Michigan State University Press. 2016. 114 pp.
In 2012, I moved to Vermont. Before making a home in Vermont, I had spent a decade either living full time or summering in the mountains of Colorado. During my time in the Saguache Mountains, I learned the deciduous trees—the quavering aspen and cottonwoods that snow down their seeds. I learned the smell of vanilla comes from ponderosa pine. At one time I could name nearly a hundred Colorado wildflowers. Columbines, lupine, elephant’s head, monk’s hood, death camas, and my favorite, the Gunnison sego lily.
Then Sarah and I moved to Vermont. In this new home, Sarah would talk about iconic Camel’s Hump, but until she pointed it out, I had no idea where this mountain couched. I butchered the name and spelling of some of the lakes, which exposed me as an outsider. Lake Membremagan? I’d try. Sarah would smile at my attempt to name the lake that lives half in Vermont and half in Quebec. Try again, she’d say, just so she could giggle at my attempts. Lake Meckermeckergan? I’d sputter. Lake Memphremagog, she’d coach. I’d try to sputter those syllables in my mouth but mainly it felt as if I was choking on marbles.
I realized that if I ever hoped to learn Vermont like I knew Colorado, I’d need to study the landscape with guidebooks and with guides. And, luckily, soon after arriving in Vermont, I found Sarah’s Uncle Bear, who has lived his whole life in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Uncle Bear and Aunt Alicia teach Sarah and me how to plant garlic and when to plant tomatoes. Uncle Bear and Sarah buy nucs of bees and learn how to harvest honey. And Uncle Bear teaches me to bow hunt. Four years later, I am still new to these woods, to this landscape, but it feels more of home.
Todd Davis, in Winterkill, is a similar guide. Davis carries readers through a landscape, through the issues that lace that place, and through the spirituality of place. Davis bundles these ideas together throughout Winterkill maybe the way a beaver lashes together a dam or a lodge, until we have a weaving of ideas that either holds back the waters or offers us a home.
Like any great guide, Davis is exact and specific and we enter places where “Blue dragonflies rise / from the alder marsh / in the last hour of light, / and barn swallows skim / the field to filch the heads/ of the tallest grasses” and times where the night “whitens to the color of a blackberry / blossom, and a kingfisher flies / out of a sycamore to dive / at the spine of a trout” or the way land and water meet: “Fishing the narrow stream / of light, we follow a seam / between hemlock and sweating / rhododendron, tulip poplar / and white oak.”
But we see not just the arc of the sky or the way rivers wend their way against the earth, but we also see what is below the river. We see this literally when a narrator writes, as he holds a aught fish underwater in his hand: “The doors of the brook trout’s pink gills open / and close as it wriggles in my palm, back / yellow and black, variegated like coral.” But Davis also brings us figuratively to the river below when he writes about nature as religion, which is a reoccurring theme throughout Winterkill. These poems argue that no border can exist between the spiritual and the natural. Davis writes: “I’ve seen the [hermit thrush’s] notes / written in a field guide as oh, holy holy, / ah, purity purity, eeh, sweetly sweetly. / Who could argue with that?” and “We all worship something. / I’ll take the beauty and strength / of these fish, holy and godlike, / with backs vermiculated / so you can’t see them as they fan / above strewn rocks at your feet.”
Maybe the most important part of being tied spiritually to place is the desire to defend that home ground. Scattered throughout Winterkill are calls to actions and elegies about wind energy, fire suppression, climate change, and mining. In the extended poem, “Salvelinus fontinalis,” Davis writes, “Springs rise everywhere in this stream, / struggling to forgive us the mines we tunneled / and left behind in a century we try to forget. […] Iron sulfate sweeps down and banks / its orange flames in a grotesque tongue / of deceit. Scientists call it a “kill zone.” Davis recognizes that the poet’s job, a guide’s job, is both to inform and persuade, to convince us that we should love and therefore protect place.
But, maybe, in the end, what Davis is guiding us toward in Winterkill is an understanding of death. Throughout the book, we have poems about dead animals, the death of neighbors, the death of a father, and how death leads to rebirth: “I saw the first / bear tracks of the year, which help me to believe / the dead will rise from the grave.” The one line that seems to encompass this book, that maybe teaches us what Davis hopes we will learn about this intersection of nature, humanity, religion, and death, is a simple line: “Foam flower and Canada Mayflower cast their fragile blossoms / out of last year’s losses, proving once again that death is the key / to fecundity.” Without last year’s death (of deer, fish, a father, or, maybe, even faith), we don’t have this year’s blossom.
And though each poem travels some new ground, this reader keeps returning to the idea of being guided by the smart, quiet, spiritual language of Davis. When I moved to Vermont, I was lucky to find a mentor, Uncle Bear, to teach me this new landscape. And when I pick up a book written by Todd Davis, I feel lucky in the same way. When I enter Davis’s poems, I know I will be well guided, I will learn these poems as landscapes, as religions, as deaths, and as homes on a page. The poems of Winterkill are “wedding us to earth.”