Choosing to live in the Pennsylvania mountains, Davis has immersed himself in the natural world—as a painter immerses himself in color, as a composer immerses herself in sound.
Nature is Davis’s language.
The poems of his newest volume, In the Kingdom of the Ditch, speak not so much of nature as by means of it.
Here, for instance, is “Atrial Fibrilation”:
Yesterday was the dull gray of a river stone. This morning
snow covers our neighbor’s roof, the sky the color of an indigo
bunting’s cap. Fresh from sleep we reach back for last summer’s
green, listen to a blue jay at the feeder as it cracks open a seed
to warm itself on the fire that still burns in the hull. To the west
our fields are bare, and beyond, in a room that holds her, my mother
wears a heart monitor. She rises stiffly from bed for a sponge-bath,
hoping her heart won’t flutter like the wings of a sparrow, the furious
beating of a finch as it tries to bring the body into balance, an agreement
with the wind, the rhythm of the blessedly invisible air.
In that “furious beating of a finch,” Davis finds an image for his mother’s fibrillating heart—and also, I think, for all our human fragility. We all need to bring ourselves “into balance” each morning, each day, really each minute. Through his language for the finch, Davis traces our body’s and soul’s teetering steps in “the blessedly invisible air.”
In “Missing Boy,” a pine snake sliding out of “the skin / of his former / self” gives Davis poignant terms for his growing son:
but now believes
he does not
And it’s nature that Davis turns to as he tries to make sense of his father’s recent death. In “Last Bones of Winter”:
Where the snow drifted deepest
I find the last of it hiding beneath stone.
Soon wood sorrel will blossom, white
as the snow it replaces. What else does death mean
except not here now? In the new warmth
the plum tree fills its branches with pink
bags, and near the seep skunk cabbage crawls
from its grave. Somehow my father knew
he would disappear before the last of the year….
Every year there comes a night when the last
bones of winter vanish, when temperatures
stay above freezing and stone settles deeper
in snow’s absence. On such nights the flesh
can’t help but fail, falling away and collecting
in the turning grass, only to become
What else do we become after death? The poem’s images raise this question. But Davis refuses easy answers. Rather, his poems look to nature for clues to life’s great questions. Take “Imago Dei”:
The weasel who lives
along the water’s edge
splits the muskrat’s vein:
the back of the head;
mouth shut until death’s
jaw-hinge opens the throat
so tongue may lap warmth
and salt. What’s left
of the idea we were made
in the image of God?
What’s left, indeed, after this gory scene?
Does nature speak to Davis of God? He’s not sure. At the start of “Transfiguration” (one of my favorites in the book), the answer seems to be yes:
When I walk among the beech saplings that rise from the roots
of the mother-tree, each turns in a cord of light and I imagine
this is what we mean to say when we speak the word God.
But then there’s the ambiguity—or what I hear as an ambiguity— in “When the Body Is Absent”:
The light that lifts the day has fallen on beebrush, and the ghost
of God, which smells so much like these pale flowers bees cross over,
is everywhere in the air.
When I first read this poem, I heard echoes of the “Holy Ghost” in “the ghost of God,” so it seemed evidence of God’s presence. But then, as I sat longer with the poem, the “ghost” began to seem a sign of God’s absence. For a ghost is perhaps not a presence.
Maybe in this reading I was influenced by Todd Davis’s delightful poem “Homily,” in the current Image (#79), which begins:
By the second week in September nuthatches capture the last
elderberries, excrement purpled and extravagant, sprayed
drunkenly across my truck’s hood. I’ve been thinking about the God
I pray to with no lasting effect and note the effortless work
the stream does as it feeds these bushes. My father was baptized
in the Green River, led by the hand in white robes to be dunked
beneath the current. Sometimes when mother gathers sheets
from the line in late summer, she finds the droppings of a bluebird
written like a sacred text. But what saint could decipher it?
Here, in a comic collage of missed connections, the divine, natural, and human worlds keep missing each other (or messing on each other).
I see a similar yet more uncomfortable vision in this latest volume’s brief title poem:
In the Kingdom of the Ditch
where Queen Anne’s lace holds
its saucer and raspberry its black
thimble, the shrew and the rat snake
seek after the same God,
who mercifully fills the belly
of one, then offers it to the other.
The Queen Anne’s lace and the raspberry stand quietly by while a Darwinian drama takes place—between creatures that “seek after the same God.” Who is this God? And is “the Kingdom of the Ditch” the Kingdom of God, or its antithesis? These are the questions that the poems of this volume keep probing.
Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.