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Todd Davis, “What Poetry Can Save”
It snowed hard last night. The long satisfying snow of January that falls through the
darkest hours yet illuminates the air with a light that seems to be made from inside the
snow itself.
On such nights, I rise two or three times because I don’t wish for the darkness to go by in
a wash of sleep and dream. More than any satisfying rest, I want to see the air suffused
in a haze of white, to watch the snow pile on the maple tree’s limbs that reach toward
the hidden stars or upon the hard green spikes of spruce needles that catch the flakes
like bees capturing pollen on their hind legs. Each time I rise I try to gauge how much
snow has fallen while I slept this joyfully furtive sleep, and I attempt to place in my finite
memory the beauty of the present moment, the gift of its solitary quiet, the way nature
reminds us how little control we have.
As I shoveled this morning—steady act of scooping, lifting, throwing; the physical
exertion helping me to empty my head of fatherly anxieties—I was confronted with an
old, old question: What can a poem save? Perhaps this query, which has followed me
for the better part of two decades, is connected to Auden’s audacious claim that “poetry
makes nothing happen.”
Every writer has a different reason or motivation for returning to his or her desk. Like
most, mine are various, and complex, and a bit unfathomable even to me. I can say for
sure that writing a poem helps me explore things I’m curious about. It also allows me
to try on different experiences, different points-of-view, like an actor embodying a new
persona. It also permits me to enter a space that is neither static nor definitive. But
maybe most significant is that a poem enables me to save portions of lived experience—
of people and places of great beauty or ugliness, of striking violence and anger, of peace
and love, even laughter. And when a poem I’m writing does any of these things, it saves
not only that particular portion of experience but also the “me” I was in that present tense
long ago, even if I don’t appear upon the stage of the given poem.
In a recent poem, I claim that “at thirty I began to write down all the names of the dead
so they wouldn’t disappear.” This is a rather bold statement—as if art could resurrect the
dead, save them from time’s decay. I’m well aware that any poem I write will ultimately
disappear with the passage of time: a book’s pages crumbling to dust in the back of a
used bookstore, or a digital edition corrupted in a database, or when the very earth itself
ceases to be, the sun blinking out with all the lines of poems that have ever been written.
But when I speak of “saving” an experience in a poem, saving the dead who have
passed before me, I’m not talking about some infinite legacy, or even the simple gifts, or
burdens, of poems read long after the deaths of those who wrote them. At this moment
in time, I’m simply speaking selfishly about writing down the names of the dead, telling
stories about them, recalling a detail that was important to me about the way they dressed
or walked, the way they smelled or what they loved to cook, so they won’t vanish in my
lifetime, a portion of their existence transformed by a line in a poem, somehow brought
back to the land of the living.
When my father received the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in his 81st year,
one way I coped with the brutal fact that I was losing him was to write poetry. From the moment
I hung up the phone, my mother’s quaking voice still in pieces in my ear, I began to compose
poems about what we were going to experience in the process of walking with each other
to the edge. I suppose I did this as some kind of self-made therapy so I wouldn’t burst
into flame.
But it wasn’t quite as simple as self-preservation. I desperately didn’t want to lose
these moments. Poetry embodies a sense of the finite, a sense of our mortality, but the
clock’s ticking was louder than I’d ever heard, and I wanted to write poems because the
act of creation makes me more attentive, more present, because fashioning art from life
sometimes makes living more artfully, more gracefully, possible.
It’s the reason I can tell you that this day in April, after the phone call, was unusually
warm and that the wind was coming out of the south. We were in the midst of a drought
with the threat of wildfires in the heavy forests that surround us. Because I wrote it
in a poem, I remember up on the mountainside, where they had been doing selective
timbering, there was a fire, smoke swirling in odd shapes, obfuscating the ridgeline, stark
blue sky on either side of the plume. I can also tell you about helping my father in June,
only a month away from his death, down in the family’s meadow along the river. He
was concerned that we get the barn cleaned and organized so my mother wouldn’t have
to deal with it after he was gone. Or how after the barn was settled, he rode the tractor as
I walked the stone wall that marked their property, his unsteady hand pointing to weak
places that needed repair, his fading voice instructing me to consider one stone at a time,
making sure the foundation was still level, that the stones hopefully would hold to each
other through the far-off winter.
Poetry saved me with its grace as my father died, my mother beside him, singing an old
hymn he loved, his body so much smaller after the chemo, after the ten days in hospice
with no food. Yet like the death masks that were made in past centuries, I wrote a poem
to capture his last visage, as well as poems in the following years that helped me to
navigate the nature of grief, that taught me how joy might reside in the shadow of his
absence, how with time it reverses the angle of light as we assume our parents’ positions.
