November 13, 2017

Todd Davis


A pickup slips over the ice, rear tires spinning, turning 
a circle, then another, a series of donuts in a mechanical dance 
that causes the three boys to swear and laugh, spilling beer 
onto their laps and the seats that already stink of cigarettes 
and sweat. Their dads and uncles sit in hastily erected shacks, 
hovels spread across the lake, humped over like the dirt 
at the entrance to gopher dens. Men fish in the half-light 
of heaters, drinking schnapps and whiskey, readying themselves 
for the rod to bow, hovering over an augured hole 
as if it were a nest in need of guarding. When at last 
the line jerks down into the dream of a northern pike, 
they fumble with the reel, hearts racing ahead of an ending 
they imagine will be told at the bar on a Saturday in June, 
glasses of beer sweating, hands spread wide in a lie 
to suggest the size of that fish whose head sprang 
from the slush-filled abyss, only to escape their grip 
into the black depths of late December. Air snakes 
through the truck’s cab, windows rolled down 
so these bored boys can scream at the stars 
salted across the sky. Most of the men have gone 
to eat supper, to watch the Lions lose one more game 
on TV. The smell of propane lingers, stirred with the beer 
the boys burp as they smoke cigars and cough. 
They’ve parked the truck at Ralph’s shanty, 
and the older brother spits into a plastic jug, snuff 
stuffed under his lower lip, as he tells stories 
about a buck he killed in October and a girl he dated 
from the next town over with a mouth as soft as velvet. 
There are always cracks in the ice, but trying to decide 
which seam is harmless and which leads to the bottom 
is a matter of luck. They’ve grown accustomed to the lake’s 
groaning, having heard its teeth chatter since they were children: 
sun melting into the horizon, everything refreezing 
in a slick swatch of darkness. Toward the south end 
of the lake, springs thin the ice, but the boys believe 
the cold insures their passage. On the way back 
a wheel breaks through, front end dipping, the entire truck 
tipping, then plunging forward like a duck, tail feathers 
pointed at the moon. Every year some drown, 
and even more trucks sink. But tonight, 
with the windows open, each boy places a foot 
on the seat and leaps to safety, rolling onto their sides, 
praying the ice-shelf will hold. The sound of the truck 
being sucked beneath the surface is smothered 
by their happy hollering. None of them thinking 
about the cost when Szymanski’s Towing 
sends a diver down with a cable and hook, 
or how their moms will cry as their dads berate 
such stupidity, which of course is inherited. 
For now they can only hoot at their own good fortune. 
The cold stars warmer with their escape, sparkling 
like the fake diamonds they give their girlfriends
on their six-month anniversary, and the moon 
offering just enough light to help them to shore 
and to the county road they’ll walk 
all the way back to town.

from Rattle #57, Fall 2017
Tribute to Rust Belt Poets


Todd Davis: “I was born, raised, and have lived in the Rust Belt for 52 years. The first eighteen years of my life were spent in the factory town of Elkhart, Indiana, playing basketball and football and dreaming about the deep forests in upstate New York where I’d visited to backpack with my father and uncle, places that seemed otherworldly, so green and with water we drank directly from streams flowing out of the sides of mountains. After that, I lived in northern Illinois for seven years, then another six years in Goshen, Indiana, and for the past fourteen years I’ve lived in Pennsylvania, ten miles north of the dying railroad town of Altoona. Because of these places, notions of decay and injury can be found in my poems, and poets like Jim Daniels and Jan Beatty have been important in showing me ways to write about what matters here. The small village of Tipton where my house sits is near 41,000 acres of game lands. I hunt and fish in what seems to be an imitation of those first forests I encountered in upstate New York, planning my escape into their creases. But even in the most remote places in these 41,000 acres I can’t escape the legacy of the Rust Belt: acid mine drainage from deep tunnel mining and strip mining for coal creates ‘kill zones’ in the forest and makes some of the streams sterile. I suppose I hope that my poems offer a glimpse of the good in these places while not flinching at the harm we’ve done to the land and to each other.” (web)

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January 20, 2015

Todd Davis


Because the bees flew toward light the color of honey, she couldn’t see them
but heard their hum, deep thrum of the colony come out of the hive, comb
dripping with loss and the smoke her father used to subdue, to pacify
the fear that might spur an attack. It wasn’t until her brother began to cry
that she noticed her hair was moving, undulating like water
easing from a rapids, alive with an energy she recognized

as the gentle buzzing of hundreds and hundreds of bees.
They swelled along the strands of her hair, remaking the small world
that floated in front of her eyes, as even more bees curled around her face.
She’d seen the woman at the fair who made a beard of bees
for the crowd of farmers and their families. She read about the love
and patience the woman told the newsman was necessary

as their legs and translucent wings crept and fluttered across
the tender flesh under the chin, fanning cheekbones, slipping
over the helix of the outer ear. Like earrings cut into the loveliest
shapes, with colors of burnished gold and copper,
the bees poured over the girl’s scalp, some finding their way down
the collarbone, onto arms and breasts, abdomens pulsing in time

to the electricity along the hind legs that captured the pollen
for the journey back to the hive. She found it impossible to hold still,
unless she thought of that bearded-bee woman, the affection
that transfixes the body while even more bees conceal the feet
and shins, the knees and thighs, until a girl vanishes, and in her place
a glistening, winged seraph takes to the sky.

