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Geffrey Davis

 09-09-2014

 
Geffrey Davis
 
What I Mean When I Say Farmhouse

          Time’s going has ebbed the moorings
to the memories that make this city-kid

          part farm-boy. Until a smell close enough to
the sweet-musk of horse tunes my ears back

          to tree frogs blossoming after a country rain.
I’m back among snakes like slugs wedged

          in ankle-high grass, back inside that small
eternity spent searching for soft ground, straining

          not to spill the water-logged heft of a drowned
barn cat carried in the shallow scoop of a shovel.

          And my brother, large on the stairs, crying.
Each shift in the winds of remembering renders me

          immediate again, like ancient valleys reignited
by more lightning. 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
thunderstorms. We have our places for

          loneliness—that loaded asking of the body.
My mother stands beside the kitchen window, her hands

          no longer in constant motion. And my father
walks along the tired fence, watching horses

          and clouds roll down against the dying light—
I know he wants to become one or the other.

          I want to jar the tenderness of seasons,
to crawl deep into the moment. I’ve come

          to write less fear into the boy running
through the half-dark. I’ve come for the boy.
 
King County Metro
 
In Seattle, in 1982, my mother beholds this man
boarding the bus, the one she’s already

turning into my father. His style (if you can
call it that): disarming disregard—a loud

Hawaiian-print shirt and knee-high tube socks
that reach up the deep tone of his legs,

toward the dizzying orange of running shorts.
Outside, the gray city blocks lurch

past wet windows, as he starts his shy sway
down the aisle. Months will pass

before he shatters his ankle during a Navy drill,
the service discharging him back into the everyday

teeth of the world. Two of four kids will arrive
before he meets the friend who teaches him

the art of roofing and, soon after, the crack pipe—
the attention it takes to manage either

without destroying the hands. The air brakes gasp
as he approaches my mother’s row,

each failed rehab and jail sentence still
decades off in the distance. So much waits

in the fabulous folds of tomorrow.
And my mother, who will take twenty years

to burn out her love for him, hesitates a moment
before making room beside her—the striking

brown face, poised above her head, smiling.
My mother will blame all that happens,

both good and bad, on this smile, which glows now,
ready to consume half of everything it gives.
 

Call Me Now
                      —to my cousin

Take us then: two black boys plus the poverty line.
Take the 90s—we carried scratched rap
CDs concealed in bomber jackets,
sagged in baggy jeans and cocked
our hats backwards, in some small defiance
of the waking knowledge that a future
was barreling our way, possibility’s obscurity
fast behind it. Add the fathers we feared
becoming: stern fathers, who forgot to hug;
weak fathers, who forgot to hug. Add mothers
pinned beneath the never-ending work-week.

Then raise it all to the power of 3:00 a.m.
commercials with psychics giving better shapes
to tomorrow, for the full price of eggs, a gallon of milk
per minute. I still envy that you caved first
to the weight of your curiosity at the numinous bodies
we might burst into, that your voice, even then,
had a well deep enough to sound 18-or-older. “Fuck it,”
you mumbled and picked up the phone, clearing
the music in your throat. I tuned in
on a muted cordless, as you accepted
the charges for balancing the problem.

Factor in the operator who caught
the boy in your voice. Subtract her clairvoyant gaze,
but keep the costs: Call back when you’re older,
hon’. How could we calculate knowing
what we feared would be set into a fleshy stone,
would be cancelled out with other worries?
Although our mothers wore us out when
the phone bill arrived, I still carry the messy
formulas from those nights of testing touch-tone
combinations to the future: 1-800-
PLEASE    1-800-WHO-CAN-WE-BE ?
 
                                                                           - from Revising the Storm
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Geffrey Davis grew up in Tacoma, WA and teaches in the MFA program at The University of Arkansas. His first book, Revising the Storm (BOA Editions, 2014), won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. Other distinctions include the Anne Halley Prize, the Dogwood Prize, the Wabash Prize, the Leonard Steinberg Memorial/Academy of American Poets Prize, nominations for the Pushcart, and fellowships from the Cave Canem Foundation and Penn State's Institute for the Arts and Humanities.
 
