You Tell Me Its Underpinnings

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Davis maintains a deep engagement with, and investigation of, the world around her. She is able to immerse herself in the newness of things by seeing them through children’s eyes, and describes what she sees with a lovely freshness and excitement.

My daughter is nine months old. I spend what is probably a ridiculous portion of any given day just admiring her fantastically chubby cheeks. Sometimes when she’s asleep I try to write a poem, and the poem is usually about her, and then I think, who on earth wants to read this drivel? And I put away my notebook and pick up a magazine. (Have you even made it to the end of this paragraph? I’m amazed.)

It is heartening, then to read Carol Ann Davis’ new book of poems, Atlas Hour, in which she takes up the challenge of writing about motherhood and young children, among other things, and manages it admirably. Take, for example, “Mysteries of the Deep,” which captures wonderfully the exhausted, underwater feeling of living with a newborn—the parents blearily watching a TV show about a shark

                                        that once
skeletonized a cow      the announcer says        which is how we feel
most mornings                    1,000 feet of water below us
and no one who speaks                        your language          but you
with your grunting                              and your spit up
sleeping this day only                    at a 45-degree angle
as mysterious        as the flamboyant cuttlefish        the size of your thumb

The poem’s attention moves back and forth between the televised underwater world and the world of the parents and child, bringing into focus the intimacy and strangeness of both. The poem’s final turn collapses tenderness and mystery together:

                        …but now          like so many
unknowns      you call to me from the deep      of the next room        and I answer

In the space of a few lines, Davis has made the parallel between a shark and a baby seem utterly believable, even natural.

A tension between closeness and distance, strangeness and familiarity, drives many of these poems. In writing about her children, Davis is often searching for a language to express both her love for them and her awareness that they are separate from her. In “The dream of eating,” we see a child’s dream of eating everything in the house in order to become, like “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” a butterfly. The poem’s final lines imagine, with plainspoken yearning, that the child would

teach me everything         except
the what more                     of how to keep you here

This kind of premonition of loss is a thread that runs through the collection, and yet the awareness of loss is always balanced with the pleasure these poems take in the here and now. Davis maintains a deep engagement with, and investigation of, the world around her. She is able to immerse herself in the newness of things by seeing them through children’s eyes, and describes what she sees with a lovely freshness and excitement:

      …the volunteer comes                 with his feather on a stick
to rouse roof sleepers              as if such a thing existing
made the world realer        or opened it

(“In the Butterfly Room with Luke at 8 Months”)

If inside the jump castle        one’s shoes were off        one saw      the city
through the fine mesh      one saw        its steeples bounce    as one listened
to the choir…

(“Willem and Rothko (Saturday Farmer’s Market)”)

This marker      in your hand        is solvent
and on special paper      reveals          you tell me
a butterfly’s wing              its underpinnings        colorful
though the surface        is black            oh my colors
you said              the moment you saw it        in the basket
the colors I wanted…

(“Easter Morning with Magic Markers”)

Children act and even speak in many of these poems, but Davis doesn’t play up their cuteness or childishness; what comes across instead is her empathy for them and the richness of their experience. The child’s voice in the middle of the poem—“oh my colors”—stops us not because it is charming but because we hear in it an authentic little thrill of satisfaction and pleasure. It is that sense of discovery to which we are granted access in these poems.

Along with motherhood and children, visual art is a central theme in this collection, with many poems titled after specific artists or works of art. Davis is adept at finding new language for the intimate worlds of Vermeer’s domestic scenes, as well as for Rothko’s intense fields of color—both pretty well-trod ground for ekphrastic poetry. In “Inside Two by Rothko,” for example, she brings the experience of looking at a painting into conversation with the artist’s biography, as well as quotes from Rothko himself:

              …insisting on        this red finally        its halo
nearing white                something affectionate in it        joyful because
you often          went to parties          you found        on this earth      people
to love        red says so                        and the yellow
                        …in the end        what you thought
of yourself      the big mystery      you left us        it is really a matter      the artist
not the man        talking          of ending this solitude      explaining why colors
must touch              of stretching            one’s arms again

We get a sense here of the colors of the painting, and something of Rothko’s life, but the poem conveys most strongly the poet’s wish to get closer to the artist, and the great feeling for the art that must engender such a wish.

The wide spacing of Davis’ poems leans toward the paintings she often writes about, almost as if she wanted the page to work as a canvas might: the reader’s eye moving around, gathering information, and the poem not so much progressing as accruing, as in these lines from “Studioese (Vermeer Suite)”:

How long          you’ve stood          studying glass-grains          of half-hearing
nothing      one hand poised      on leaded windowframe        another
on the silver pitcher        its reflected stripe          of apoplectic blue

Davis’ use of white space and her intense, quiet attention to the world recall George Oppen (to whom one of these poems is dedicated), and like Oppen she is interested in the process of thought—when she writes about visual art, she is writing not just about the visual but about the simultaneity of looking-and-thinking (as evidenced by poem titles such as “Seeing Rothko and Thinking of Crusoe” or “Thinking of You While Looking at a Postcard of the Oratory in El Greco’s House”).

While Davis’ white space pays homage to Oppen, echoes the canvas, and lends the poems a certain meditative quality, it doesn’t always seem quite necessary to me; Davis’ precision of language and the concentrated attention she gives her subjects are effective on their own, and at times I find the spaces-instead-of-punctuation approach to be distracting. This aside, Atlas Hour is a collection of poems both deeply felt and beautifully made. Davis has a great deal to say here, but she says it without shouting.

As she writes in “What takes my breath”: “…where it is dark / we let it be dark, light, light.”

Chloe Martinez holds the MA in Creative Writing from Boston University and the MFA for Writers from Warren Wilson College. Her poetry was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and has appeared in The Cortland Review, Slush Pile, The Normal School, and The Collagist. She lives in Haverford, PA with her husband and daughter. More from this author →