Household of Water, Moon, & Snow: The Thoreau Poems by Todd Davis

Household of Water, Moon, & SnowThese poems with their clear music and cool, unexpected depths are the perfect palate cleanser after yesterday’s rich fare. Here, for example, is the beginning (minus the epigraph from Walden) of “Thoreau Surveys the Ice,” in which the naturalist comes out before dawn to witness the break-up of the ice. Read it out loud, if you can:

In late March he tromped over rotting snow, hardened
edges, knee-high holes that held the leg until the weight
of want and momentum broke through to the next,
and the next which led to the pond’s scalloped ledges,
the distance between piled winter and spring’s wanton
wedge.

The chapbook arrived in today’s mail, unsolicited, inscribed with a note by the author too flattering to reproduce here. Todd Davis is a friend and sometime guest writer at Via Negativa, and it probably won’t surprise anyone who remembers those contributions, or our conversation on the Woodrat podcast last year, that he’s now written a cycle of 22 poems about or in the voice of Henry David Thoreau. The chapbook is from Seven Kitchens Press — the featured publisher here last April — which means hand-sewn, beautiful design and typography, everything a traditional poetry chapbook should be. Plus it’s small enough to fit in a large pocket, which means I could’ve taken it into the woods to read deliberately, as it deserves, had it not been pouring rain all afternoon.

Several things occurred to me as I read this. One is that it’s cool to see an author of six scholarly works and numerous journal articles bridging the divide in his own work (and Lord knows in university English departments) between scholarship and creative writing. Harold Bloom once made the point (at the beginning of The Book of J) that every reader forms an image of the author in his or her mind, and that conscientious scholars should at least acknowledge this inevitable quirk or skew. In Household of Water, Moon, & Snow, Todd brings this mental construct into the foreground and makes him speak in a voice that is at once Todd’s and also recognizably Thoreauvian — and at times sounds a bit East Asian, too. And that’s the second thing that occurred to me: any well-educated modern poet trying to reimagine Thoreau can’t help but be influenced by translations of classic Chinese and Japanese literature, a body of work Thoreau almost certainly would’ve loved had he known it. The book begins, as it should, with a deft reference to Transcendentalist belief in “Thoreau Casts a Line in the Merrimack”:

Pickerel, pot, eel, salmon, shad, even more
fish than these swim in the waters of the Self

where he casts again…

Over the course of ten lines, the view broadens into a cosmic vision of the Merrimack River. But wait a second, I say to myself, it was the Chinese who referred to Milky Way as the River of Heaven. And isn’t that an echo of Li Bai’s “Night Thoughts of a Traveler” in the last lines?

…flow outward

beneath the stars and the heavens, the other
rivers running through the glistening black.

The next poem, “Thoreau Hears the Last Warbler at the End of September,” reads very much like a Wang Wei poem, and the one after that, “Dreaming the Dark Smell of Bear,” sounds distinctly Daoist as it contrasts the protagonist’s cabin-building with a black bear.

Look at bear’s house: a hole
in the snow where great puffs of lung
rise through the roof of his dreaming.

There’s more than a bit of Zhuangzi in this dreaming, too, of course — and sleep and dreaming form a leitmotif in the collection. Since I happen to know that Todd is familiar with all that literature, it’s no great insight on my part to see it as an influence; I’m just impressed by the seamlessness of the weaving of voices. Todd’s own, typically unsentimental view of nature seems pretty close to what Thoreau also believed. In fact, when I encountered the first two poems written in the first person, it wasn’t immediately obvious whose voice they were meant to be in.

Those two poems, by the way, might be my favorites in the collection, at least after this first reading. “Eating an Apple” and “Give Us This Day” both challenge scriptural authority and widely held assumptions about work and sustenance; the latter is something of a forager’s manifesto. Picking black raspberries, the protagonist wonders:

Who blessed by this dark
sugar could stay quiet?
Ants wander drunk
into my bucket, across
the visible world
that feeds us, that makes
an offering each day:
beach plum or paw paw,
morel or puffball, even
the spider-legs
of purslane
and the sharp
bite of sorrel.