Davis's poems have appeared in Crazyhorse, Green Mountains Review, The Greensboro Review, Hayden's Ferry ReviewThe Massachusetts ReviewMississippi ReviewNimrod International Journal[PANK], Sycamore Review, and elsewhere, and have been reprinted at The Feminist Wire and Verse Daily. Part of his work as a literary citizen involves promoting the writing of others. To this end, he serves on the board of directors for Toe Good Poetry.
 
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A Review of Geffrey Davis's Revising the Storm by Jacob Victorine, first published at Muzzle
 
I hadn’t read a single one of Geffrey Davis’s poems before picking up his debut collection, Revising the Storm, winner of BOA Edition’s 2014 A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. This is strange considering the Internet presence of poetry (I am, after all, writing this review for an online literary journal). In the case of Revising the Storm, my ignorance—coupled with the praise-filled blurbs that adorn the back cover—left me anxious before ever arriving at the table of contents. How can any piece of art, let alone a poet’s debut collection, survive this type of hype?
 
It can’t, which is why I was initially disappointed with Revising the Storm. My astronomical expectations coupled with Davis’s cryptic syntax and elongated metaphors left me feeling, at first, like the book obscured meaning through language, rather than creating it; in fact, I questioned whether it was worth a second read. But this is (one of the many reasons) why I love reviewing books: it forces me to be a better reader than I might normally be. Instead of dismissing ­­Revising the Storm, I pushed through its pages, discovering that its emotional depth corresponded directly with my own willingness to dive deeper.
 
Davis’s language winds and branches like water rolling down a dirt hill. His style of writing is a stark reminder that the most fulfilling art isn’t always the easiest to understand. Just as the writer sometimes struggles to craft the poem, the reader must sometimes struggle to decode it. Like Kendrick Lamar’s, good kid, m.A.A.d City—which I nearly dismissed as another cliché post-Gangsta Rap album, but now cherish for the way Lamar’s hypnotizing flow unfolds the protagonist’s lifelike narrative--Revising the Storm is another brilliant debut that intricately weaves language and memory into the narrative of a young man’s journey through childhood trauma.

“What I Mean When I Say Farmhouse” introduces the collection’s obsession with memory by pointing to the act of remembering itself: “Time’s going has ebbed the moorings / to the memories that make this city kid / part farm-boy” (1-3). With the poem’s first lines, Davis hints at the role memory will play throughout the collection, and the way it can move through time and the mind as fluidly as water. The poem continues to introduce a number of the collection’s themes, including the speaker’s childhood trauma as he walks “…back among snakes like slugs wedged / in ankle-high grass, back inside that small eternity spent searching for soft ground” (6-8).

I’m not sure I’ve ever read an opening poem that offers so much, while saying so little explicitly. After highlighting the importance of memory earlier in the poem, Davis suggests to the reader the way it will operate: “Each shift in the winds of remembering renders me / immediate again, like ancient valleys reignited / by more lightning” (12-14). Here, his lines and their breaks move like a wave, rising and falling, but never staying in one place long enough for the reader to fully capture. Davis dances around memory’s function as a time machine we can’t control, to bring us back to the ones we love but have lost. This, like for many of us, is the speaker’s situation:

                                                                                    […]And my father
                        walks along the tired fence, watching horses

                                    and clouds roll down against the dying light--
                        I know he wants to become one or the other. (21-24)

The ambiguity leaves room for multiple crucial meanings. Does the speaker’s father want to be a horse or a cloud? —Two things that like his father, as we come to learn later, move often and are hard to control. Or does his father want to be the dying light? —Something that will no longer be visible to the speaker’s eyes or his mind. Davis smartly refuses to editorialize, yet the speaker does tell us why he returns to them: “I’ve come / to write less fear into the boy running / through the half-dark. I’ve come for the boy” (26-28). Both Davis and his speaker understand the power of writing: how it can change the past, even when the body can’t.

