Review by Cameron Conaway
IN THE KINGDOM OF THE DITCH
by Todd Davis
Michigan State University Press
1405 S. Harrison, Suite 25
East Lansing, MI 48823
2013, 112 pp., $19.95
Though In the Kingdom of the Ditch takes as subject anything from red peppers and deer pelvis to dying moths and a dying father, Todd Davis’ latest work is essentially an ode dedicated to poetry’s ability to observe and capture the minutiae that makes the world swirl before us. At its best, this book uses the tangible as a vehicle to talk about what we talk about when we talk about poetry. At its worst, it sweats hard to do so. But the reader is rewarded along the way because even the sweat of this collection glistens.
Readers familiar with Davis will find his truest gift somehow continues to sharpen. He has that unique ability to link, in a single sentence, the natural world we’ve become increasingly isolated from to the unnatural world many of us now view as natural. Take this title, for instance: “Fishing for Large Mouth in a Strip-Mining Reclamation Pond near Llodysville, Pennsylvania.” It’s clunky and it sits heavy atop the poem in a way that lends authorial authenticity and the weight of frustration. And then the poem opens:
The gills rake down the sides of his head, and the mouth
opens like the tunnels we used before the coal companies
hauled in dozers and trucks to scrape away the mountain
our grandparents had known.
Here we have gills raking and trucks scraping and they cinematically flow into each other. I’m reminded of the movie effect whereby the camera briefly zooms in on the hands of a clock before those hands takes the shape of a black bird and lead to the next scene. This is what In The Kingdom of the Ditch does time and again through leading the reader with an image and then turning the image as a way to turn the direction of the poem. Few are the poets who can so seamlessly pull this off.
While I admit to being enthralled by Davis’ ability to do this in the past, I’ve also felt like he has perhaps relied too heavily upon it. On one hand, it works – it’s Michael Jordan’s fadeaway jumper. On the other hand, us readers often hold poets to unrealistic expectations. We want to see evolution. Maybe Davis, a basketball player himself, had been feeling this call. In the Kingdom of the Ditch surprised me in its versatility, even in its ability to lead like a seasoned nature poet but then shock like a poet more experimental. Take the opening of “A Mennonite in The Garden,” for example:
We staked and tied our tomatoes
like the woman in your poem
who had her tongue screwed
to the roof of her mouth …
This is a thick collection that I wouldn’t recommend reading in a single sitting. The topics vary tremendously and there isn’t a sense of something building. That said, each individual poem is a compact work of art filled with ditches in which there are kingdoms if one is willing to dig for them. To me, one of the most moving and fitting poems of the collection is “What Lives in the Wake of Our Dreams.” Watch as it uses peaches and rivers and bed sheets and school bus steps to take us into the minutiae we too often miss:
I dream of peaches on the tree by the river,
of my youngest son lost along its muddy banks.
When I wake night’s worry trails me to the bathroom
and later to the breakfast table. It is winter here
and the tree is bare. The peaches wait in the freezer
until my wife thaws them for cobbler. Each morning
my boy climbs the black steps of the school bus
and leaves me to what lies in the loose folds
of these sheets: the bed unmade, the mud untracked.
Cameron Conaway is the Social Justice Editor at The Good Men Project, where he has published work based on his international investigations into child labor and human trafficking. He has held Poet-in-Residencies at the University of Arizona and with the Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Unit in Thailand. His work has appeared in such places as The Guardian, The Huffington Post, The Australian and ESPN. Follow him on Twitter @CameronConaway.