Monday, June 9, 2014

Being There: The Emotive ‘Fly on the Wall’ in Ed Davis’ "Time of the Light"

by Anthony Fife

Observation, often passive, forms the nucleus of many of Ed Davis’s most striking poems in Time of the Light.  Through observation, often of everyday occurrences, Davis is able to bear witness, and funnel that newfound stewardship to the reader, in the elegant shuttle of social or metaphysical importance. The speaker in many of these poems is not satisfied, however, until he has allowed the scene to both arrest and, subsequently, fulfill his sought after evolution.  Davis’s characters channel what they find in the world into food for growth and self-transformation.
One such poem, “Shade," begins with a recumbent cyclist pausing en route to take in the scene of a handful of men beneath a shade tree “smoking and jawing like its 1951” (line 7).  The tableau is not particularly exciting, and the reader gets the sense that it is also not likely rare; perhaps these men meet semi regularly to mull over the day’s events, and take in the much needed relief the shade of the tree provides.  What is unique, however, is the immediate attachment the cyclist fosters for these men.
          The cyclist, for perhaps the first time, discovers that he is missing something in himself and, simultaneously, finds that something ’neath a shade tree.  Call it companionship—though community is maybe a more inclusive word—but whatever it is, the cyclist sees it and, at once, recognizes that he desires it.  Davis writes:

                 [M]aybe they'd invite me
                 to share their shade and sip
                 a cold one from their cooler;
                 or a glass of someone's grandma's
                 fresh-squeezed lemonade. (15-19)

Substitute any beverage for the beer and lemonade.  It is what the beverage represents (companionship or community?) that is important.  The ability to bond and, maybe even more importantly, to have someone to bond with, is what pulls the cyclist into his own head as he wonders what it would be like to share in the ritual.  It is no wonder Davis professes to admire the work of Wendell Berry, whose work often defines such relationships among initiates.  Unfortunately, there are insiders and there are outsiders; there is no overlap.
“Emergency Room Express Care: Princeton, WV, Xmas Eve, 1996” typifies the fly-on-the-wall perspective that leads, perhaps inevitably, to self-realization.  Davis writes:

                   They come not too injured,
                   but wounded enough,
                   clutching stomachs whose stitches
                   don't fully keep them closed,
                   faces denying pain bodies mime. (1-5)

A local emergency room is a den of suffering.  Wounds, sometimes horrific, are a common sight to those on duty.  The poem’s speaker, however, is no medical professional.  He is not so well versed in the manifestations of blood and pain to have developed blinders.  “I shut myself inside a book,” writes Davis (7), but the attempt to close himself off from the suffering is a failure.  Empathy trumps his discomfort and, through baring witness, the speaker is able to find the common strand that ties him, despite his immaculate health, to those whose bodies reject violently what transgression has befallen them. After a moment of silent, eyes-closed meditation, the speaker says, “Eyes open, I feel suddenly one/ with these Christmas casualties,/ though moments ago, I was a stranger” (20-2).  The transformation is nearly complete; the narrator is able to transcend both the bounds of his own body and its apparent lack of pain.  The unnamed “loved one” who he waits on suddenly, and unknowingly, becomes part of a much larger community.    

              “Dawn Singer in College Bathroom” is similar to “Shade” and “Emergency Room Express Care,” in that the narrator inadvertently discovers something, in this case a student singing ’60s R&B in a bathroom at 7:45 a.m., that highlights his life and how it lacks certain small fragments that, if found, will might make it whole.  What is missing in the makeup of this particular narrator is the ability to bypass the callused filter that labels as absurd the act of singing in a public restroom stall at a quarter till eight.   
            The inability to disregard social norms and articulate unbounded joy is more or less synonymous with the teaching of English Composition.  The narrator says:

                        I clamp eyes closed where I sit.
                        I am convicted by his sweet testimony
                        of being a prose-droning,
                        poetryless Standard English hack,
                        lacking the brashness to flute truths,
                        harmonizing brain with the body’s business. (7-12)