That bite, I decide, is a Davis hallmark: relationships with the natural world in his poetry are rarely one-way, and never purely aesthetic, but transactional, characterized by loss as well as gain and a certain element of risk. A poem called “The Virtues of Indolence” stars water snakes, and is followed by a meditation “On Beauty” that uses as its exemplar a poison ivy vine. Like Thoreau himself, Davis seems most concerned with learning how to live well, with eyes open to death and the perils of beauty and usefulness. A graceful elegy and evocation, this book, and a fine companion on a rainy April afternoon.

Seven Kitchens Press is offering free shipping on all its titles throughout April.

I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read just four of those books. Details here.

Woodrat Podcast 6: Todd Davis

A conversation with Todd Davis about life and death, religion and poetry

Todd Davis stops by to read some poems from his latest book, The Least of These, as well as from his previous books, and to talk about public reading, what motivates him as an artist, growing up with Mennonites and how that shaped his own beliefs, nature poetry, travel poetry, deer and deer hunting, how to kill in a manner that honors the spirit of the slain, and more.

Here’s a set list of the poems in the podcast:

If you live within driving distance of Altoona, Pennsylvania, don’t miss Todd’s reading on Thursday, February 18, at 7:30 p.m.

Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence)

Podcast feed | Subscribe in iTunes

Our Forgetting

This entry is part 15 of 15 in the series Ridge and Valley: an exchange of poems

 

Dear Dave,

June light lengthens, pulled like string
from a ball of twine, or like days
in the far north, strands of hair so thin

night doesn’t come for months at a time.
With light that long, the eyes and the soul
must grow tired, as must the grasses

and flowers that emerge all at once.
We are made for motion and rest.
To be awake for days on end and then

to sleep, to sleep: it must be like climbing
down a shaft in the earth, dark crumbling,
then collapsing, until you find the edge

of the river that runs far beneath the ground:
waters undetectable to the eye, felt more
through the sound they carry than the caress

they finger over the soft skin on the inside
of the wrist. It is this kind of sleep
none can resist: why we disrobe, slide leg-first

into its current, blackness bearing more
than our bodies, our forgetting
of what continues well above our heads.

—Todd Davis

Bell’s Gap

sawfly

The sawfly stood in the middle of the trail blocking our way, slowly moving its antennae like the arms of a martial artist, its wings too tattered to fly. “They don’t sting,” Steve said. I scooped it up and it we passed it from hand to hand before depositing it on a trailside tulip poplar.

A gang of us — three families — had gathered for a Memorial Day hike in Bell’s Gap, on the trail to Pancake Flats at the top of central Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Front. The trail is unsigned, as are nearly all the trails in our 1.4 million-acre state game lands system, the Pennsylvania equivalent of National Wildlife Refuges. So despite the fact that we’ve lived here for nearly 40 years, and the trail is less than ten miles away, I’d never hiked it before, not having been sure where the good trails are in State Game Land 158. It took a newcomer to the area — poet Todd Davis — to scout out this and other trails in the game lands above his house in his restless hunt for poems and for deer. Deer hunting is confined to the autumn months, but poem hunting is year-round, an open season.

Just because trails lack signs and blazes doesn’t mean they’re unmaintained. In the preceding brief video (which subscribers must click through to watch, I think) my mother demonstrates her famous high-speed log-footbridge crossing technique.

Canada mayflowers

Once across the creek, the trail — an old woods road — begins a gradual ascent of the southern side of the gap. We skirted the edge of a tiny pond just big enough for one pickerel frog and some lily pads. Canada mayflowers bloomed in profusion, which along with some other signs, such as abundant three-year-old rhododendron sprouts, confirmed what Todd had been telling us: that the local deer herd had yet to recover from the winter of 2006. The other common wildflower along the trail also had a name invoking our neighbor to the north: Canada violets. And near the top of the mountain, the birders in the bunch were thrilled to spot a Canada warbler — though they were even more thrilled when they heard and saw a Kentucky warbler on the way back down.

