REVISING THE STORM
BY GEFFREY DAVIS
BOA Editions, LTD., 2014
The Tenor of Silence
by LynleyShimat Lys
“I have yet to survey the Irish grit / of my grandmother’s hands, to ask after her first / stumbles with needle and thread – the awkward outline // of butterflies drifting the pillowcase ... I’ve wished I memorized / more – her tenor of silence, say – or chanced being/ the grandchild crouched at the crack in the kitchen door, // catching her voice in song while fudge baked / in the winter.” – “The Epistemology of Hospitals”
The poems in this collection belie the claims of the narrator of this poem, deriving their strength from just that ability to memorize and retain the tenor of silence. What is most striking about the poems, individually and as a group, is their ability to maintain calm in the constant flux of the stormy weather they and their narrators inhabit. Davis takes us through the liminal spaces between experience and memory, compels us to listen as stories unfold, and reminds us to be mindful of silence and breath as landscapes spin out of control.
The first poem in the collection, “What I Mean When I Say Farmhouse,” immerses us in these spaces of thunder and memory, “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.” The collection cleverly references the meta-poetic with its concepts of revising memory and editing the forces of nature to reinvision and reinscribe them. The narrator of “King County Metro” introduces the recurrent and problematic father figure from a refreshing vantage point, beginning, “In Seattle, in 1982, my mother beholds this man / boarding the bus, the one she’s already / turning into my father,” and ending “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.” This serves both to foreshadow everything that will happen in relation to the father figure, and to draw us in despite what we know will happen, in the way that we see the mother being drawn in.
Concepts of breath, pause, and waiting also recur in the collection’s poems on fishing and on essays into parenthood. “The Epistemology of Rosemary” approaches the harrowing time following a miscarriage, “One thin month lies between us and our miscarriage, / and I feel her grow silent under the new vastness / of this wreckage. I try to talk about my father / breaking blighted pigeon eggs: at twelve, I thought / patience and pressed him to wait, one week, then two,” – into this new liminal space of mourning, the narrator introduces the forms of hope developed through attempting to instill patience in his father.
The poem “Teaching Twelve-Year-Olds the Trail of Tears,” earlier in the collection hints at some of the difficulties which develop later in the collection, of the failure of parents, relationships, and parenthood, while addressing the failures of American history and the narrator’s Native American heritage. The narrator addresses the students, “Repeat after me: They arrived almost without children / and with few elders, with almost no past and no future. / Now, have a good lunch. Behave. Michael, no running.” This poem-as-lesson encapsulates the skill with which the poems in this collection balance between catastrophe and the need to survive every day events. Like those who were forced to walk the Trail of Tears, the narrators of these poems arrive with missing fathers, missing children, and a series of disruptions to both past and future. Despite this, like the students learning about the Trail of Tears, they are still obligated to go about their daily routines, to behave, and to pace themselves.
Geffrey Davis shows great skill in framing these poems and maintaining their silences and places of calm. The material included in the poems could easily become overly dramatic or overwhelming, and yet through his positioning of the narrators and his use of pause, breath, and silence, he is able to give us the full impact of these stories in a way that lets the stories speak for themselves and make themselves heard. In “The Newakum River,” the narrator relates, “I’ve seen the river bent and falling, / trees bowed along the muddy banks, an early fog hovering / above the water’s current, like some gray ghost out over / the going body. Here each cast is prayer, each slacked retrieval / prayer denied. I have prayed this way since my father taught me,” – these poems hover in liminal spaces to teach us anew about living, listening, and the tenor of silence.