from Rattle #45, Fall 2014
Tribute to Poets of Faith

[download audio]


Todd Davis: “I’m blessed because I’m allowed to write about the things I love—the woods and streams and animals that live in the 41,000 acres of forest in State Game Lands 108 and 158 above my house here in central Pennsylvania, as well as about the human animals that live inside my house, my dear wife and two sons. I confess I pray to God but struggle with what God might be. I see what I think is God in the faces of my wife and sons, in witnessing the births and deaths of the flora and fauna in the mountains where I live. And my faith is often shaken or crushed when confronted with the horrific tragedies that also comprise most any form of existence in the 21st century. Many sacred traditions have influenced the way I think and try to live, including Transcendentalism and Buddhism. I’d say more often than not I fail in trying to follow the precepts of such sacred traditions. Ultimately, the faith I’ve come to claim as my own is a form of Mennonite Christianity, whose focus upon peace, social justice, and simple living seems to cohere with the upside down kingdom Christ spoke of. I often explore theological conundrums through my poems because I’m not a person who does well with doctrine or orthodoxy. Thank the heavens for metaphor. I think our honest gestures toward mystery are far safer than literalism or any notion that we might use to confine or circumscribe the sacred. I hope many of my books are attempts at those kinds of honest gestures.” (website)

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February 19, 2014

Todd Davis


after Andrew Wyeth’s “Black Water” (1972)

The farther north we travel the water
goes from blue to black. No cattle
to speak of, so even brown fades
with the memory of Pennsylvania.
In Maine summers run so short, skin
stays luminous as the moon,
and against the sand the sleeping
look as if they’ve drowned.

from Rattle #27, Summer 2007

[download audio]

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February 18, 2014

Todd Davis


after Andrew Wyeth’s “Indian Summer” (1970)

Wakes us on a day in the north
like a girl who has walked deep
into the woods and finds herself
among the shadows of tall pines,
the smallest patch of sky startled
at their tops. She stands
on a slab of granite, warmed
by a sun that is moving toward
some other place. I ask who,
feeling the heat jailed in stone,
would not shed clothes, white
of her bottom made that much more
white by the fading line summer
has drawn across the back?

from Rattle #27, Summer 2007

[download audio]


Todd Davis: “I was in the 2nd grade when I first stumbled upon the paintings of N.C. Wyeth in the Scribner’s Classic, Treasure Island. By the time I was in 5th grade, I’d graduated to his son Andrew’s paintings, and since that time I’ve come to love N.C.’s grandson Jamie’s work. I guess the Wyeths truly have a hold on me. I only hope my poems evoke something that their art carries with it, that they collaborate in the best sense of that word.” (website)

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February 17, 2014

Todd Davis


Try telling the boy who’s just had his girlfriend’s name
cut into his arm that there’s slippage between the signifier
and the signified. Or better yet explain to the girl
who watched in the mirror as the tattoo artist stitched
the word for her father’s name (on earth as in heaven)
across her back that words aren’t made of flesh and blood,
that they don’t bite the skin. Language is the animal
we’ve trained to pick up the scent of meaning. It’s why
when the boy hears his father yelling at the door
he sends the dog that he’s kept hungry, that he’s kicked,
then loved, to attack the man, to show him that every word
has a consequence, that language, when used right, hurts.

from Rattle #23, Summer 2005


Todd Davis: “I loved poetry growing up. My dad would read Keats and Wordsworth and Frost to us at the dinner table. But I didn’t think I could write it until I read Maxine Kumin’s ‘The Excrement Poem.’ As the son of a veterinarian, I wasn’t exactly sure what poems were made of, what was acceptable to write about and what wasn’t. Kumin showed me that all my years of cleaning shit from kennel floors was worth something, that poems are part of the body and the body doesn’t know the difference between the sacred and the profane.”

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September 5, 2013

Review by Cameron ConawayIn the Kingdom of the Ditch by Todd Davis

by Todd Davis

Michigan State University Press
1405 S. Harrison, Suite 25
East Lansing, MI 48823
ISBN: 9781611860702
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.

