The Volta Picks: Christina Davis’s An Ethic
Selected by Forrest Gander for its annual award, Christina Davis’s An Ethic is just out from Nightboat Books, an always exciting press whose editorial acumen we at The Volta are in awe of continually. Here, Nightboat once again proves that publishing too has an ethic, doing justice to the care and attention an author’s brought to the crafting of her work through the creation of a book whose design and tactile, physical qualities are given equal care and attention. It just feels good to hold this book, to see how the ink’s sunk into the generous field of each page, how the silence there becomes a meditative one–the thin elongated and elegant font of the titles making way for the gem-like, condensed yet quiet, and often frighteningly beautiful work beneath them.
Do you know designer HR Hegnauer? HR worked on this book and one can tell. HR’s a writer and performer as well as a designer, and brings, well, an ethic, to the task of turning an author’s work into an object. I say all this, all this about design and whatnot because to me (& to you) it really does matter; it has an effect on one’s relationship with the poems; here, it’s a wide page, margins aplenty, but few words, almost a Celanesque glint, a Dickinsonian glister to the shape and vector of the words aligned as they are–content not withstanding, then content to be withstanding, with metaphysical inquiry, with age-old conundrums.
In other words, these short poems continue off the page, into the page, orbiting around the boundaries of the book to prove the Steinian there there is absolutely here. Where? Where Davis has built an echo chamber for the arc of grief, movingly intelligent and engaged, restrained and expansive. I love this book. I read it aloud in its entirety to the small child I now spend my days caring for. She’s not yet a year old and didn’t complain at all. Not a peep. That means something. It means that as intriguing as the poems were to me for their balance of intellection and emotional heft, Davis also captured and crafted something wholly primal, pre-linguistic, the musicality of language that so bewilders and enchants our little ones. When I teach poetry to undergrads I find useful a sort of warped take on Pound’s phano/melo/logo, wherein I offer the triadic equivalent of the referential, the sonic, and the spatial, and then spiral off into some overly-wordy explanation of the conflict between all three rubrics at any given time in each and every poem. It’s rare when all three have equal weight and measure, when one encounters a poem that just feels right, balanced, like the perfect precision of those Newtonian metal spheres colliding with one another until the word collision itself feels freed from its suggestive violence. It’s rare. Rare and here.
In even the smallest of space, these poems travel. Here’s one in its entirety:
In the kingdom
of images, the blink
is the infidel–
Yes, it’s assured, but not pompous. It allows you space. It gives you the handles. Davis has an epigraph from Oppen, and Forrest Gander, in his succinct introduction mentions Of Being Numerous, which, I’ll admit to you dear reader, is the only book of poetry that left me a sobbing mess. I think it was that part about the person riding purposefully into a tree… conviction, follow-thru–a mirror of the myth Oppen’s forever known for. Would you give up what you love for what you believe? The big questions can be so profoundly impactful yet so passionately quiet that when asked we hear almost nothing. The nothing that’s there is here too, but less Stevens’s sometimes proto-mansplaining, more Howe sisters-like, more transcendental, which is to say less French, more American. There’s belief here. There’s doubt as well. Look what happens to my namesake:
ALL THOSE THAT WANDER
After the ark survived the Flood,
it was taken apart
to be made into cages.
This is the nature of religion.
Again, there’s that stunning, what, authority? I sort of want to say that, but really the poem feels like it’s made the discovery of its final line almost by accident and, paradoxically, by intention. It doesn’t hover above the reader, doesn’t hammer down a fist; it points, but in several directions at the same time. You can talk about it and around it and through it. I think it’d be a good poem to teach. Even better paired with the next on in the book:
I want to tell you I have grown
and become acquainted
with the cages
and am myself, admittedly,
a cage, only it is
a cage that will let
the creature out.
Nice, right? Remember when Spicer said Where we are is in a sentence? Well, yes, damned and declarative as all get out. That’s what’s great about this book. It accrues, accretes, collects as much as it cuts short, pairs down, and cuts. I’m going to give away a secret here. It’s one that starts with a poem from Davis’s first book:
She said, I love you.
He said, Nothing.
(As if there were just one
of each word and the one
who used it, used it up).
In the history of language
the first obscenity was silence.
The secret ends with a little twist of Eliot and the razor sharp paring knife that Davis so clearly, so evidently, so skillfully used to shape this new book. Wait, are those kinds of knives sharp? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. here’s the secret. The secret is that the aphorism and the anecdote are one. The secret is that the lyric is narrative, that song is inseparable from time, that singing is and is not language, that listening comes later. Here’s the shortest poem from An Ethic:
TILL HUMAN VOICES WAKE US
In the history of language
the first obscenity was silence.
There. Now don’t you want to go ahead and order this book? I don’t blame you. It moves. It’s moving. Listen, I sat down a couple of hours ago, intending to write more or less a few sentences, crib some jacket-copy, etc. Really just to get this thing on your radar. But here I am later in the evening, still thinking through the book’s dynamism. Force. I said something earlier about an arc of grief. The truth is that was cheating. I originally wrote it on Facebook, just a half-sentence a while back about how much I liked the book. But I wanted to fit it in here. Language is nothing if not mercurial, right? No. I think I mean something more stable though no less open to change. Not Burroughs’s virus, but Bohr’s model. I haven’t yet mentioned love and death and familial responsibility, ritual, ruin. It’s all here. And it’s tied to our shared literature so gracefully and with such understated surety that I feel like I’ve lived with these poems for years. They’re ours. They’ve always been.
–Noah Eli Gordon