meadow rue

Meadow rue (above) was just coming into bloom — a flower that, despite its common name, tolerates the deepening shade of a late spring woods as well as anything can. This is actually eastern waterleaf (see comments). I found the unopened buds at least as intriguing as the blooms: a mass of feathery bracts reminiscent of some headdress from the highlands of New Guinea. Foamflowers and bishop’s cap were nearing the end of their run, while the last of the painted trillium had shriveled a few days before, by the looks of it.

broken oak

We passed stands of very mature second-growth oaks and tulip poplars, intermingled with hemlocks which still seemed free of woolly adelgid damage. It was a very impressive forest, especially for state game lands, which are often subjected to short-rotation timbering to help pay the agency’s bills. Comparisons with Plummer’s Hollow were inevitable, but a little unfair perhaps, since the exposure, elevation, and geology all differ greatly. Plummer’s Hollow Run follows the same, vertical sandstone formation for its entire length, while Bell’s Gap cuts through a layer cake of shales, sandstones, limestones, and conglomerates. This complex geology helps explain why, in the Appalachians, you never have to go very far from home to see something completely different from what you’re used to.

starflowers

And that in turn might help explain why Pennsylvania has the most stay-at-home population of any state in the union. Certainly in my case, being able to travel a few miles and see starflowers in the path is way more exciting than the prospect of ever visiting the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I realize most people aren’t quite as attuned to such variations in the natural world, but Pennsylvania’s cultural diversity is also due, at least in part, to its complex physical geography: Slavic coal miners a few miles away from Mennonite farmers and Italian quarrymen.

hikers at Pancake Flats

Fortified with chocolate chip cookies, we made it all the way to the blueberry scrubland at the top of the mountain — Pancake Flats, so called I suppose because of the usual scattering of huge, flat boulders and outcrops of Pottsville conglomerate that cap the Front.

It was, as I said, Memorial Day. Some mark the holiday with parades and shows of piety, but I had no stomach to watch an enormous flag being carried through the streets of a town whose council had recently voted to despoil its own section of the Allegheny Front with a massive industrial wind plant right in the watershed for its reservoir. My own loyalty is to the land rather than the symbol, to crazy quilts rather than to the orderly subdivisions of a flag.

On the way back down, we passed another pair of hikers heading up — the first Todd had ever seen on this trail besides himself and those he brought with him. We exchanged smiles and greetings. “I walk up here every couple of weeks,” one of the men said.

walking fern

To anyone with an interest in plants, returning the way one came is rarely boring; you can’t step into the same trail twice. I found a flowering wood sorrel we’d somehow missed on the way up. And on an outcrop of limestone halfway down, Mom and I spotted a gang of eldritch, arrowy leaves spilling over the step-like rocks: walking fern, Asplenium rhizophyllum. It seemed to be in even less of a hurry than we were.

See the complete photoset (11 photos plus the video) or watch the slideshow.

Letter with May’s Insatiable Hunger Tagging Along

This entry is part 13 of 15 in the series Ridge and Valley: an exchange of poems

 

Dear Dave,

Most of the days have been full of green rain and clouds the color
of magnolia petals as they rot in the emerging grasses. Three weeks ago
I planted half the potatoes (white Kennebecs), and just Monday

they broke the earth, a salad of leaves sprinkled with clay. The other half
(Adirondack reds) went into the earth yesterday. When I stuffed my hand
in the burlap sack to draw them out one by one, I discovered some had begun

to rot. I’ll bet the same will happen to us when the hasp of our bodies
is unbolted, that is, if we’ll allow it: old men wrapped in cloth, stuck
in pine boxes during the days of dogwood, its white shining and the Judas tree

just past. Wouldn’t it be nice to know that above our heads there are lady’s
slippers puffed pink and yellow, the world, as round as wild sarsaparilla’s globe,
spinning and spinning, never really going anywhere new, yet full of vengeance

and mercy and the most foolish blessings of these potatoes we’ll harvest in July
and August, boiled, then mashed—a river of butter and milk, salt and sugar,
the bitter pepper that makes us want to gorge ourselves upon this one sweet life.

