Review by Karen J. Weyant (email)
by Todd Davis
Michigan State University Press
1405 South Harrison Road, Suite 25
East Lansing , MI, 48823-5245
140 pp., 19.95
Poets who venture into the natural world must tread lightly--over-sentimentalized poems exploring nature abound, and defining the unpredictable, often tempestuous relationship between human beings and their surrounding landscapes seems to be a near impossible task--but it's a feat Todd Davis, in his second collection of poetry, Some Heaven, does, and does well. Through detailed narratives rich with lyrical language, Davis challenges us to look around us, and then carefully ponder our place in this world.
The opening poem The Possibility of Rain sets the pace for exploring this challenge by describing a farming community longing for rain, even before a fire breaks out in the fields:
Rain hasn't fallen since June, leaving us nothing
but the harvest: beans hard as bbs, cornstalks brittle
as bone in the wake of summer's relentless heat.
At the mercy of both fire and dry crops, the persona wonders, "But who among us / can't stop believing in the possibility of rain?" The answer, of course, is no one. Instead, hope in this possibility only leads to early risers:
...An entire town up an hour before
daybreak, hiking toward the western skyline
where we believe thunderheads build, great
bellies of rain that promise something better
but only leave us miles from home.
Other poems follow this pattern: stories accompanied by feelings of bewilderment as people struggle with the natural elements or words of wonder at the tiny miracles around them. Often, Davis's poems showcase a gentle tug of war with nature. In The Certainty of Weight, a man remembers his father's fall the previous autumn, while he himself struggles with a shovel and a January storm in the form of snow "four feet deep" from his roof, with "so much weight hurrying / through the air, only to stop with a certainty / that helped me understand how my father's spine / had come apart." However, in A Lesson of Mercy from my Wife, on the Last Day of May, we see another side: a compassionate woman, who instead of killing a ladybug crawling on her husband's skin, simply plucks the insect and releases it into the air "where its wings beat / faster than the eye can follow."
Since so many of Davis's poems feature close-knit communities--Mennonite and Amish societies, small towns, farms, close families--his collection, at first, may seem to focus only on these secluded worlds. But the outside world, much like real life, is never far away. In On the Appalachian Trail, Above Delaware Water Gap, the delicate details of nature, "white bells of blossoms" and "spider webs / outlined by dew," are shadowed by the ominous nuclear reactors that "send / steam into the air: ghosts of uranium, / plutonium, of water turned against itself." And in Pastoral, at the Start of the 21st Century, the Pennsylvania country highways must share their world decorated with "sycamores and Indian willow" with an "Adult World in pink neon."
After a first reading, it's the adult interaction with the natural world that seems to take center stage in this collection, but there are other voices as well, including animals. The charming Canada Geese, On Saint Valentines Day teaches us "how returning to a place you've loved / is one of the better things you can do" and What the Woodchuck Knows lists the wisdom of these furry creatures, including an end note that embodies knowledge we should all appreciate:
In the end, the woodchuck knows what he needs to know:
that the North Star shines every night--whether cloud
or clear--and that every evening we should lift our heads
to see what we can see. Teeth last only so long
and life ends soon thereafter.
However, the best poem in this collection is the title poem, Some Heaven where a father details his sons' reactions to what should be considered an act of mercy:
The rabbit's head is caught
between the slats of the fence,
and in its struggle it has turned
so the hind legs nearly touch
the nose--neck broken, lungs failing.
The father goes on to say that his sons do not understand "the blessing / a shovel might hold." Instead, in prayers that evening, the youngest asks for a specific heaven for the doomed rabbit. Listening to his son, the father thinks about the following:
What more should heaven be?
A place wild with carrot and dill,
sunflower and phlox, fields
that stretch on for miles, every coyote
full, every hawk passing over, a warm
October day that need never end.
And perhaps it is this heaven, or something very close, we are all striving for, whatever our own religious or spiritual beliefs may be. After all, we are living in a society where environmental issues are becoming more and more prominent, and we are seeing the consequences of our past actions towards our natural world. Still, in some ways, as we become more educated, we become more arrogant, forgetting to really look at our world and examine the true role we are supposed to play in its future.
But there is no arrogance in Davis's poems. Instead, he finds both perplexing wonderment and overwhelming beauty in this world. In essence, his collection belongs on any nature lover's bookshelf (a welcome relief to worn field guides and handbooks), and on every poet's nightstand.
Karen J. Weyant is a 2007 Fellow in poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts and her most recent work can be seen in Slipstream, The ComstockReview and Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas. She has work forthcoming in Pennsylvania English and the minnesota review. She teaches at Jamestown Community College in Jamestown, New York.