Almost all of Davis’s poems deserve rigorous explication not because they are complex for complexity’s sake, but because of the many meanings and emotions they hold. In fact, their intricacy and sharpness caused me to question my role as the reviewer while writing this review. Is there a danger in explaining too much, thereby interfering with a new reader’s experience? Or is it more important to explicate the inner-workings of a book in order to show its brilliance?

For this review, I settled somewhere in the center. Poetry, for me, is ruined without mystery—sometimes, you really can explain too much—but Davis’s writing also holds so much under the surface that it would be a disservice not to dive in on occasion. The extended metaphors in Revising the Storm are superb. Davis demonstrates the incomparable ability to transform humans, animals, and even weather into totems that mark the road through his poems.

In “Unfledged,” the speaker recalls the weekends he and his brother spent helping his father roof houses and how, “During those hard, / gloved hours under the sun’s weight, I studied / my father from the ground” (6-8). Throughout the poem (and much of the book), Davis uses precise diction that casts the speaker’s father as a pigeon, drawing parallels between his absenteeism and the bird’s literal flight:

                        from below, as he perched and drove nails through
                        the day’s heat, I checked the silhouetted length of his back

                        for signs of stiffness, and his impossible arms, anything
                        I might point to—certain, like most people,

                        If the ache could be found, you’d know
                        How to start soothing, where to place your hands. (25-30)

Much like a pigeon, the father is “perched” (25) on the roof, where, from below, the speaker can see “the silhouetted length of his back” (26) and “impossible arms” (27), characteristics that call to mind tail feathers and wings. But Davis does not merely draw parallels through appearance: the speaker perceives his father as a pigeon and also relates to him as one as well. The speaker wishes to raise pigeons so he can soothe his father’s small body in his hands, despite knowing he can never truly hold onto him. Davis writes: “the careful study we do / with things that refuse to become ours” (17-18). In fact, this is what Davis’s speaker does throughout the book as he immerses himself in past trauma—from a miscarriage to divorce to the absent father whose shadow never fades—in hopes of changing it or, at least, making sense of it in his own words.

With all of the brilliance packed into the first section of Revising the Storm, I shouldn’t have been surprised that the rest of the book would be a letdown. This is not to say the second and third sections don’t contain shining moments. Poems such as the “Newakum River,” “What I Mean When I Say Diaspora,” and “I Dream of Meeting Myself, Age Seven, County Fair Field Trip,” offer the same inventive language, the same stunning metaphors and emotional currents that are staples of “The Book of Father.” In “I Dream of Meeting Myself, Age Seven, County Fair Field Trip,” the speaker imagines an encounter between past and present selves. Davis writes: “How dearly I want to give you / the gentlest version of my voice, say something / to suspend your belief in disasters” (9-11).  It is a desire almost all of us have had: to travel back in time and save our child-selves from the traumas they are dealing with, the traumas we know are still to come. But despite all of the speaker’s gifts for making sense of the past through language, he cannot help his younger self eat better or stop “our mother crying in the kitchen” (14). He can’t even leave his younger self with a few words of advice.

Yet despite standout poems, the rest of the book lacks the tightness in metaphor and narrative that make the ones in “The Book of Father” transcend their individual strengths and weakness to become something greater. Call it threads woven into fabric, gears synching to turn a clock—the metaphor is unimportant. What matters is the way Davis’s poems coalesce to create a world the reader falls into, a world so real that I mourned it when I left.

Unfortunately, I didn’t feel this way about the rest of the collection. And I wonder if this is less to do with Davis’s writing, and more with the structure of the book. “The Book of Father,” spanning twenty-eight pages, is nearly as long as the rest of the collection (thirty-four) and avoids stand-alone poems like “If the Moon Were My Lover,” which develops exactly as its title suggests and seems like filler beside Davis’s more tightly woven poems. If Davis had reordered the poems or sectioned them differently, I might have become immersed in the entire book, instead of only one of its parts.