This afternoon my oldest son and I went for a long walk in the state game lands that rise
just to the west of our house, 41,000 acres of forest on the cusp of the Allegheny Front. It
just so happened that today was my father’s birthday, January 25th. He would have been
86, still two years younger than either of his parents when they died. He loved to walk in
the woods and was the person who taught me the names of so many trees and flowers that
appear in my poems. Even at 80 he was able to hike deep into the forest, using an old ski
pole for balance as we negotiated a talus slope where low bush blueberry grows and the
occasional timber rattlesnake surfaces looking for a mate in July or August. While I have
photos of him in these woods—some with my boys when they were little, near a dammed
pond and a beaver den; others where he’s writing words in the snow with his ski pole,
large letters that spell out my mother’s name—it’s the poems I’ve written about these
moments in the woods that save me, and a portion of him, too, or at least my memory of
him, my attempts to capture what was ineffable about how I loved him and he loved me.
And so while my oldest son, who now towers over me, walks before me as we
bushwhack through thick stands of rhododendron, following the tracks of a bobcat along
a stream that gurgles, despite the cold, a stream we’ll return to in April to fish for native
brook trout, I think about what might be saved from this day, what poem or poems some
of these very present details might appear in: a moon rising early to the east, fragments
of it glimpsed through hemlock boughs; a bit of haze sifting the air like flour dust that
portends a winter storm. And whether the poem I write that includes these notes is any
good, I know when I read it, I’ll be transported to this place, this time, which like so
much about art will save me, in that most religious sense of the word, brought back into
communion with the living and the dead, with the past and with the ever present now.
The Last Time My Mother Lay Down with My Father
How did he touch my mother’s body
once he knew he was dying? Woods white
with Juneberry and the question of how
to kiss the perishing world, where to place
his arms and accept the gentle washing
of the flesh. With her breast in hand
did he forgive with some semblance
of joy the final bit of fragrance
in the passing hour, the overwhelming
sweetness of multiflora rose, and the press
of her skin against his?
The body’s cartography is what we’re given:
flesh sloughing into lines and folds, the contours
of its map-making. When at last he died,
summer’s heat banking against the windows,
she’d been singing to him, her face near to his,
and because none of us wanted it to end,
we helped her climb into bed next to him
where she lifted his hand to her chest
and closed her eyes.
Originally published in Chautauqua Literary Journal and will appear in Winterkill
(Michigan State University Press, forthcoming).
What I Told My Sons after My Father Died
The emptiness of the catalpa flower’s mouth opens
into nothing: stamen encased by cream.
My father called it a weed tree, despite his love
for the light it provided in June, the colors it caught
as dark came down over the garden we tended. The way
he told the story, after my great, great grandfather
escaped from a Confederate prison, he traveled north
by night along creekbeds. He rested beneath the draped
boughs of catalpa, drank branch water and ate pawpaws.
Supposedly in dark’s false stillness he could tell the difference
between a hound and a groundhog, that in the water’s hushed
movements he could pick out the stones breaking the surface
of the stream long before dawn woke those who hunted him.
In trying to explain the stillness, I don’t wish to add
to my sons’ sorrow. If I could play three notes
upon the fiddle, I’d do that instead. When my first boy
was born, in the nights after we brought him home,
I stood above his crib, head pressed over the rail
to assure myself he still breathed. I did the same
when I was a kid working at the animal hospital.
I’d open a cage, my ear flush with the chest
of a dachshund or Doberman and listen to the heart,
after the strain of surgery, as it settled back into a sound
like a kick-wheel turning clay. My father taught me
the names for trees, which in turn I’ve taught my sons.
That’s what it was like after he stopped breathing.
A bee disappears down the flower’s mouth.
Although we can’t see it, the bee’s still there.
Originally published in River Styx and subsequently in In the Kingdom of the Ditch
(Michigan State University Press, 2013).
Todd Davis is the author of four full-length collections of poetry—In the Kingdom of
the Ditch, The Least of These, Some Heaven, and Ripe—as well as of a limited edition
chapbook, Household of Water, Moon, and Snow: The Thoreau Poems. He edited the
nonfiction collection, Fast Break to Line Break: Poets on the Art of Basketball, and
co-edited the anthology Making Poems. His writing 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, the Chautauqua Editors Prize, the ForeWord Magazine Book of
the Year Bronze Award, and have been nominated several times for the Pushcart Prize.
His poetry has been published in such noted journals and magazines as American Poetry
Review, Iowa Review, North American Review, Missouri Review, Gettysburg Review,
Orion, West Branch, and Poetry Daily. He teaches environmental studies, creative
writing, and American literature at Pennsylvania State University’s Altoona College.
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