Grammar is a less than compelling subject; the teacher of grammar, then, can only be, the reasoning goes, a less than compelling person.  The tuneless narrator, in light of the bathroom serenade, believes this hype and applies it to himself.  “My armpits pour and my milky knees quake,” the narrator says, “while I contemplate teaching Comp I where I/ force-feed poor students syntax and grammar” (13-7).  The self-loathing is short lived, however, because “suddenly/ his song gives me grace, lifts the top/ right off my head and inserts a prayer” (21-3).  The transformation is complete.  Perhaps English class will be a bit more energetic today.    
            Davis’s fly-on-the-wall poems culminate in “Transubstantiation,” in which the passive narrator is no longer content to stumble upon scenes and allow them to force their shape upon him.  In this case, the narrator overtly seeks an experiences and, as reward for his efforts, is given new life. 
            Seeking out a wild place, the narrator says, “I plunge through creek toward the place/ where the great blue heron flew” (1-3).  Only three lines in and, with this one act, the narrator has been more active in the shaping of his own destiny than the narrator in the three aforementioned poems combined.  The result is a complete physical and psychological transformation in which the narrator becomes a great crane.  Davis writes, “While I gape, my arms flicker/ fire before morphing to feathers./ Lord-a-mercy, I’m growing wings!” (11-3). Not content to merely possess wings, he must also use them.  Finding himself amongst a flock of cranes, the narrator says:

My tissue wings stretch taut,
pocket the air while I rise,
trailing hollow reeds legs,
rowing up-current, gaining altitude.
We are flying, and we are singing together,
our wings sing. (21-6)

Making the case that the transformation is psychological and not physical would be easy.  Regardless, whether “Transubstantiation” is about a man who transcends the bounds of gravity or merely of his own mind, he is a man quite unlike the narrators in “Shade," “Emergency Room Express Care” or “Dawn Singer”; he is not a passive bit of clay upon which chance meetings leave their imprint. 
            Ed Davis’s narrators are various and complex.  One thing they have in common is that, with help, they reach a higher plain of existence.  An important difference, however, is that though most elevate their vantage through sheer luck and longing, at least one seeks out his fortune.  Davis portrays dynamic characters who are most themselves while being acted upon by the presence of others.  But a truly overt act can take place, and when it does the actor transcends through sheer will of the spirit.

The first poem in the collection, “These Poems," is an introduction of sorts.  Would you mind talking about this poem and what it does to shape the book?  Also, when was this poem written, and why?  Was it written much like any other poem and just happened to fit, or was it created to serve this specific function? 

ED: You’re right, it is an introduction. Although I wrote the poem at least five years ago, it still feels “recent” to me. It came to me, as many poems do, while hiking Glen Helen Nature Preserve in Yellow Springs; but unlike most, it arrived fairly complete. Almost all poets share this uncanny, even sacred, experience of a significant work arriving fully-formed as opposed to the long, tedious (somewhat obsessive) process that midwifing poems usually is. Naturally it doesn’t happen often enough. The poem is a good one to perform first at readings as a sort of prelude or invocation. It feels mystical to me, perhaps due to its origin, though it’s very concrete and reveals, I believe, much about me personally as well as a sort of poetic credo.  It seems to be about faith. 

Right off the bat, with the first poem, you begin defining specific relationships — “These Poems”, “Uncle Frank and the Boy," “Shade," “Boots, Repaired," “My Hands at Fifty-five”  —  some between people, some otherwise.  Each of these poems includes some type of dependence.  Would you please discuss that dependence and how it, perhaps, defines the relationship?  Though similar in this way, they all have, or so it seems to me, a contracted or expanded focus which also makes them, the poems and the relationships, quite different from one another.  These are just a few examples, of many, and happen to be the first five poems in the book.  Would you please speak to how relationships form the nucleus of some of your work?  Is it possible to write a poem that doesn’t include some type of relationship?  How does a poem like “Shade," which is very much of the moment — kind of a snapshot — fit with the other poems I’ve named that are hard fought, earned relationships taking place over great time and space?

