. . . 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.
 
                                             (“What I Told My Sons after My Father Died”)
 

Michigan State University Press. 2013. 112 pages.

Michigan State University Press. 2013. 112 pages.

Through sensitive portrayals of family life and encounters with the environment, Todd Davis’s fourth full-length collection, In the Kingdom of the Ditch, casts spirituality and a sense of home into a contemporary light.
 
In an essay entitled “Some Notes on the Gazer Within,” Larry Levis wrote, “When animals occur in poems . . . they are often emblems for the muteness of the poet, for what he or she cannot express, for what is deepest and sometimes most antisocial in the poet’s nature.” Surely, this collection is saturated with wildlife and silence. There’s a lived-in familiarity to the animals here; they are companions and, when simply observed, markers of the unsayable.
 
The speaker in these poems seeks a kinship with the earth while displaying a serious leaning towards God. Though the speaker admits doubt, prayer is present, and nature is often translated through a Christian rhetoric. Titles include psalms, prayers, gospels, and “Resurrection: A Field Note.”
 
As such, the speaker holds grief in the forefront of this collection. The comfort of a wife, children, finches, and berries preserved in jars can transcend the speaker, but he is continuously writing in elegy to his father. Davis writes,
 
          None of us knowing
          how little our deaths depend upon any rule of our own devising.
 
                                             (“In the Clear-cut”)
 
This awareness permeates the collection as Davis speaks to our multiform and contradictory understanding of mortality:
 
          Imagine your life
          taken to feed another, your very
          being consumed in the belly’s
          furnace, awaking to heavy
          wing-beat as you fly above
          the tallest spruce
 
                                             (“Offering, as One Example, the Satisfaction of the Bee”)
 
Beyond impermanence, Davis is attentive to all changing bodies. In writing about a pregnant woman helping her husband in the barn, he considers her physical pain:
 
                                             [ . . . ] child
          kicking her insides as she shovels
          manure and hoses the dairy parlor’s
          slick gutters.
 
The speaker then imagines the woman is “grateful” for
 
          the neglected beauty
          of bovine: fullness of breast, width
          and curve of haunch [ . . . ]
 
Here, certainly, the woman is addressed as life-giving, mammalian, seeing her likeness in a cow, yet it is not necessarily pejorative within the sensitivity of this poem.
 
This collection is best, however, when it focuses on a thoughtful masculinity. Beyond the poems that bear the name of Henry David Thoreau, the figure remains central throughout this book. Thoreau’s cataloguing spirit of vistas is present, naming lakes and bears with awe, pride, and a longing for communion. In considering the mythos of man as the center of the natural world, not just witness to nature, Davis has deer dream of him. In the poem aptly titled “Deer Dreaming Me” a doe “checks to see
 
          if I am in bed, asleep next to my wife, my rifle
          safe in the corner room of our house.
 
Within this masculinity resides the tenderness of the father-son relationship. Considering his children, Davis prays,
          
          I’ll simply ask what the Poet asked—
          that God would make this world
          as beautiful to you as it has been to me.
 
                                             (“A Prayer for My Sons, after a Line of Reported                                              Conversation by the Poet William Blake to a Child Seated                                              Next to Him at a Dinner Party”)
 
Here and elsewhere, much hinges on the titles’ heavy narrative lifting.
 
Locating the reader before the poem begins, Davis employs a lyric that is often in medias res, imagistic, and spilling with the many exotic names of trees, birds, flowers, and plants; these he presents to the reader with rapidity and the thrill of a naturalist. Davis is not willing to have his lyric be disjointed though. There is always a connection, often narrated through the speaker himself. In “Perigee” Davis writes,
 
         Not far from here
         a friend found the first shed of the season. I imagine
         the buck in the floodplain, aimless with only one antler.
         All things move from balance to imbalance, and for the past
         three hours two horned owls have been piping a song
         that seems heavier on one side.
 
Anxiety breathes through this collection. While the speaker aims to assure and comfort his children following the loss of his father, he struggles with his own existential and ecological questions. These are present in the poem “Coal”:
          
         [ . . . ] I keep the house cold,
 
         knowing the burn the lamp is to change
 
                     the insides of the mountain to ash.
 
         We’re told that to repent means
 
                     to turn around: like a bulldozer
 
         scraping the edge, like the darkness
 
                     of slurry against a dam,
 
         like men running in a shaft of light
 
                     as the black seam catches fire.
 
The monostitch and cascade of the form mirror the mine. This poem, among others, asks the reader not just what have we done to the earth, but how has our relationship to nature impacted postmodernity? We are not all machine, as the past had expected, yet, Davis states,
   
         As penance the state made us dig out this pond in the shape
         of a kidney, water the color of liver, banks covered in cattails
         and loosestrife. On the mounds of dirt that were left, goldenrod
         grows in thin circles, like yellow mustard on bologna
         
                                             (“Fishing for Large Mouth in a Strip-Mining Reclamation                                              Pond near Lloydsville, Pennsylvania”)
 
In the Kingdom of the Ditch announces a desire for the natural world to be resolved with our human-made world, both mortal, interconnected, complicated and
 
         oblivious to the murmur
         of planes crossing overhead.
 
 
 
 
 
LAUREN HILGER was named the 2012 Nadya Aisenberg Fellow in Poetry from The MacDowell Colony and is a recipient of a Virginia Center for the Creative Arts fellowship and the Agha Shahid Ali scholarship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Her poetry has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, CutBank, and Sonora Review, among other journals.