My friend, poet Carol Ann Davis, has two poems in The American Poetry Review this month: “After a Painting by Ruth Gutmannova” and “Safety,” as well as gorgeous review of her first book Psalm in “The Art of Losing, Four Contemporary American Women Poets and Grief” by Jacqueline Kilosov. I decided to post my review of her book Psalm, first published in October 2007 in The Post & Courier. Carol Ann now teaches at Fairfield University in CT.
Carol Ann Davis, Poet of Exactitude and Beauty
I have waited a long time to read the first book of poems by College of Charleston Associate Professor of English Carol Ann Davis. Ms. Davis was runner-up for the esteemed Dorset Prize offered by Tupelo Press, and her book Psalm was just released by this well known literary publisher. It is, without a doubt, the best first collection of poems I have ever read. Each poem is its own exquisite reliquary, and the poems require the kind of reverence one associates with a reliquary. It is a book called Psalm, after all. It is also a beautifully designed book. The cover is edged with a bit of the painting St. Agnes, by Domenchino. Like the poems in the book, the cover is dipped into a painting that expresses faith. Art, photography and music are the cultural well that Ms. Davis draws from to process the intense emotions contained in her poetry. She makes associations with a number of visual artists, and in the process she connects us with the culture that ultimately defines us. Part of art’s function is to express the inexplicable, and in this way it enables human beings to survive and make sense of all experience. The poems, paintings, and music that ultimately endure are the ones that teach us how to cope and find joy in places we did not expect to find it. Our faith serves the same the function. Psalm is filled with poems accomplishing all of these things.
It is no surprise to learn that Psalm is actually the third book of poems written by Ms. Davis. She attributes the successful publication of this manuscript to the inherent narrative arc of the book, which moves between the death of her father and the birth of her first child Willem. It’s as if the poems bridge the gap between the two extremes. None of us are exempt from loss and grief, and we all experience the wonder of birth whether directly or indirectly. Sometimes it happens all at once.
In the poem “Listening to Willem Squeal while a Selmer Guitar Reminds Me of the Existence of All Things” Ms. Davis begins with a description of the psalms and ends with the lines “….our world quickly made/of stones and river water/and grief transmuted into fire.” Willem, named for Willem de Kooning, is Carol Ann Davis and Garret Doherty’s oldest son. This poem, which is so grounded in the things of the physical world – a baby squealing while music is playing in the background…the water and the stones of the earth, ending with the emotional state literally “transmuted into fire”, is a literal description of the aesthetic approach taken by Ms. Davis. Her work, which springs from the personal and emotional details of her own life, is lifted into the rarified aesthetic realm of a poem. John Donne’s description of “spiritual things, of a more rarified nature than knowledge” could be an epigraph for this collection.
Many of these poems are elegiac in nature. Three, entitled “Grief Daybook I” “Grief Daybook II.”, and “Grief Daybook III” are placed at intervals in the book and hold the other poems down like ropes through a sail. “Grief Daybook I” begins with a meditation on the things that preoccupy the poet in her daily life – “orange juice, on the table/papers still heavy/with requests.” Then comes the longing that comes with grief –
This morning I want to drive the six hours home
just to touch the stone
over my father’s heart,
his name chiseled into vowels
and consonants. I want to camp there,
to sleep there
where other mourners
come looking for someone else
and cross over us. What is the heart
but a request? What is it
to be long dead, dead a week,
“Grief Daybook II” refers to a Walker Evans Photograph taken in Ms. Davis’s home state ofFloridain 1934. This is home, the place her father is buried. The third poem in this trilogy ends –
Where you’ve gone, there will be a night sky of psalms –
a cello’s goose neck. Fingers waiting
above a stalled note.
Oh, ear of my ear,
there’s hardly anything
left of you now.
The poem on the page facing “Grief Daybook III” is entitled “An Understanding Between Living and Dead.” It could be kind of subtitle for Psalm, which ends with the poem “Corn Maze Afternoon.” This poem, inspired by a visit to a corn maze with her family, is a hopeful vision of our capacity absorb grief and experience ordinary and extraordinary joy. “Nothing but grass and the three of us/ adrift in the orchard. Much as we will be……”
(Sections of poems reprinted with permission of the author, taken from Psalm, Poems by Carol Ann Davis, published by Tupelo Press in 2007.)