The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems
by Olena Kalytiak Davis
Copper Canyon Press. 2014. 110 pages
When a new poetry collection by Olena Kalytiak Davis drops, we expect a revolution. The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems is no exception. In fact, this may be her most groundbreaking work yet, which is an immense claim, considering Davis has an extensive history of confronting, provoking, and expanding the limits of the poem. Every Olena Kalytiak Davis poem is a rib-spreader, a defibrillator, not a decorative object or a fleeting burst of lyric energy. No other contemporary writer has pushed the relationship between poet, speaker, text, and body quite like Davis. For those of us who have been pacing our chambers for a decade, gazing desirously at our bookshelves and waiting for The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems to arrive, the moment is here, and it could not be more powerful.
In this book you will find the traditional literary canon evoked, questioned, and then subjected to a gut renovation. Take, for example, “Sonnet (division)” on page 64, which in its opening stanza immediately squares up with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 144:
fuck! i have two loves too, I really do:
my one is blond, my other’s hair is black,
but neither either vice nor virtue lacks
and each complete to me is fair(e) and true.
Rather than exploring the threshold between angel and saint, or the anguish of conflicting loyalties, Davis resists polarization within the confines of triangular desire, projecting attention back onto the speaker (here represented with a lower case “i”), the dilemma, and the text itself, ending with a couplet: “here (this) my wicked rest: i scribes this text. / ‘i’ blithely rhymed: fuck! all… is aural sex.” This final wink at the reader demonstrates a particular strength of Davis’s work: its acknowledgement of the very paper upon which it resides, and the fact that speech may blur certain meanings that reveal themselves on the page.
The most riveting poem in this collection might be “The Lyric ‘I’ Drives to Pick Up Her Children from School: A Poem in the Postconfessional Mode.” With its maximalist sensibility and roiling waves of anaphora, this poem is a treatise and a performance. Similarly, the collection’s title poem teems with disparate voices, parentheticals, exposed revision, and experiments with repetition and variation:
In THE POEM SHE DIDN’T WRITE
there was nothing poetic.
In THE POEM
there were no hidden references to _____________.
In THE POEMSHEDIDN’TWRITE
arthur rimbaud was not a hero.
people did not turn to each other in mania or desperation preservation
away in boredom disappointment despair
Coexisting beneath the roof of this poem we find references to Catullus and Derrida, “lilac branches, but no desire,” and margin notes such as, “(and in the margin: ‘and why are you so sad?’).” The poem’s primary voice keeps us grounded, as Davis pushes the limits of meaning. Audiences feel that they are part of the process, given a sense that the ink is still wet on these poems, and that individual lines should be allowed to mingle with their neighbors, rather than remaining moored in particular stanzas.
One might suggest that the ideal reader for The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems would be the aforementioned chamber-pacer, the die-hard Olena Kalytiak Davis fan who expects pyrotechnics and isn’t afraid to recline on a wet hill and view the explosions. I respectfully disagree. This book’s use of the body (in pain, temptation, pleasure, and other/othering states unnamable), its modulations between formal and colloquial registers of diction, and its inclusion of the reader within the boundaries of the poem, make it essential for all audiences of contemporary poetry. To read this book is to be utterly, inescapably transformed.