ED: At first the word “dependence” surprised me, but the more I think about it, the more it fits. The older I grow, the more I feel the interdependence of all things, especially people. Introverted and solitary by nature, I’m nonetheless quite aware I write poems for people to read and hear. But not all of them. Many more are written for myself, my own growth, personally and in the craft. “Uncle Frank” is a direct celebration of a boy’s depending on a good man (and, indirectly, Mother Nature). In “Shade,” the outsider observes a tight-knit community, depending on their neighbor to share a lot more than his tree and property (and, again, Nature shares with humans). The narrator of “Boots” feels companionship, even love, for the tools of his “trade.” So you’re right, of course. As solitary and private as some poems (and their narrators) can be at times, the “world is very much with them.” I think of my hero Wendell Berry and how focused all his creative work, prose as well as poetry, is on the tight human circle:  family, then community. The Big World, including God, seems a distant third, since all nature, all non-human things, are infused with spirit. Same with my poetry, I think. Relationships are key. As I used to tell my college composition students, “I’m much more interested in our pursuing what unites rather than separates us.” Conflict isn’t my favorite relationship.

Your poems seem to almost alternate between the urban/suburban and the rural.  This makes sense, given your background.  Would you please discuss how region shapes the physicality of your poems?  How is the physical shape of a poem (the poetic line, stanzaic form, etc.) conceived differently, if at all, by regional concerns?

ED: You’re right:  they divide themselves into rural and urban; for example, most poems set in the West Virginia of my boyhood are quite rural in their people, settings and theme, despite the fact that I was always a townie and never lived in the country. Do regional concerns affect the physical form of my poems? You might have discovered something there. To the extent I’m reproducing speech (as in the dialect poem “God Knocks”) or a very Appalachian setting and theme (as in “Roots and Branches”), lines do seem much affected by their subjects:  tending toward natural pauses, including drawl, in the former; and to rural mountain sprawl in the latter. Thanks for that insight! 

While on the subject of form, the poems in your collection don’t seem to concern themselves much with traditional forms.  Or consistent traditional meters, for that matter, though throughout the collection there certainly are hints of both.  What is it about the lack of given rules that attracts you to that freer poetic mode?  If you do bypass given form and, therefore, all the inherent rules of tradition, what are your rules?  What guidelines do you place on yourself or your work to guide you where you want to go?  Where do you want to go?

ED: Though I write free not traditional verse, I’m obsessive about the integrity, length and especially rhythm of my lines. If readers see my poems as merely chopped-up prose, I’d be disappointed. A few important rules that I hope are obvious include the following. Lines must end on a significant (hopefully suggestive) word, compelling the reader forward (never a throwaway word like a preposition or article). And you’re right that, while my lines don’t scan as traditional verse, there’s tight, even strict rhythm, achieved more by intuition and “feel” rather than counting syllables. I also favor musical devices such as alliteration; and one-syllable, concrete words over multi-syllabic abstract ones. My experience performing in rock bands in the sixties, playing music by ear, which by definition is informal, improvisational and “free” (at least in the listening), influences my poetry much more, I think, than my formal literary education. In a way, my poems are the songs I’d write, if I could. But I’m a poet, not a songwriter, so what I’m after is concise musical language that both entertains, informs and hopefully moves readers through a tightly-controlled form designed to speak as directly as possibly to my audience.   

There is a great deal of listing or cataloging in this collection.  For example, ‘This is the things poems do’ (3-4), ‘These are the things hands do’ (8-9), ‘This is how the body changes form’ (23-24).  Can you please discuss how listing plays a part in your poetic imagination and, if at all, how maybe it is part of a poetic tradition you might be a part of and/or tap into?

ED: Lists are so generative! As poets, our job is to capture the ephemeral, the transcendent moment as it happens right before our eyes (even if it was from a day in our childhood forty years ago), and while the telling word and well-disciplined line are central to writing effective poetry, sometimes I just let ‘er rip and take it all, though I can feel a little guilty later. For a long time, I let the sprawling poem “Dawn Singer” linger after writing it pretty much as it appears in the book, saying to myself, “This won’t do. It’s way over the top. Gotta cut back.” So the day came to tame it, show it who’s boss and see if it could be saved. But I decided it was fine the way it was:  over the top, self-indulgent and messy. So be it. A lot of folks have told me they enjoy the poem. But I think that, except maybe for “He Could Write,” most of my list poems in “Time of the Light” are more tightly controlled and less “wild.” Revising can become self-censoring if we’re not careful. We can revise the heart and soul right out of the poem.

What is the rhetorical nature of the five sections of your book and how do these five sections interact?  Is there an implicit conversation between the different parts?  How has this shaped your expectations of what the reader will receive, both as they read and once they have walked away?

