From the Publisher
“Nouns and verbs have dreams and shadows, as well as their own irreducible essence, and they spill here from the hands of a master. These poems are constructed of a hard and durable majesty that possesses the deepest and most notable sentiments while slipping free always of the damning residue of sentimentality. To say that there is wisdom and beauty in these poems is like saying that fire is hot or that food, or love, is good. On every page, In the Kingdom of the Ditch reminds us that life amazes.”
Rick Bass, author of The Lives of Rocks and The Wild Marsh
“Todd Davis, in his new collection of stunning poems, marries the ordinary names of things to their extraordinary enigma. His acts of taxonomy lead not only to knowledge of this world but as well to gnosis of that other ineffable realm we might call the sacred. His poems see into the mystical and their song reaches toward the visionary, which is to say he is a lyric poet of breathtaking brilliance.”
Eric Pankey, author of Reliquaries and The Pear as One Example
“These are intimately and precisely noted poems that examine the interdependent relationships among the inhabitants of the natural worldourselves included. We humans are the ones who not only eat blackberries but revel in them; who sense the ghost of God in natural solitudes; who mourn our dead, taking the losses personally. By turns elegiac or celebratory, these poems are constructed from honest encounters within selfnature and the one body of the world.”
Margaret Gibson, author of One Body and Second Nature
“Reading Todd Davis’s gorgeous poems, you can’t help but feel that the capacities of human vision, and also our appetite for exactly this way of seeing and naming, have been mysteriously, precisely increased.”
Jane Hirshfield, author of After and Come, Thief
Read an Excerpt
IN THE KINGDOM OF THE DITCH
By TODD DAVIS
Michigan State University Press Copyright © 2013 Todd Davis
All rights reserved.
We've been taken captive
by the world, named by it, taught
to eat from its table. The whetted blade
slides through the flesh, thin veil
that parts to reveal what we think
is the soul. We set fires and burn
the earth because berry canes
won't come back without dirt
as dark as the color of its fruit.
Before the oldest trees were felled
we traveled the watercourse.
Now in the open fields we track
coyote, hoping to save the sweet
lambs we tend. Sadly, as night
stumbles down, all we find
are clumps of wool caught
in teasel's fine comb.
More than two centuries ago
Linnaeus began to arrange all
the names we've given back
to the world. This is how we know
black walnut hulls, when crushed,
smell like lemon, or when we walk
through sweet fern grouse will burst
into flight, dragging the plant's sharp
scent into the air. Near the stream
a tulip poplar blows down, leaves
turning the yellow of mustard
and ragwort. Despite the order
we've cultivated, the charts
we've set to memory, we're likely
to discover our way is one
of unknowing. When we die
may we be a pleasing word
placed in the mouth
of the world.
How do you paint the color of bone, the pelvis where the flesh has been cut away? For more than two days we've soaked in bleach the ivory girdle of the deer my son killed. Every few hours I check the bucket so I can watch the dissolution, the falling away of the life that can't last. Think of O'Keeffe's inheritance. What her hands were given by the skeleton of the world. What she was expected to give back. Who doesn't want to hear a holy word echoing along the rock's split lip? But to hunt means to stalk in silence, to listen for the solace in an animal's missed step. Early on I learned from my grandmother to fish is to search the sea by sending a line down its length. When my sister caught the eel, we didn't know what to do. The only other person on the bridge was a black man seated on a five-gallon drum. He took the rod, laid it on the ground, and in one stroke severed the head, held the dancing curve until it slowed, then stuffed it in a bag. We slipped the hook from between the teeth, ran our fingers across the ridges. My sister peered through the cut hose and wouldn't tell me what she saw. Today I stare at the shadows in the valley, see what can be seen through the hole in the pelvis where the ball of the femur should rest. The sky's different framed like this. When there's nothing around it, it seems endless.
After Georgia O'Keeffe's "Pelvis with the Distance" (1943)
A Consideration of the Word "Home"
Because glass is more liquid than solid, because
this pane, made more than a hundred years ago, ripples
and bubbles, the prosody of its movement is like an epaulet
of stars shimmering on a night in August when the first
cool air is smuggled over the border and our vision
of what we thought was the unchanging world
grown fat with melons and the reddest peppers runs
floorward as we spy our father strolling within the arbor,
dreaming of the first hard frost and the dark fruit
that will turn sweeter as the vine withers.
Consciousness: An Assay
Black snakeroot goes to seed; black birch
litters the trail with yellow light. Trout
wrinkle the surface of the pond, curve back
into the premature darkness of deeper water.