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July 30, 2012

Review by Todd DavisEarly Creatures, Native Gods by K.A. Hays

by K.A. Hays

Carnegie Mellon University Press
5032 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15289
ISBN: 978-0-88748-547-3
2012, 71pp., $15.95

A longing for and a negotiation with the earth marks K.A. Hays’s splendid second collection, Early Creatures, Native Gods, which is comprised of five named sections—“Renunciation,” “Lament,” “Downeast,” “Early Creatures,” and “Creed.” These section-titles serve to structure our movement–or, better yet, our pilgrimage–with the poet, and while we travel with her to such landscapes as Italy and the eastern shores of the United States, Hays ultimately guides us deeper into the natural world, establishing a possible shared “creed” between speaker and listener. (Yes, these poems seem to speak in a hushed and passionate whisper and ought to be read aloud to at least one other person. Allowing them to stay upon the page and in a solitary head will not offer them the oxygen they need.)

In an effort to emphatically claim this territory, Hays begins her book with a theological argument of sorts in the initial poem, “Assumption,” which both refers to the taking up of Mother Mary to heaven, as well as to the philosophical “assumption” the writer will stake her claims upon as the book moves forward.

“Assumption,” an ekphrastic poem which responds to the “Assumption of the Virgin” by Antonio Allegri da Correggio, a painting the poet has gazed upon during her travels, does not satisfy the speaker in the poem with its depiction of heaven. This display of otherworldliness “looks no more soft and endless / than a yellow dinner plate,” and the poet, while rooting her feet to the floor, proclaims that

                                     Even the Mother of God
would rather be browsing the market outside,
melting on her tongue

a dollop of the cheese made after the cows
have eaten April’s pungent grass.

She concludes with the contention that the “Virgin’s truest heaven” is “a field where the cows still graze, / and mosquitoes mill, / the child unborn, the star / a guide to no particular barn.”

This is one of Hays’s greatest strengths: her ability to undo the other-worldliness of mythology by emphasizing the earthly stage our myths must parade across. In doing so, Hays empathizes with the plight of these estranged “actors,” the manner in which they are forever caught in the stories that ultimately seek to control them, to make them obey based upon some theological or ideological dogma. Hays’s poetry opens the pasture gate and sends her readers beyond the corralled fences of religious doctrine without losing sight that there is some impulse, some need to understand the world through a spiritual dimension.

As the speaker says in “To a Rational God,” “Really, Lord, faith seems a grinning, whistling business, / skepticism a way of slowly offering a hand.” What a splendid metaphor for the poetic work Hays sets about to do–poems that offer a hand, that part the veil of religious mythology: not with the desire or intention to harm those who believe, but to point toward a way of “being” on earth not dependent upon an otherworldly promise.

Hays’ poems, however, do not pose in hubris as somehow above the incomprehension our own mortality presents, and at times plagues us with. Hers is a prosody of compassion, of irony, of prodding and imploring the reader to see the world anew. Without the ready-made answers of religion or ideology, she continues to accept that very human need to call out, to create a “god” in our own image, and such titles as “A Human God Is Not the Same as God” and “To the Unpersoned God” offer insight into Hays’s philosophical wrestling that culminates in the long poem, “Early Creatures,” which is divided into seven sections and places at center stage the complexities of the natural world that draw Hays’s attention, as well as the echo of what our religious belief makes of that world. As the speaker says of molting ducks at sea in the poem’s second section:

The sea casts on and purls them in, a fog
slips through, night settles down, their heads
tuck into dark, bedraggled wings. (I fear the voice of god

may be no more than wind at doors, the settling groan
of mindless airs. The world is touched
by the grandeur of these mindless airs, by minds
that hear a god in loose-hung doors.)

Put simply: for Hays the secular is the sacred. In her cosmology, religion and its trappings often demean or falsify the holiness of nature in trying to make the world something other than itself. To call Hays a religious poet is to assert that dogma or doctrine, belief and doubt, ultimately cannot control the most honest of human responses, and, thus, as the book concludes with “The Mass Has Ended Go in Peace,” we are instructed by her benediction that our going is “not in knowledge, but in calm; not in indifference, / but nearly.”


Todd Davis teaches creative writing and environmental studies at Penn State University’s Altoona College. He is the author of four books of poems, most recently The Least of These (Michigan State University Press, 2010) and Household of Water, Moon, and Snow: The Thoreau Poems (Seven Kitchens Press, 2010). He also edited Fast Break to Line Break: Poets on the Art of Basketball (Michigan State University Press, 2012) and co-edited Making Poems: Forty Poems with Commentary by the Poets (State University of New York Press, 2010). His poetry has appeared widely in such places as Poetry Daily, Gettysburg Review, Shenandoah, North American Review, and Iowa Review. When he’s not working on poems or reading other people’s poems, he’s deep in the 31,000 acres of gamelands above his house, tracking bobcat and bear, turkey and grouse, and taking photos of the wildflowers he seeks out all spring, summer, and fall.

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