Country Living

sitting in a cold house
staring at my empty wood stove
thinking it’s my fault
that she went cold

and with the lights out it’s brighter
outside than in
the snow reflecting the clouds
reflecting the lights from town

a house is a strange husk
home to so many others
like the 18 white-footed mice
I’ve slaughtered this winter

or my dreams which I no longer recall
but which I presume to exist
like the giant rat snake whose skin
I found in the ceiling

my cold wooden house sits up
a cold mountain hollow
and so I am both high and deep
in the country

Recycling Silver

images were produced
with the help of silver salts

The film is burned
The ash melted

Or torn to bits 
and steeped
in acids

Body as land

Riddled with disease
Veined with

Tribute as payment 
made by one body
or one nation to another 
                in submission

For instance
the US Asiatic Squadron
overcoming the Spanish
Pacific Fleet as the Bay
foamed with smoke
and gunpowder 

The sum
of twenty million

The price
of occupation

Even then
to ford the first of many
waterways was to come
under scrutiny
As children 
we imagined clear
air poured like milk into
                the upside-down bronchial trees

What birds trembled
the leaflets of their wings there
waiting to be read like a book

Rheumatic fevers
and other 
                signs of contagion

And so the first of anyone  
I knew who crossed the ocean
did so clutching an X-ray film 
of their lungs as they climbed 
into the plane

After the ribcage
and the spine and the system
of smaller bones is archived
something pure 
like silver might still 
be recovered

It washes

It's a wash

Which in current usage
means a situation in which 
overall no real loss 
is considered to have 

Fict or Faction

Up, and by coach to Sir W. Coventry, where with him a good while in his chamber, talking of one thing or another; among others, he told me of the great factions at Court at this day, even to the sober engaging of great persons, and differences, and making the King cheap and ridiculous. It is about my Lady Harvy’s being offended at Doll Common’s acting of Sempronia, to imitate her; for which she got my Lord Chamberlain, her kinsman, to imprison Doll: when my Lady Castlemayne made the King to release her, and to order her to act it again, worse than ever, the other day, where the King himself was: and since it was acted again, and my Lady Harvy provided people to hiss her and fling oranges at her: but, it seems the heat is come to a great height, and real troubles at Court about it. Thence he and I out of doors, but he to Sir J. Duncomb, and I to White Hall through the Park, where I met the King and the Duke of York, and so walked with them, and so to White Hall, where the Duke of York met the office and did a little business; and I did give him thanks for his favour to me yesterday, at the Committee of Tangier, in my absence, Mr. Povy having given me advice of it, of the discourse there of doing something as to the putting the payment of the garrison into some undertaker’s hand, Alderman Backewell, which the Duke of York would not suffer to go on, without my presence at the debate. And he answered me just thus: that he ought to have a care of him that do the King’s business in the manner that I do, and words of more force than that. Then down with Lord Brouncker to Sir R. Murray, into the King’s little elaboratory, under his closet, a pretty place; and there saw a great many chymical glasses and things, but understood none of them. So I home and to dinner, and then out again and stop with my wife at my cozen Turner’s where I staid and sat a while, and carried The. and my wife to the Duke of York’s house, to “Macbeth,” and myself to White Hall, to the Lords of the Treasury, about Tangier business; and there was by at much merry discourse between them and my Lord Anglesey, who made sport of our new Treasurers, and called them his deputys, and much of that kind. And having done my own business, I away back, and carried my cozen Turner and sister Dyke to a friend’s house, where they were to sup, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields; and I to the Duke of York’s house and saw the last two acts, and so carried The. thither, and so home with my wife, who read to me late, and so to supper and to bed. This day The. Turner shewed me at the play my Lady Portman, who has grown out of my knowledge.

I am one faction
sober and ridiculous

worse than the orange king
with my undertaker’s hand

with words of force
in the laboratory of myself

or in the back field
grown out of my knowledge

Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Friday 15 January 1669.

