Everything about Christina Davis' excellent book happens
on a small, human scale: 'As if there were just one / of each word, and the
one / who used it, used it up' ('The Primer'). This is both the work's great
strength and, paradoxically my only source of disappointment: there are just
43 pages of very short poems here, and I could have done with twice as many
of them. The cover of the book shows a beautiful photo of a bird's nest
filled with dice instead of eggs. It sums up how I feel about the book as a
whole - I want a hundred such provocative and imaginative images, not the
inevitable minimalist few. I know, minimalism demands the minimal, but when
you're good at it, why pare it all back so much all the time?
These are all veiled compliments, I know, but this is really good work and I
wish the writer would just let go a little bit more; free herself up. It's a
very good first collection of its kind, from a new U.S. poet - go on, treat
yourself to it - but it also might just be a little too finely wrought, and
deliberated over, leaving me wondering how long it will be before there are
another 43 pages of such poems. Japanese tea bowls are aesthetic ceramic
objects of the fleeting moment: form, content, philosophy, warts, and all. I
don't think tiny minimalist poems should be afraid of that either - it's part
of the aesthetic. Don't overwork them.
Lest I become sidetracked into a 'size matters' review, I want to reiterate
that the quality of the work is very
high, and these are enjoyable poems to read. I've thought a lot about them, as
well as hummed their lines in my head once th book has been put down. they
have stayed with me - a mark of good poems surely. I have also recently been
reading George Messo's new collection, Entrances, from Shearsman, which has a similar feel to
Davis' Forth A Raven - exquisite images, exquisite pacing,
leaving time and space for the poetry to resonate imaginatively, musically,
emotionally, intellectually. Both cut against current trends of expansiveness
in contemporary poetry, and are all the more refreshing for that. They are
serious-minded, brave books, with a finely-tuned ear to the cadences of mind
and soul's music; how that is expressed in poetry. Davis' poems, however, are
also the kind of work that you have to 'be into' to really appreciate: her short,
enigmatic and aphoristic poems are very much of a kind. For me, that's great,
because I tend to go for this sort of thing; others will doubtless find it
too gnomic, too spare. Maybe even precious in places. That's just taste. But
there are a few nervously angst poems here about death - the last six in the
book take us from modernist isolation to the inevitable demise: 'The hair,
the skin: it goes by so briefly the body'. It's beautifully done that; but
definitely done before. Offsetting the weight of all this mortality is an
interesting use of humour, so that Death (big D) becomes death (small d, with
smiles), which is much more successful -
What is the
name of our death.
Is it really
stroke or rope, really fever or falling?
I would like
grandmother died of Lillian.
grandfather of Anthony.
herself, and Nell of herself.
Of Daisy, did
my dog die. And of blades, the grass.
We go forth
in the name we lived.
I will die of
I was so called.
Calling', in entirety)
There's wit and personality in these lines, as well as an individual
aesthetic and a clear control of materials.
There is also an almost Eastern European estrangement in may of these poems:
'I wanted to be a tree / and myself-seeing-the-tree, // a bird and
myself-being-the-bird. // O creatures-in-law...' (from 'Nostalgia for the Infinite'), that
sometimes becomes surreal, 'In Bird, I speak brokenly. Hiss and flail and
never learn. // And the swan will never mouth / the noun for bread, the declension of crumb. Though I could stop // its migration with a
crumb' (from The Sadness of the Lingua Franca'). There's a welcome animistic
world stirring behind the incantatory magic of these carefully selected
words. I like the work for that: its philosophical bravery and restlessness;
its continual questioning and unusual perspectives that make those questions
ring in new ways. Yet if I tire of it anywhere, it is also in the focus on the
words, and their heavy epistemological
orthodoxy at the expense of more interesting ontological and spiritual
questions, as well as formal questions - what resources can the minimal poem
offer us both formally and in terms of content, other than all that time and
space and the inevitability of the ever-present staring void? To what other,
equally pressing human matters, can such minimalist humour be applied? It
doesn't all have to be existential. Yet it hardly seems fair to criticise a
very good first book of poems for having ideas that question the nature of
what we can know - for me, it's just that the poems are too grounded in that
epistemological doubt, before the inevitable death.
James Applewhite has produced another version of that which Mimi
Khalvati achieved some years ago with her collection Entries on Light (Carcanet) - the 'momentary registration of light
on the world around, and on the world withinÓ (Kelly Cherry, blurb). The
idea, like most others, is nothing new, it must therefore obviously be in the
treatment that the interest lies.
Interestingly, both Khalvati and Applewhite adopt formal strategies: but,
whilst I found Khalvati's formalism liberating, Applewhite's simply gets in
the way. His is a finely crafted collection of poems, but overly academic,
ponderous, and sometimes archaic in both treatment and language.
If that sounds entirely negative, which I don't intend, these poems are also
sometimes charming and insightful, written with maturity, humanity, and a
quiet acceptance of individual and collective responsibilities and fates. But
they are rarely moving or exciting in their thought patterns or language-
use, unlike Christina Davis' for example. The weight of Applewhite's
formality makes his a desk-bound, chair-bound, study-bound kind of poetry, even
as it struggles to deal with outdoor locations, nature in its manifold
appearances, love, loss, the big themes of the universe etc. Davis', in contrast, definitely goes
with you out there into the world.
Applewhite employs the quatrain for most of his book, and exhausts the few
potential rhyme schemes it offers, from monorhyme, through enveloped, and
framed forms of the possible schemes. Once that limited job is done, it's
done, and little more remains. Added to that are the endless repetitions of
image: crape myrtle trees, the grandson, entropy, family relationships,
Christ, the cross, and an unattractive use of scientific terminology and
nomenclature that might lend the poems academic weight, but which clang like
pan-lids: 'By inverse square of their distance, / gravitationally attracted
masses enact / both Newton's constructs'. We know! Stop lecturing your
reader! Combined with the knowing religiosity that manifests itself as a
mannered 'not-knowing', these are poems that endlessly straightjacket us into
perceiving or thinking in received ways - there really is very little room
for a reader in work of this nature.
In the few poems in which he alters this formal strategy and produces stanzas
of varying length to other ends, or writes poems in single stanzas (more like
a block of blank verse), we find welcome relief from the monotony of his
phrase, his line, his stanza and his argument. They also pull him away from
what is often a bizarre syntax forced by the ordinance of the rhyme scheme
and the measure. Poems like 'Against an Ocean Horizon', 'The Jewish Cemetery
and Museum', 'Invisible Fence' and 'Soul Clearing' are the best in the book,
whilst the touching humanity and universality of 'Family Reunion' is honest
and direct, if not a little sentimentally consolatory: 'The hand // that
catches the two-year-old from falling, / when the wooden rocking horse rears,
/ is everyone's'.
But more often than not, I found myself surprised by the sheer ugliness of
the phrasing in this book:
on the opposite shore raise iron
filigree against porcelain sky, sun
poplars. Small birds flicker
as suddenly a pileated woodpecker,
black-white wing over
water, swings upside-down
cage his crest, a red fire
among berries he beaks. Again
The image here, I find interesting; its treatment is bizarrely ugly. The
twists in the syntax, for such naturalistic imagery, are strangely
inappropriate and forced. I watch the ups and downs of the jagged elbows of
these lines, and see a novice violinist scraping a bow over the strings. It
also sounds like that and, unfortunately, occurs in many of the poems
There is also, for me, an off-putting neo-Larkinism to much of this work:
People take you
way you once counted
on your own
body. Isn't it a pity?
don't feel any.
I'm afraid this has all been done before, done much better, and with more
interesting and satisfying results.
Andy Brown 2006