In the Kingdom of the Ditch

In the Kingdom of the Ditch

by Todd Davis

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In poetry that is at once accessible and finely crafted, Todd Davis maps the mysterious arc between birth and death, celebrating the beauty and pain of our varied entrances and exits, while taking his readers into the deep forests and waterways of the northeastern United States. With an acute sensibility for language unlike any other working poet, Davis captures


In poetry that is at once accessible and finely crafted, Todd Davis maps the mysterious arc between birth and death, celebrating the beauty and pain of our varied entrances and exits, while taking his readers into the deep forests and waterways of the northeastern United States. With an acute sensibility for language unlike any other working poet, Davis captures the smallest nuances in the flowers, trees, and animals he encounters through a daily life spent in the field. Davis draws upon stories and myths from Christian, Transcendental, and Buddhist traditions to explore the intricacies of the spiritual and physical world we too often overlook. In celebrating the abundant life he finds in a ditch—replete with Queen Anne’s lace and milkweed, raspberries and blackberries, goldenrod and daisies—Davis suggests that life is consistently transformed, resurrected by what grows out of the fecundity of our dying bodies. In his fourth collection the poet, praised by The Bloomsbury Review, Arts & Letters, and many others, provides not only a taxonomy of the flora and fauna of his native Pennsylvania but also a new way of speaking about the sacred walk we make with those we love toward the ultimate mystery of death.

Editorial Reviews

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 world—ourselves 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

Product Details

Michigan State University Press
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5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.40(d)

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Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2013 Todd Davis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61186-070-2




    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.

    Seeing Things

    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.

    Imago Dei

    The weasel who lives
    along the water's edge

    splits the muskrat's vein:
    jugular-blood stringing

    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
    the dirt-roofs

    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.

    —Nikos Kazantzakis

    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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Todd Davis teaches creative writing, American literature, and environmental studies at Penn State University’s Altoona College. He has authored and edited thirteen books.

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