Todd Davis

Letter to Dave from the Karen Noonan Center on the Chesapeake Bay

This entry is part 11 of 15 in the series Ridge and Valley: an exchange of poems

 

The last two days out on the bay I observe
the tundra swans leaving the flat horizon
of this water, arcing over tidal pools
and the inescapable prairies of marsh grass.
You are on your mountain to the north, closer
to their calls as they wing their way away
from this estuary that saves them each winter.
After so many months of shifting land, of rising
and falling tides, their heavy bodies must ache
for a release, a reprieve to our comings and goings,
whether by boat or air or, oddest of all, by car,
which looks nothing like the way these birds travel.
It’s the unyielding tundra where they will give
themselves over to their own desires. I suppose
most of us need the solid earth beneath our feet
as we choose a mate. The undulating waters
of our hearts make it hard enough to remember
which flyway to follow, let alone how to spend
those transitory days in the half-light of summer
brooding over what we’ve made between us.

Todd Davis

Forgive Me

This entry is part 9 of 15 in the series Ridge and Valley: an exchange of poems

 

Dear Dave,

What is life but fingers placed against blood’s rhythm,
some outward movement, the soul’s coming and going
like a kettle of kestrel that fly up against a ridge
and back out along its face? So much of this one life
goes to desire, the blue and orange feathers of our waking.
Migration is one way, following the ever-blooming, ever-
ripening path of the sun. Yet so much grief awaits—
whether we fly north or south, whether we settle ourselves
in the white-heat that roosts along the Gulf coast
or continue into the rainforest’s dark-green light.
The sun climbs out of the earth in the east and swims
across open water, while night’s westward stroke tugs us
into dream. Nothing travels in a straight line. That’s why
the moon returns each month, ascending the circle of its life,
then disappearing. Forgive me. I don’t want anything more
than this: the song of the goldfinch who comes to eat
of the cone flowers’ small dark seeds, its wisdom
in waiting out winter in one place.

Todd Davis

What I Wanted to Tell the Nurse When She Pricked My Thumb

This entry is part 7 of 15 in the series Ridge and Valley: an exchange of poems

 

Dear Dave,

Blood shows you things: the way the rabbit fell
when the owl raked its back; the manner in which
my grandmother’s stroke shut down the left side
of her body; the tug of the ocean’s tide on my wife
as she bleeds with the possibility of making
yet another life. At twelve, when I cut my hand
cleaning the barbershop—straight-razor slipping
into the pad of my thumb—I became an ornate
fountain, the kind the wealthy put in the middle
of their circle drives, my own heart’s well pumping
onto the mirror. Blood fresh from the body
is so brilliant: deep hues of crimson.
But the longer it sits on the ground, or dries
against the wall or windowpane, the darker
it becomes, more brown than ruddy, like the life
that departs: husk hollowed out, rigid frame
with nothing to fill it.

Todd Davis

Atrial Fibrillation

This entry is part 6 of 15 in the series Ridge and Valley: an exchange of poems

 

Dear Dave,

Yesterday was the dull gray of a river stone.
This morning snow covers our neighbor’s roof,
sky the color of an indigo bunting’s cap.
Fresh from sleep we reach back for summer’s green,
fecund and ridiculous. At our feeder a blue jay
cracks open a seed to warm itself on the fire burning
in the hull. To the west fields are bare and my mother
wears a heart monitor. She rises slowly from bed
to bathe, hope against hope that her heart won’t flutter
like the wings of a sparrow, the furious beating
of a finch as it tries to bring the body into balance,
an agreement with the wind, the rhythm
of the blessedly invisible air.

Todd Davis

 

mixed-species flock of winter birds in raspberry canes

 

November Sabbath

This entry is part 5 of 15 in the series Ridge and Valley: an exchange of poems

 

Villagers attending church, by Walter Sanders
Villagers attending church, by Walter Sanders

 

Dear Dave,

Lamar sits in his wheelchair
at the back of the church: Parkinson’s

propped in his lap like a toddler, bad baby
who crawls on this old man’s chest, pulls

his tired white head to the side
and whispers in his ear about lungs

falling in on themselves. Our minister reads
the words of the Psalmist, who assures us

about the place of the righteous and the wicked.
Lamar’s labored breathing lingers, rests

like a shawl on the shoulders of those of us
who sit in the next to last row. We can’t help

but wonder where the breath of God is, and why
a good man is treated so wickedly.

Todd Davis