Landscape with poet: Todd Davis’ Coffin Honey

Last week I snowshoed down the ridge a ways to where a paved road crosses (the Skelp road, for you locals), beyond which Brush Mountain rises another hundred feet or so in a mildly spectacular fashion. It’s a good time of year to trespass on neighboring properties, since the last deer season ended in mid-January and no one is out. Looking at the view, I realized that it included the house of one of Pennsylvania’s best and most prominent eco-poets, my friend Todd Davis. Long-time Via Negativa readers will remember his poems featured here over the years. I jotted down a quick poem on my iPhone and emailed it to him (because, Mennonite that he is, he doesn’t have a smart phone) the next morning, along with this photo:

landscape with poet

dear Todd
snowshoeing down
the ridge yesterday I saw
under the snow a mountain
and under the mountain your subdivision
your undivided vision
landscape with poet I think
smiling to myself
as if there could be
any other kind

Yesterday Todd’s seventh full-length poetry collection Coffin Honey officially entered the world. Since I have an advanced reading copy (thanks, Todd!) I am here to tell you that it includes some of his best, and darkest, work to date. Here’s a sample.

The Book of Miracles

Despite Ursus’s approach
the fawn remains curled, delicate
calligraphy attempting to mimic
crinkleroot and leafduff.

Like a held breath, the disguise
falters, and the stream’s clapping
masks the bear’s shuffled gait.

With three nails, Ursus opens
the book of miracles and reads
the fawn’s newly written muscle:
ink the color of ginseng berries,
taste like copper wounded with salt.

The book of miracles, when recited,
sounds like tendon and cartilage
cracked, snap of shoulder moving
out of joint, slurp of marrow.

Before any of this, the heart,
sweetest and most joyous of meat,
is purchased by the mouth
with singing groans.

Such holy books aren’t new.
Ursus himself was resurrected
by the light that grows each day,
that causes everything to climb
upon the back of another
and eat until full.

What’s left of the fawn
doesn’t squirm in his belly,
but as Ursus sleeps, the doe-mother
forages where she left her child:
nipples aching, rivulets of milk
running down slender legs.

Until Darkness Comes

A 100-year-old gray and ductile iron foundry in Somerset, PA, has issued a closing notice to workers, according to local reports.

The white blades turn the sky: red-
eyed turbines blinking away the danger
of flying things. Small children float up
over the Alleghenies, parents chasing
the dangling ropes of weather balloons.
It’s hard to predict when a storm may blow through.
A boy huddles by a bedroom window, wonders
if his father knows where every deer hides
on the mountain. It’s his job to pull the sled
when his father makes a kill. He’s been taught
in school the wind that circles the blades carries
electricity to the towns where steel was made.
Three years ago his sister disappeared in the clouds,
heat lightning like veins in the sky. She sends a letter
once a month with a weather report and money
their mother uses for an inhaler. Most of the coal dust
has settled, but fires burn on the drilling platforms
and the prehistoric gas smells like the eggs that spoil
in the hutch when the hens hide them.
The boy never wants to leave this place.
Everything important is buried here: his grandparents,
a pocket knife he stole from his best friend, the eye-teeth
of an elk he found poached at the bottom of a ravine.
Yesterday in the barn a carpenter ant drilled a hole.
The boy bent to the sawed-circle and blew into it,
breath forced down into darkness. He dreams each night
of a horse galloping from a barn, mane on fire
like a shooting star. He prays for a coat sewn from pigeon
feathers, for small wings to fly over the tops of trees
where the children land when their balloons begin to wilt.
On summer evenings barn swallows careen like drones,
gorging dragonflies that skim the swamp.
The birds’ blue shoulders cant and angle, breast
the color of the foundry’s smokestacks as they crumble
beneath wrecking balls and bulldozers, extinguishing
the mill fires the boy’s grandfather never dreamt
would go out.


When you go deep, following a winding river to its source,
you’re soon bewildered, wandering a place beyond knowing.
Hsieh Ling-Yün

Questions between branches roost in hemlocks along the stream.

Growing upward into the skull, the orange ghost of porcupine teeth scores the tree’s cartilage.

Answers unravel in creases, like the yellow yarn of witch-hazel flowers: folds folding over into narrowing passes.

This is the only way through.

A hundred thousand years ago the currents of an inland sea erected a sandstone altar.

