Geffrey Davis begins Revising the Storm, his debut collection, with an introduction to the speakers you will meet in his poems and an overview of the agonies they will face. The first line is:
Time’s going has ebbed the moorings
to the memories that makes this city-kid
The book is populated with these characters: young boys trying to become men, stuck in the seam between poverty and sophistication. “Time” is a perfect first word for the collection, especially in its possessive form, as Davis’s speakers often fear and mistrust time. It is an external force always bearing down on them, always moving at its own uncaring pace.
We are also introduced quickly to the mixed dialects Davis employs in most of his poems. The high, tight syntax of “has ebbed the moorings / to the memories” floats quickly into the colloquial “that makes this city-kid // part farm-boy.” All of Davis’s language gallops like this, beguiling the reader with intellect and then drifting into conversational diction. The language is mixed effortlessly, providing the heavier poems with relief just when it’s needed.
Moving on from the masterful first poem, Davis quickly carries the reader through time: a difficult childhood, the 80s crack epidemic suffered throughout the community and privately, male coming-of-age, a first marriage, a teaching career, a second marriage, and – finally, that great salvation – the birth of a new child. The poems loosen as they advance, maturing with the speaker and the subject matter. Davis makes good use of chronology here, flirting with linear time without being overly narrative. The beauty it always there, trumping the timeline.
The bulk of Revising the Storm deals with what we see when we are very young that we cannot unsee, how we learn and cannot unlearn certain vicious truths. The speakers are frequently trying to make sense of past trauma but the very presence and discussion of that trauma – the way Davis shapes images of his drug-addicted father or his put-upon mother – indicates that some things can never be made sense of. These poems are still opening and closing the book of memory, accepting that one may be able to intellectualize agony while still contending with the wounds. As in the closing lines of “My Last Love Poem for a Crackhead, #23,” when Davis writes of a father’s addiction:
…Still, something in me asks for
a new piece of music to yoke to his cravings –
perhaps just the need to shuffle off and sing
my own restlessness back to sleep.
I want him to be beautiful again.
He fucked us over – he did, but breakdown
diminishes everyone. Let me decide
that he never lied or stole more than necessary.
The ghost of this addict father is present throughout the book. In the second and third sections, the poems take on an anxious nobility, the speakers trying to protect a wife, young students, or a newborn child from unnecessary pain. Davis is at his best when he gets aggressive, demanding. His voice is so lyrical, so in love with healing, that it is exciting when he lets the throat open a little and speaks more urgently. In one of the strongest poems, “The Epistemology of Gentleness”, Davis speaks plainly of the urge to protect: “When you’re in love with someone / whose father has committed suicide, you demand // that the world be gentle with her now.”
Never prosaic but always knowable, the collection is in itself a storm that passes slowly but never disappears entirely. If “mad Ireland hurt [Yeats] into poetry”, as Auden wrote, then the crack epidemic and a subsequently addicted father did the same to Davis but he emerges – a fighter but gentle. It is a feat for Davis to create so much tenderness here without being precious. All his subjects, even the loathsome ones, are beloved. All his speakers are filled with hope, always seeking a new definition for humane, constantly revising the storms inside themselves.