These 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
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?
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
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.