By Todd Davis. Michigan State University Press, 2019. 110 pages. $19.95/paperback or eBook.
For many years, the call of the ocean has enabled me to feel connected to something far greater than my individual self. In its awesome mysteries, it reminds me how truly small I am on the playing field of the universe.
Far more than myself, Todd Davis is so profoundly aware of the natural world that he experiences the same kind of relationship to something as small as bumblebees “fat on what the world feeds them,” “a barred owl” calling “out a prophecy,” or the smell of “creek water on skin.” Much of the power of this book lies in the breadth of his awareness and how his everyday experiences find enlightening metaphors in the natural world.
The first poem in this collection, “Geomorphology,” presents the lens from which Davis writes. “What does a landscape dream of in its unsettled dreams?” Throughout his poems, Davis edges around the biblical concept of who shall have dominion, in order to suggest that, in his experiential understanding, humans might at best hope to share dominion with nature. Davis invites us to step away from the ego-lens with which so many understand the world, and recognize that we are but a small part of something far more enduring than our own sweet lives. “Long before our image marked the water’s surface, the stream / uttered its own name, comprised of sounds that trouble tongues.”
While many of the poems in this volume reflect the poet’s sadness about what humans have caused to happen to the natural world, he is also able to find much to embrace. In his poem “Passerine,” the poet considers the usefulness of “the arrangement of a bird’s toes” that enable it to hold still, “sleep sitting up,” or “roost in the canopy” of trees, which he follows with the observation:
. . . We’ve stolen
most of paradise with our opposable
thumbs. Somewhere among the tamaracks
a mockingbird mimics our endless lust
by pilfering its neighbors’ songs.
Throughout, Davis’s poems are steeped in a perspective that requires our minds to see more clearly both the sweetness and uncertainty of hope:
I want our children’s hands
to hold the river, to watch it spill
through their fingers, back to a source
older than our names
Part of the compelling power of these poems comes from the ways Davis is able to hold, in the same space, a profound sorrow at the human desecration of our planet where “grief shudders involuntarily / like an aspen leaf” and still embrace with tenderness the gifts the natural world offers.
in the field’s tall grasses,
my son lay his head in my lap,
looked up at the birds flying south
and asked how old the sky was.
We’d risen early to listen to
migrating thrushes, to see them
take flight from the trees before
I told him they followed the
moon’s slivered path, the same
ancient corridor we use when we
leave the earth.
While poem after poem consistently reminds me that I tend to see the world through rose-tinted glasses, they also serve to make me more appreciative of the continual paradox that life is both much harsher and more sacred than I usually acknowledge. “Some have gone missing / but how else would we go on living / except with senses open?”
Davis’s poems are steeped in the humility that comes from having paid steady attention to the place of humans within the much larger natural world. They serve as explorations of “the dimming blood we share” and remind us that “Our desire / to know more, to carry more of what we know with us / causes us to forget that time is a swirl of stars, a constellation / of galaxies, a dream we can’t remember when we wake.”
Even though the font with which these poems are printed is so small that reading them strained my aging eyes, I delight in having read each and every one. Davis is a keen observer, and similar to cosmologist Brian Swimme’s amazing work, his poems present the wondrous awe of the universe in a way that ultimately serves to reawaken us to the sacred dimensions of the reality within which we live.
Michael S. Glaser served as poet laureate of Maryland from 2004 to 2009. A devoted follower of the work of Quaker author Parker J. Palmer, Glaser is co-editor of The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, 1965–2010. More at michaelsglaser.com.