Yet I still read Revising the Storm again and again. Its imperfections do not negate Davis’s talent: his gift for metaphor and movement, the way he puzzles words together but leaves space between them for emotion to rise through the cracks. In “Divorce Means” he writes: “Our moments / remain infinite for having happened” (15-16). As its title suggests, Revising the Storm is a book that speaks through the echoes of trauma; like Christopher Nolan in his seminal film, Memento, Davis multiplies fragmented memories to make something haunting and greater. Davis acknowledges the writer’s ability to shape the past, even if his speaker—a man trapped by memory—can’t.

 
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An Interview with Geffrey Davis by Anna Knowles and Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
 
Anna Knowles & Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: Describe the genesis of the ‘take this/take that’ form of the poem "Call Me Now." It's extremely effective, and I just love the mathematical play in lines like “Then raise it all to the power of 3:00 AM.” I don't think I've ever seen that in a poem before.

Geffrey Davis: First off, thank you for that (!)—I’m floored to learn you find the poem so effective. In the beginning, I’d simply set out to write a funny poem about my memory of a brief period when I was young and began calling psychic hotlines, playing with that in/famous 90s image of Miss Cleo and her tagline—do you remember those commercials? And, originally, the mathematical play seemed to help me clear some more lighthearted ground for engaging the poem’s memory. But, as so often happens, the poem developed its own demands, and that memory started generating unexpected traction and “raising” stakes. Then the mathematical play became a way to explore the poem’s internal, critical addition with relation to circumstances that would drive young black boys to seek clairvoyant council. The psychic build of ‘take this/take that,’ to me, felt dynamic enough to fit all that and more into the poem, including the impossibility of solving for the problem—the X?—at the heart of the poem. Lastly, I’ll say it’s probably also working as a quiet apology to my mother, for running up her damn phone bill!

AK & AMK: In the poem “King County Metro,” you take a look back but are also able to see into the future. I'm thinking of the lines "My mother will blame all that happens, both good and bad, on this smile, which glows now, ready to consume half of everything it gives.” There’s a recurrence of time and place, all of which inhabits the past, present and future. It almost feels like another form of preservation, or revising, as the title of your book implies. Is there a right way to revise/relive the past? Is poetry your medium because it allows you to revise, via language and imagination, that which has already occurred, that which can’t, literally, be changed?

GD: Just recently I was talking with a dear friend about poetic time, and we were wondering specifically about how unique or active or even risky its movements are. For several years, I wrote poems that misunderstood both the potential and the responsibility of poetic time. Poems that, especially when it came to my father, excavated the past without pause, with an eye/ear for more unequivocal kinds of revising and reliving. As a result, that poetry time-traveled and place-traveled for faulty or flat reasons—which I think is why, ultimately, those early poems are all pretty terrible. So maybe, if poetry is my medium, it’s because it forces me to measure and question (and re-measure and re-question) what’s potentially profound about any relationship between language or imagination and change. I’m not so much interested in reliving the past as I am in discovering unrealized aspects of what’s already transpired—there’s futurity in the latter. In fact, in light of knowing what’s on its way, I want a poem like this one to work out an ethics of holding or tenoring (if not outright resisting) its own desires to intervene, to imagine a categorically altered version of what might-could-maybe-have happened to these pre-me people—that would forfeit so much possibility in what did pass.

AK & AMK: In “What I Mean When I Say Farmhouse,” the speaker says “If only I could settle on / the porch of waiting and listening” even as the poem expresses a need to change one’s past, particularly in that last couplet: “I’ve come to write less fear into the boy running through the half-dark. I’ve come for the boy.” I wonder if much of what this poem and this book are about is that conflict between accepting what has transpired and the desire to change it, if we could.