We move toward absence: sound of wind
in leafless trees, the last dragonfly sliding
around our heads. To the left a pileated
woodpecker knocks on the door of a sassafras.
Whether we enter or stay doesn't matter:
doomsayers will continue their chant
about final things. Here it's the crease
in the ridge, the whistle of a red-tailed hawk
as the mind misses the fluting call of a hermit
thrush. The cord that binds us to this world
frays and unravels. Water continues to run
at the south end of the pond, endlessly
remade, a stream that falls away into the hollow,
persisting in its course before losing itself
in yet another stream. This is the way
of consciousness, the beginning
and the end, the alacrity of struck stone,
the drumming of a grouse as it breaks the air.
For Jane Hirshfield
Dona Nobis Pacem
The moon grows from nothing to a porcelain sliver.
The cat bloodies her feet against the screen chasing moths.
Our children sleep in the rooms above while I drag a cloth
across the red petals the cat leaves on the kitchen floor.
I join you in the bed of this passing hour, knowing
porcelain will again sift through the screen, and, again,
moths will flood to it: light cut by their beating wings,
which come morning our children will find in pieces.
A 300-pound bear wandered into our village last April and ended up
trapped by a crowd staring at him as he moved along the main beam
of a maple in Mrs. Henderson's yard. The game commissioner drugged
and tagged him, took his sleeping carcass deep into the woods.
We don't have mountain lion anymore so bear try to lie down
with our children. On a logging road this past February a bobcat leapt
across the ruts in front of my truck—purple afternoon with nothing
moving, me thinking it might be the soul trying to escape
with my breath. I wish I'd gotten out of the truck and walked
in silence through the snow to see if this is how we're ushered
into the next life. But I couldn't hold my tongue, and the cat
The last few days the same bear has roamed near the stream
that runs behind my house. Hunger showed him the way back.
He'll wreck our bluebird boxes, feast on the orange and gold carp
in the neighbor's pond. The neighbor and I made a pact.
We don't plan on telling anyone about the bear
until he disappears with our children, and, then,
only after the apple blossoms fly away.
The Consolation of Wind
In the barn, as she helps her husband,
her belly bumps against the worn wood
of stanchions, the warm sides of cows
whose udders are tugged by rubber
and metal, whose milk runs the length
of the barn in a maze of plumbing.
She is tired and her back aches.
She uses fistfuls of bag balm
to ease the skin's stretching, child
kicking her insides as she shovels
manure and hoses the dairy parlor's
slick gutters. Like Perpetua
who was gored by a bull only to become
the patron saint of cows, this woman
is grateful for the neglected beauty
of bovine: fullness of breast, width
and curve of haunch, the strength
of sloped shoulders, the heavy eyes
that watch for the consolation of wind
as it rubs the limbs of lilac and dogwood.
For Craig Blietz
What of those of us who are halfway here, almost
of this world, yet shuddering in the antechamber
of the pelvis, muscle pushing out against hands
that grab from below? And of those hoofed creatures
battering themselves against some tree to release
what they've carried into the yellow home of this day?
And the winged seed beneath the shell, offspring
who would do anything to be baptized into air?
What do we believe happens to those who remain
unborn, or, worse yet, live for only minutes?
The doe wags her bottom, fawn dangling from the red
jelly of her womb, while a coyote watches
in the dense laurel. When the heart begins
to beat for itself, there's no promise of salvation.
Every fall steelhead swim from open lakes
to the streams where they spawn in gravel beds—
tails fanning with passion that covers regret.
And my own child, unwilling to quit
his mother's body, even as forceps gripped
the sides of his head, doctor placing her foot
on the foot of the bed, yanking with such force
I thought he would tear in two.
Deer Dreaming Me
I have walked into the woods in darkness
and sit with my back to a black birch.
It has snowed the night before, then cleared,
so now cold works its way inside my coat:
unlaces my boots, sifts coarsely
against my throat. I have risen at four
the past three mornings and cannot keep
my eyes open as I dream of deer
coming down off the ridge, browsing
among moosewood and fox grape.
As they gather around me, my rifle rests
in my lap, left arm limp beneath it.
When I open my eyes they are gone,
yet I smell their musk, the pitched
heaviness of their breathing. Somewhere
deeper in the forest a doe dozes
under a hemlock, two others beside her.
Snow melts in a circle around their bodies
while inside her dream the woods grow quiet.
