. . . 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”)
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
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.