GD: Yeah, you’re right; I think that’s the field of tension the book predominantly lives in. But that conflict sounds so familiar or obvious, doesn’t it? Isn’t it the conflict we all live in or with? And yet the range of what we do with that conflict feels vast to me. What you’re saying also reminds me of this wonderful essay by Chris Abani, “Painting a Body of Loss and Love in the Proximity of an Aesthetic” (The Millions, 2013). In it, Chris talks about memory and about wounds and about art as witness. As he puts it, “True writing, being a writer, is the struggle to wring meaning, to wring value to redeem even the most unredeemable thing, to find transformation in even the most heinous moments, to prove, through a very complex sophisticated telling, that every life can and does and in fact must have value. There is nothing else.” Hell, I don’t know if I can say it any better than that.

AK & AMK: There are these wonderful little narratives in “What I Mean When I Say Farmhouse.” The entire poem isn’t a narrative, but there are snapshots of story throughout an otherwise meditative, lyric poem. Do you see narrative poetry and lyric poetry coming to some kind of a union here?

GD: Yes. And while the snapshot quality of this poem’s meditation highlights that, I think I’m often (if not always) searching for some synchrony or synergy between narrative and lyric in my work. I don’t find the two modes at odds. In fact, for me, they leaven each other.

AK & AMK:
You write frequently of your family, especially your father. I just love the lines "And my father walks along the tired fence, watching horses and clouds roll down against the dying light—I know he wants to become one or the other." It must be a little scary to write poems that are so revealing of your family struggles. How do you deal with this? How do they?

GD: It wasn’t really an issue in the beginning, because my early work was largely allegorical and imaginative. But, after that changed, I dealt by not showing my work to family—my mother in particular. Which, let’s be honest, that was me not dealing. What instigated my privacy, though, was the first time I showed my mother a poem that pulled more from experience than imagination. It was a very short poem that I thought was witty and so emotionally safe. She wept openly. Then she showed it to one of my aunties, who also started to cry. And so on. It didn’t help that this all happened on the first day of a long-weekend, family camping trip. In addition to turning me off to publication for some time (which I think was ultimately a good thing for my writing), it made me confront and abandon the idea of safe spaces or safe poems, especially when writing about these lives.

Years later, during a visit home, I woke to discover that my mother had found an early manuscript of what would become Revising the Storm, and overnight she’d read the whole thing straight through. I was terrified. But her response liberated and floored me. She said, “It’s your story, and you need to tell it.” Then she talked of needing to write her own book, if it could help just one woman going through what she’d gone through. I mean, can you ask for a better reaction: the impulse and urgency to turn around and find voice?

AK & AMK: You very cleverly place a 1-800 number at the end of the poem “Call Me Now,” “1-800 PLEASE, 1-800 WHO-CAN-WE-BE?” Do you use this repetition to mark/announce the end of the poem? Tell us about that moment when you realized you could use variations on a phone number to express the speaker’s desires in this way. Was this suggested in workshop? Did you read something that sparked this idea? Don’t tell me you were doing math homework…

GD:
Haha—no, I haven’t done math homework since I was a Zoology major in college, and I didn’t last long in that field. This poem’s genesis came much later, even if its comfort with math’s idiom draws on that shaky background. And, in a way, workshop did suggest the ending. I started the poem and shared it at my first Cave Canem retreat in 2012, and the variation on toll free numbers appeared in the earliest drafts. At the time, however, I thought the ending would be one of the first things challenged in workshop. The tone or heaviness of the questions asked at the end had made me uncertain about the approach. When nobody questioned the ending, I did. But the group’s supportive read of what the poem was doing there sealed the deal. Here’s to having good readers in your life…

AK & AMK:
Thank you, Geffrey
 
 
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Click here to read an interview with Geffrey Davis
                        at Radar Poetry
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Click here to listen to a reading by Geffrey Davis, Brenda
Coultas, and Brian Teare at the New York Public Library




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Click here to buy Revising the Storm

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Geffrey Davis



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