She makes the wind die down, checks to see
if I am in bed, asleep next to my wife, my rifle
safe in the corner room of our house.
The weasel who lives
along the water's edge
splits the muskrat's vein:
the back of the head;
mouth shut until death's
jaw-hinge opens the throat
so tongue may lap warmth
and salt. What's left
of the idea we were made
in the image of God?
Stomach red with joy.
Ears raised to guard
against the approach
of another. Like the muskrat
our flesh comes undone,
and like the weasel-god,
our bloodlust is lost
in briar, or beneath
of these muddy dens
we call heaven.
For Robert Wrigley
And the heart of man is a green leaf: God twists
its stem and it withers.
At first the hunger in his belly did not burn,
nor did it lie at the bottom with the heaviness
of stone. It was like iron hammered flat,
like the dull edge of a knife pushed against
a whetstone. Because hunger leaves no one
alone, as he passed a fig tree and found green
leaves but no fruit, he touched three limbs
and the tree withered. This did nothing
to sate his hunger, and like deadwood
catching fire, where there had been no heat
a blaze erupted, ravishing the air, until he
could not remember the taste of honey
and bread, the pungent bite of apple's skin,
and his scorched tongue hung from his mouth
like a stray dog no one will care for.
Those who followed asked why the fig tree
must suffer, why the flames of punishment
instead of love had fallen like a falcon
from the sky. Silence was the only answer,
and soon they slept by the fire. In his dream
he gathered from the dust stones the size of figs
and ate until he was full. He awoke to the sound
of water moving in a riverbed, the sweet drone
of bees flying among poppies. In the early dark
he went to the river's edge and drank deeply,
dousing the fire that had burned all night.
He then sent his disciples ahead to a village
where the sick lay on cots, their flesh like dates
laid too long in the sun. As he made his way
to that village, he departed from the road
to find a place that was hidden, and there
he shat out fig-stones, covered them with dirt
and blessings. In that place two trees sprouted
and bore fruit. Of this he told no one.
A Mennonite in the Garden
We staked and tied our tomatoes
like the woman in your poem
who had her tongue screwed
to the roof of her mouth, and like that
woman the tomatoes came to harm,
sacrificed to our hunger. Even our children
know Jan Luyken's etchings, the heft
of persecution, the reward of history's
painstaking script: Maeyken Wens
on a spit, flames rising from wood
cut and split by our own industriousness,
or Anneken Hendriks lashed to a ladder,
men trudging forward like mules, walking
the wooden staves until they stood upright.
With so much rain the fruit grows
too fast and too heavy, some of it
breaking the stalk without ripening.
Our neighbor's tomatoes have blight,
leaves wilted, so we collect the green
from our broken stalks, make relish
and bring it to their door.
Why couldn't those women have remained
untouched, somehow God leaving
the tomatoes unscathed?
The boy, who in my confusion, wanders
between these stories, plays a part
he never asked for: pear bestowed
through the dancing blaze, as if
forgiveness could conquer the anger
of such flames. We should know fire
isn't fastidious: fuel is fuel as it hisses,
then becomes ashes; soil in the garden
blacker for these efforts.
For Julia Spicher Kasdorf
Fishing for Large Mouth in a
Strip-Mining Reclamation Pond
near Lloydsville, Pennsylvania
The gills rake down the sides of his head, and the mouth
opens like the tunnels we used before the coal companies
hauled in dozers and trucks to scrape away the mountain
our grandparents had known. There was honor in riding
rail cars underground, something mythic as fathers said
goodbye to their children and traveled away from the sun.
Our teachers told us the story of Sisyphus, and we understood
how a stone might roll back upon the one who pushed it.
Most of the tunnels are gone, filled in or forgotten, holes
in our memory where the black line of money vanished
like the wind that sweeps over the backside of the Alleghenies.
As penance the state made us dig out this pond in the shape
of a kidney, water the color of liver, banks covered in cattails
and loosestrife. On the mounds of dirt that were left, goldenrod
grows in thin circles, like yellow mustard on bologna, the white
bread of cloudy skies balanced on the horizon where red oak
and hemlock should be. Black birch is the only tree
that comes up, rises toward the sun's lure, like a bass striking
the plastic popper my son dragged across the pond's surface, bait
imitating a frog's ragged dance, enticing this fish he hooked
and grips by the lower lip, both of them smiling, or grimacing,
or simply trying to hold still for the camera.
Excerpted from IN THE KINGDOM OF THE DITCH by TODD DAVIS. Copyright © 2013 by Todd Davis. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
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