If you look at the winding gap, the striations become clear.

As Ursus climbs higher, the stream winnows, speaking the names of the dead.

On the other side of the mountain, water flows in the opposite direction.

Sitting Shiva

If you find the bones of a bear, sit down and stay with them.
The dead desire our company. Touch each one—scapula,
tibia, ulna—even the tiniest bones of the hind and forefeet,
the curve of every claw. Just out of sight, a thrush will sing.
Bird song is a way to speak in secret. Find comfort
in the arbutus that whitens each March on the old logging road.
Wait until dark. A full moon will rise from the bear’s skull,
showing what she thought of us. Hold the moon-skull in your lap,

stroke the cranial ridges. You may see your dead father
scaling the talus to the blueberry field where this bear ate,
mouth sated and purpled by the sweetest fruit. Your mother
will be in the room on the second floor of the house, packing
and then unpacking a box of your father’s clothes. It’s hard
to give up this life. But we must. Others are waiting behind us.


Here’s the publisher’s description:

In Coffin Honey, his seventh book of poems, celebrated poet Todd Davis explores the many forms of violence we do to each other and to the other living beings with whom we share the planet. Here racism, climate collapse, and pandemic, as well as the very real threat of extinction—both personal and across ecosystems—are dramatized in intimate portraits of Rust-Belt Appalachia: a young boy who has been sexually assaulted struggles with dreams of revenge and the possible solace that nature might provide; a girl whose boyfriend has enlisted in the military faces pregnancy alone; and a bear named Ursus navigates the fecundity of the forest after his own mother’s death, literally crashing into the encroaching human world. Each poem in Coffin Honey seeks to illuminate beauty and suffering, the harrowing precipice we find ourselves walking nearer to in the twenty-first century. As with his past prize-winning volumes, Davis, whose work Orion Magazine likens to that of Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver, names the world with love and care, demonstrating what one reviewer describes as his knowledge of “Latin names, common names, habitats, and habits . . . steeped in the exactness of the earth and the science that unfolds in wildness.”

Order Coffin Honey directly from the publisher or wherever new books are sold. Visit Todd’s website for links to all his books. Then go for a walk.

Origin Story, with Radio Image of the Galaxy

For as long as we can think of stories,
there has always been one about
stars— how they floated 

into inscrutable space, 
a group of them winking like necklaces 
a woman looped on a shelf of low-

hanging cloud, before continuing with her
labors. How could a pestle blow rearrange
the universe instead of threshing 

the hulls from grain? Wrapped in layers, 
origin is an heirloom piece one generation 
hands down to the next. And in the 1400s,

someone noticed the interstice of
sterres. Astronomers have tried 
to figure out interstellar distances  

through parallax or the observed 
displacement of an object caused 
by a change in point of view.

More recently, they've made radio
images of gauzy threads, mysterious
filaments at the center of the Milky

Way. They're like flimsy patches
of glitter I could sew on my sleeve 
or jeans, or pin to my hair. I imagine 

the ends waving to each other 
or plucking at their harp strings, each 
movement the same distance from

the next or around 150 light
years away— the points they occupy
as well as the space betwyne them.



Up late

Up and to the office, where all the morning busy, and so home to dinner, where Goodgroome with us, and after dinner a song, and then to the office, where busy till night, and then home to work there with W. Hewer to get ready some Tangier papers against to-morrow, and so to supper and to bed.

a room with a song
night work
against tomorrow

Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Thursday 14 January 1669.


So up and by coach to Sir W. Coventry’s, but he gone out, so I to White Hall, and thence walked out into the Park, all in the snow, with the Duke of York and the rest, and so home, after visiting my Lady Peterborough, and there by invitation find Mr. Povy, and there was also Talbot Pepys, newly come from Impington, and dined with me; and after dinner and a little talk with Povy about publick matters, he gone, and I and my wife and Talbot towards the Temple, and there to the King’s playhouse, and there saw, I think, “The Maiden Queene,” and so home and to supper and read, and to bed. This day come home the instrument I have so long longed for, the Parallelogram.

in the park

the snow is here
to lick and play

an instrument I have
so longed for

Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Wednesday 13 January 1669.