Review by Craig Beaven
Since Frank O’Hara’s reflections on learning of the death of Billie Holiday—or perhaps further back, when Andrew Marvell gazed out the window of his inn onto the shores of Dover—readers have come to appreciate poems that capture the mind in motion. Whether it’s the mimetic quality that allows the reader to see “real” lived consciousness, or that the authentic humanness of these poems allows us to identify more closely with the speaker, the more lyric and narrative tradition of the past 200 years has largely been “about” a person sitting and thinking and how the mind’s path is hardly linear but somehow always “right.” Perhaps the paragon of this aesthetic is Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room,” where a quotidian moment of everyday ordinariness can lead—through technique and craft, association and speech—to moments of sheer wonder and sublime mystical utterance. Poems in this vein seem less written than they are captured, thought out and performed apparently in the act. Of course, the freshness of the thinking is an illusion created by craft, but an illusion we all want to partake of.
I say this in light of Passiflora by Kathy Davis. Like Robert Hass or Elizabeth Bishop, the poems of Kathy Davis appear to perform themselves as they go—to unfold from a small domestic moment of observance or narrative that think into larger, weightier, often stranger and heightened statements of wonder. Something we tend to value in this aesthetic line is sudden shifts in attention and consciousness: the poet discovers something new through the associative meander of human thought.
Hass and Bishop are good company to keep for Davis, as both predecessors spend much time in the domestic sphere. If Hass can begin a poem with a breakfast from his childhood, and leap through the concepts of gender roles and into the fall of Troy and the fleeing of Aeneas (“The World as Will and Representation”), Davis can see a wolf in her neighborhood, quote a robotic voice of an alarm, discuss Schumann and Adorno, and address the binaries of sanity/insanity, domestic/wild, chaos/order (“Ruins, Trophies, Palms.”) Of the wolf skirting the suburb, she writes
[…] The man
across the way stuffed one
for target practice. Up close,
you can see the holes, the wholly
enlightened earth radiant
with triumphant calamity.
My neighbor watches from inside.
Moments like these have us in strict attention to the machinations of mind and narrative—this is a complex poem but presented to us with the ease of an afternoon chat. It’s that associative thinking—the verisimilitude of the mind in action, in process, that makes the strangeness of the poem so seemingly ordinary. Davis often provides an outsider’s perspective to the strange proceedings of the word she inhabits. In this, she is akin to someone like Ruth Stone, a spouse and mother whose wry voice and persona never precludes a rigor that can lead to wonder, trance, and the exact, illuminating image.
Passiflora can also be added to that small but growing catalogue of poetry collections that think about adoption. Some of the most intense and stunning moments come when the speaker imagines the birthmother of her children, or investigates the inevitable feeling of loss that come with making a family through these means. Her style is so controlled, her vision so clear, that these poems never approach the maudlin, the sentimental, or overwrought, even as the emotions and subjects keen wildly in that direction. Take the astonishing sequence “For My Son’s Birth Mother.” That the poems are both an address to a lost person and a series of ekphrastic meditations is not just clever, it is an uncanny way into the self: a speaker, in autobiography, musing on art objects across museums and decades, each one in some way getting into the self and causing the speaker to examine consciousness and the unconscious. Gazing at the installation “Bird” by Lael Corbin is a mirror to the self, the unfinished nature haunting any viewer. After 9 lines of description, Davis turns suddenly—that associative “real” thinking rendered on the page—to address the birthmother. The shift is stunning, painful, beautiful, and feels lived in. One of the many powers of the collection, then, is its ability to find the self everywhere, but to never be solipsistic. Davis makes a connection and shows us that connection and how it as arrived at—the mind in motion meeting our mind in reflection.
What makes these poems truly sing, however, is not so much the person reflecting/thinking or the “realness” of thought, but rather the incredible pressure placed upon the line and image. Davis is stunning in her ability to describe, and in her power to twist a sentence into a musical phrase across lines. In another nod to the ekphrastic, “Daylight’s illusion puddles the floor / of the English entrance hall.” Like the miniature worlds she is describing, the poems take on that jeweled, Faberge Egg-quality of intricacy and shine—“a chandelier quivers with crystals / the size of pinheads.” The collection’s title asks us to think about flowers, and there are gardens and blooms aplenty in Passiflora, but the floral motifs exist not as decoration but as vehicles for consciousness to enter detail and meditation. A poem titled “Weeding” is wonderfully misleading: what begins as a mild domestic landscape allows the mind to wander into memory (“I was trying to remember / the French for strawberry”) even as it delights in sheer language like “volunteer corn,” “pigweed” and “evening / primrose in the spirea.” The poem concludes with an intense gaze into “a tangle of roots / the nerve ends / tremble tiny clods of dirt hanging on” when the French fraise finally arrives and releases us.
A poem titled “Starlings” begins “A black hand across the landscape, then thousands / rummaging the corn’s winter wreckage,” as if we have been placed inside a living van Gogh painting. The poem then associates from the color black to appropriate colors of gloves, to suicide, and to the proper ways to arrange a place setting for dinner. These are disparate threads of narrative, held together by the lyric vision and the human voice thinking through. The black hand that is a starling becomes the hand setting the table, later slapping, later cutting faces from photographs—all in the same poem. The speaking voice collapses time, rules of decorum, scenes and secrets into a single meditation that unfolds before us with the freshness of discovery. A persona poem, “Eve: After the Fall” is bursting with vivid images as it describes a beehive broken loose, a sequined child turning cartwheels, and “gods” closing their ears to the speaker. This remarkable assemblage of wonders ends in an even richer place, where Eve cleans the lint trap from the dryer and with the lavender fluff molds her own little man (that even, shockingly, begins to breathe).
When we arrive at the magnificent final poem, we are ready for the vision: the speaker longs to pet the falcon on her arm, remembers her mother and her mother’s definition of virginity, and describes the bird as “strange angel / of the mews, almost weightless / on the glove, / she will snap / the songbird’s back / to satisfy her hunger.” This poem exists in the moments just before Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” the falcon has not yet leapt into the whirlwind but waits on the speaker’s arm. Through the speaking and thinking, the poem finds a rhythm that becomes ecstatic prayer: “Hail Mary / full of grace, Artemis and Isis, / wings folded, blinded quiet, / she tilts an ear / to the field’s / great reservoir of sky.” The poet has discovered a mirror in the bird of prey; the speech blurs them into one shining animal. Every reader, no matter what their aesthetic camp, would do well to read this book. The suddenness of the perceptions, the illumination through clarity, the sensuousness of the lines, will delight anyone who cares for poetry. What we encounter in these meditations on birth, death, flowers, art, and science, is a human mind and the human body that holds the mind; and that world we are privy to for these 60 pages is rich, surprising, interesting, and rendered in remarkable images and shapes.
Kathryn Davis lives in Rockville, Va., and earned her MFA at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her poetry has appeared in Blackbird, Barrow Street, Diode, The Massachusetts Review, and other journals. Her full-length manuscript, Passiflora, was selected by Lesley Wheeler as the winner of the 2019 Cider Press Review Book Award and was released in February 2021.
Craig Beaven's first collection of poems is Natural History, winner of the Gerald Cable First Book Award. His poems have appeared in Best New Poets 2016, Tin House, Third Coast, Pleiades, Rattle, Prairie Schooner, and many others. He currently lives with his wife and children in Tallahassee, Florida.