ED: Well, it’s sort of a greatest hits collection—poems spanning my entire poetic career, from the 1980’s right up to 2012. It includes most of the poems in my chapbook “Healing Arts,” but only one each from the chapbooks “Haskell” and “Appalachian Day,” none from “Whispering Leaves.” From the first, I envisioned the book as a repository for the (hopefully) best poems from four decades—but I also included newer poems that had gone over well in readings, such as “These Poems” and “Epitaph” as well as a few more obscure poems that fit the book’s overall theme as well as the section in which it’s located. Then I organized all of them into four sections—The Art of Living (concerned with people and relationships); The Nature of Art (ekphrastic poems about everything from rock, blues and jazz, to modern dance); The Art of Nature (mostly the fruit of many walks in the woods); and Spirit (poems which seem more directly centered on the sacred). However, since I believe all poetry is sacred and about important relationships, there’s a great deal of overlap; there’s probably no single poem that couldn’t be placed just as well into another of the categories. And yet I feel the book has shape and movement, from lighter to darker, humorous to more serious, human to more mystical. The book’s four categories feel flexible, malleable, a little arbitrary, reflecting perhaps the free verse I’m so committed to. 

Who is your audience?  Who is the person or persons in your head that make up the ideal receivers of your work?  How do these phantoms help you create?  Do they have real-world counterparts?

ED: I think a lot about other poets, who’ve gained sacred places as judges in my head because of their strict discipline as well as their kindness and generosity—but mostly because of their values, which I’ve inculcated to lesser or greater degrees. I’m aware of them, though I don’t always listen to them. All rules are to be broken, one’s own and surely others’, but not without good reason, soul-searching and respect for one’s perceived audience. Not all experiments work. But all poets need to experiment. Some of the poems in “Time of the Light” began as rather bold experiments. For me, “Transubstantiation” felt new, raw and experimental enough to make me nervous the first time I performed it. However, with my audience’s acceptance has come my own; now that poem seems fairly conservative, perhaps even typical of my work. But breaking “their” rules is enervating and a big part of my process. I try not to write the same old typical Ed Davis poem over and over, though I know I’m not entirely successful. I take it on faith that if I can please the people I respect, I believe strangers who love poetry may be pleased, too. And while I hope my poetry may even speak to people who think they hate poetry, I’m under no great illusions there. I can only control what I place on the page; I have no control over any other outcomes, which seems to me a good philosophy of life as well as creative endeavor.  

Finally, this feels like kind of an unfair question, or at least an ambush, but this blog is titled Why Poetry Matters.  Well…why?

ED: Poetry matters because poetry is at the top of the literary food chain. If you love language — and we all do, despite what we may say, despite what well-meaning but misguided “grammarians” might have done to us in our formal education—you know that poetry gives you an experience that most prose doesn’t give you:  a more intense experience. Heard orally, poetry shoots directly from the brain to your blood if you let it, without mediation:  no need to understand it all, no need to feel every single sensual experience as it passes; just relax, as you would listening to a great piece of music the first time you hear it, and let it wash all over you, let it wash you, brothers and sisters, in the Spirit! And then, later, in quiet contemplation you can return, read and re-read silently, plumbing those depths to your heart’s content, gleaning insight, savoring nuances of the poet’s voice, tasting speech, appreciating the writer’s deep craft. But first:  pure joy. At least that’s the way it is for me. I love it that poetry has nothing to do with commerce, everything to do with the soul.

Ed Davis is a former professor of writing, literature and humanities. He served as the assistant director for the Antioch Writer's Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and has participated in writing conferences such as Taos Writers’ Workshop, Cleveland State University’s Imagination Workshop, Antioch Writers’ Workshop and the Novel-In-Progress Workshop sponsored by Green River Writers of Kentucky. He has published several books of poetry, two novels and many short stories. "Time of the Light" is his latest book of poetry. More of Ed's work is available at his website,


Anthony Fife lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio, with his wife, fiction writer Lauren Shows, and their daughter Lucy.  Anthony accepted his B.A. and M.A. in English from Morehead State University and his M.F.A in Poetry from Spalding University.  Anthony teaches English at Clark State Community College and Sinclair Community College. Anthony’s taste in poetry is broad, but his main interests include personae poems and character sketches; in short, poems that place the focus primarily on one person's shoulders, and don’t let them get away with anything.

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