainly was attempting exactly what you suggest, but I was holding my breath, hoping it might work.
To answer your question directly: I think I accomplish this because of what I learned long ago as an undergraduate in my journalism minor: The reader deserves to know: "who," "what," "when," "where," "why," and "how." Although there are multiple shifts in this poem-different places, different points-of-view, different actions-I've tried to offer enough grounding detail to answer many of the aforementioned journalistic questions.
What was pushing me to write a poem like "Perspective" is the way the human mind works. I'm fascinated by the fact that we may be in a certain place, in a certain time, but many other places and times and people-some that may no longer exist-are crashing into that present moment. "Perspective" is about those crashing, clashing forces, funneling into the present moment the poem seeks to posit before the reader.
JB & AMK: Again in "Perspective," how much does the content and even the narrative-which seems to begin on line nine with "Early on I learned"-depend on the dedication at the end of the poem, particularly the content of the opening question?
TD: I'd suggest that there are several narratives braided together in this poem, beginning with the initial question, which may be addressed to the reader and O'Keefe and the speaker in the poem simultaneously. The other narratives that join the poem have to do with a deer's pelvis being soaked after the animal has been butchered; a brother and sister fishing and accidentally catching an eel that a kind man helps them extricate from their line; and the speaker staring through that pelvis at the valley that sprawls before him, in much the same way the desert landscape is captured in O'Keefe's painting.
I hope the poem can be read on its own, that a reader will have a rewarding experience with it, even if she doesn't know Georgia O'Keefe or the painting I allude to. But like much ekphrastic writing, I think if the reader takes the time to seek out O'Keefe's painting, the layers in the poem-imagistic and narrative-will coalesce in a way that is far more rewarding.
JB & AMK: In all three of these poems, the nature of the line seems to be different. Can you talk about your concept of the line, and how you see it functioning in these three poems?
TD: I'm not sure I have much to say here that's original or unique to me. Much of my work with the line is instinctive. I certainly never set out to have short lines or long lines, to work in couplets or quatrains. With some poems, an image or the strength of a single word will lead me toward shorter lines, an emphasis on that image or that word's sound. With other poems, the idea of connection and association-both of sound and image-will lead me toward much longer lines. There's also the issue of narrative pacing, or whether the poem asks for a contemplative space.
JB & AMK: "Vigil" is comprised of six sentences. Of note in this poem, which I did not see in the other poems, is your use of the colon-back to back. By using the colon twice, what effect does this have on the poem?
TD: I'm not sure I have much to say about this matter, except that I'm attempting to use the colon to stop the reader, while still suggesting more connection than a period would provide, before moving forward. It's a form of punctuation that might offer a moment to breathe, to consider, and then progress on into a rather tense, difficult narrative.
JB & AMK: In "Vigil," there is a careful distinction being made as to when the "I" versus the "we" is used, in that the "I" is not included in the "we." Why is this distinction being made in this poem in particular?
TD: "Vigil" is a poem that grows out of my fight with the kinds of deaths that seem unjust, that seem out of place, out of proper time. My father died three years ago at the age of 81. He had lived a vigorous life and was still skiing 12,000 foot peaks with me the March before he died in July. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that April, and his suffering at the hands of that disease was hard to witness. He was very brave and insisted that we continue to seek out the wildflowers through May and June. He would take walks on a nature trail near his house, despite his pain, and he would say to me on those walks that while he wished he could live longer to see his grandsons continue to grow, to be able to spend more time with me in the woods, that no one should mourn his passing. He had lived a good, long life. He had been blessed. While his passing did cause me to grieve, of course-he read all my poems in drafts, and we shared a deep connection in the way we saw the world-ultimately, his death did not seem out of place, out of rightful time.
On the other hand, the suffering and death of children presents us with time out of joint, with things as they should not be. (While none of these observations is earth-shattering in their insights, they are the foundation for a poem like "Vigil.")
In my family tree such deaths and suffering have occurred. My aunt's fraternal twin, as a toddler, was scalded with boiled washing water on their Kentucky farm in 1942. He survived for two weeks, wailing in pain, until his body succumbed to the infection.We've known families in our village and at our church who have lost their children to suicide, to car accidents, to disease, in childbirth.
And in the wake of these realities, these hauntings, I look at my own children, my two dear sons. I cannot bear to think of losing them "out of time." A poem like "Vigil" is a combination of my own voice and the voices of those mothers and fathers who have watched their children die or suffer.
The distinction in the speaker's use of "I" and "we" has to do with a distinction between my wife and myself in the life beyond the poem's page. My wife moves easily through life. That is not to say she does not grieve or have fear, but she has a strength that I admire, an ability to sidestep some of the anxieties that intrude in my life from time to time.
I suppose this is a poem that is attempting to teach me how to move with the strength and ease, the acceptance I've seen in my wife's approach to life and death.
JB & AMK: Ezra Pound stated: "The image is the furthest possible remove from rhetoric." In these three poems, you seem to utilize both image and rhetoric in a way that propels the poem forward. What is so appealing about interweaving image and rhetoric in poetry?
TD: I'm deeply influenced by the ghost of Pound as it influenced writers like Robert Bly, James Wright, and Galway Kinnell in Deep Image Poetry. I like the idea that in presenting an image I am relinquishing control, allowing the image to open a space in the text and in the reader that I cannot influence or command. Images are rather mysterious, mystical even. I love poems that place their faith in the image.
On the other hand, because we are working to make poems, language is always the building material. Thus, we cannot escape rhetoric, no matter how significant the image.
Many of my poems are narrative-based. Because of this, I need rhetorical structures to propel the narrative forward, while at the same time desiring the image do most of the work. I think when all else is lost in the mind of the reader, many weeks or months after reading or hearing a poem, the image will last, its residue in the creases of the hands, in the film on the eyes, a tangible, sensual image to carry into future days that has a tenuous attachment to some idea or emotion.
JB & AMK: Thank you.