Edited by Andrea Spofford | Barry Kitterman | Amy Wright
The Thunder of Our Histories: Revising the Storm by Geffrey Davis
Reviewed by Robert Campbell
In her introduction to the debut collection by Geffrey Davis, Dorianne Laux says, “the goal of Davis’s quest is the man’s desire to heal the past, to ‘revise the storm’” (9). This is undoubtedly the case. These are, on the one hand, autobiographical poems describing a difficult childhood and its haunting effects on the present. But Davis is also reaching rather persistently for something beyond the personal, through the personal--occasionally, these poems break through their cohesive, straight-laced narratives into something I and many other readers will find much more interesting. Inside the effort to “revise the storm,” speakers stumble upon the problems inherent in memory. Does it control us, or do we, as poets, construct it? How do we, as tellers of the tale, engage with this god-like power, these phantoms that shape us, this series of flat images, this very architecture of us that is as uncontrollable as our parentage, as the weather itself, and yet also, paradoxically, the story we build for ourselves, clause by clause? What is this strange healing, making, and remembering that poets do? It’s all very meta, and despite a few missed opportunities, it’s all very enjoyable.
The first section, “Book of My Father,” contains some of the most memorable poems of the collection. Davis’s couplets are fleet and conversational, relaxed in their deceptive delivery of thickly layered images, as in “What I Mean When I Say Farmhouse”--
...if only I could settle on
the porch of waiting and listening,
near the big maple bent by children and heat,
just before the sweeping threat of summer
He is, first and foremost, a hypnotic, arresting storyteller. These are poems for the ear and for the heart. The “drowned / barn cat carried in the shallow scoop of a shovel” is as disturbing as it is musically perfect (17). Lines like “loneliness--that loaded asking of the body” crush our insides more than a little bit (17).
“Revising the Storm, 1991” harnesses that revisionist impulse that comes with painful memory:
...But this is where my . . .
I was going to say memory fails me, but perhaps I mean something more
immediate, more violent, like pride or shame that cuts through
this remembering. (21)
These moments of hesitation are where the collection hides its muscle. The speaker chokes for a moment on the the remembrance of loss and tragedy (in this case, his brother), then pivots
deftly, and captures the opportunity for self-awareness. This is the entrance to the maze of mirrors into which Davis lures the reader. “What would it mean to revise this memory?” he asks (22). “Let us turn memory’s blade / against ourselves, harness that constant crisis” (22).
Two series dominate this mode: the “What I Mean When I Say” poems and the “Epistemology of” poems. The former is full of excellent moments, including a scene in which father and son watch old Westerns through a mature speaker’s perceptive lens. The speaker’s awareness of difference between the “mock-hero,” with his “blond-haired, blue-eyed absurdity,” and the weathered, gritty hero-hero is quietly powerful in the context of this father-son story (28). Davis is most inventive in poems that make use of some device for restraint, poems that don’t show all of his cards at once.
His “epistemologies” are, for the most part, less exciting, mostly because they rely perhaps too much on the unaddressed idea of an “epistemology” for their gravity. If anything, this recurring reference to a complex body of theoretical work--one with which the poems rarely connect--obfuscates rather than delights. I wish the poems self-reflexed into an outright interrogation of telling and knowing (which would be appropriate). Instead, they explore even more forms of loss (how much heartbreak can we take?), as in “The Epistemology of Hospitals”:
I have yet to survey the Irish grit
of my grandmother’s hands…
...I search for her bones in the morning
mirror, her eyes wet with memory. I invent the stories
she’s meant to tell… (57)
I wish the rest of these poems were more like “The Epistemology of Preposition,” rendering the personal in the form of an analysis of the word “Of,” like a dictionary entry, which is the perfect chilly container for Davis’s tendency to wax sentimental:
Of 1. “during”: As in the 28th day of July, of 2011, L finishes lifting the 30th
and final hour of our son’s getting here--and now I can talk in few tones
other than the sweetest day of my life. 2. “being or coming from”: as in L
has come to me by way of Florida, of Cuban heritage, of parents who left one
country’s darkness for another…(82)
This is the voice I love, the one that strains against itself in its emotional state, the one that churns connotative meaning into a gigantic storm that cannot be reduced to a simple story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In these poems, the speaker allows himself to wallow, to depart, to really delve into the messy, phenomenological nature of memory and knowing. Maybe it’s just me, but I find this tension between sentiment and restraint much more interesting (and more original). Empirical, meet Personal. Thunder and lightning.
Davis’s speakers sometimes strike me as what happens to the romantic voice when it chokes on disillusionment. In “6th Avenue Flora,” children scour an urban landscape of “city weeds” for flowers, which one of them manages to swipe from the “gardens of north-side
strangers” (65). The necessity of loving beautiful things is something Davis returns to many times:
...And so we,
like everyone, learned that love may occasion
damage--How determined to offer any petal
poised above the pavement. How sweetly bound. (65)
And again, in “Farmer’s Market Sweet Plums: Apology to the Flower Lady:--
...She almost convinces us
to forget the fruit and choose the flower
in her hands:--to take from her
that burden of belief… (72)
Readers will also come across a girl dancing in apple blossoms, a dream-like sequence depicting the speaker’s “previous life as a deer,” and musings on the moon as an unreliable lover. Some may find these poems a bit too indulgent, too plain-spoken, or too outright in their romance and sentiment, but Davis never fails to mix his sweetness with a little bit of salt. Like a true modern romantic, his speakers are determined to love the world, even when it hurts. Especially when it hurts.
The father in these poems is a force of nature, uncontrollable, inescapable, almost deified but for his failures. The reader will follow speakers down this nightmare trail of memories that appall and scare us:
...nights he took paychecks and split,
sometimes for weeks, his head and body
humming for dope, his wife and kids
suspended by the boundlessness of waiting.
If he returned, if his pockets were empty,
if the locks had been changed, I’d watch
from the window as he jumped and hollered,
wide-eyed and ripping the gate from its hinges or
shattering the windshields of cars along our street… (35)
This series of startling memories culminates into an extended exploration of fathers in which the speaker’s father meets his own. Eventually, the speaker himself becomes a father. The opportunity for fatherhood, at last, presents the opportunity to “revise the storm” of suffering. It’s very touching and very tender, and it does seem to address varying forms of masculinity as
cruel or loving for readers who are interested in that sort of thing. The recurring subject of the father’s pigeon fancy (yes, pigeon fancy) and heaps of storm imagery should lead the reader to all that is being said between these poems about power and helplessness, and about what fathers could and should be.
Having recently read Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey, I’d like to defer to her brilliant words on the subject of sentimentality in poetry: “We are human beings. Our expressions are always inadequate, often pitiful. Poetry is sentimental to begin with.” Yes, there are times when readers will feel a bit claustrophobic inside the speaker’s emotional personal narrative, especially amidst big-hearted phrases like “sweetest day of my life.” That is, in the end, as it should be. This is a book of poems for those who believe in the cathartic power of poetry and its ability to render meaning from pain. Despite its lagging moments, Revising the Storm succeeds at transforming loss and grief into something worth sharing, and beyond any discussion of Davis’s romantic conceits or clever self-reflexivity, doesn’t that matter more? After all, if poetry can’t save us from our suffering, what can?
Davis, Geffrey M. Revising the Storm: Poems. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2014.
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