BOOK REVIEW: Psalm 

Sophisticated Mechanics: CofC professor's new poetry is rich, sad, needed

Psalm [Buy Now]
By Carol Ann Davis
Tupelo Press, 55 pages, $16.95

Psalm is a new book of poems by College of Charleston professor Carol Ann Davis. Her debut collection is a resilient album of bloom and loss. Thirty-two poems chronicle a father's death and a son's birth. The work is erudite and tender, rich with music, art, and voyage.

Each poem is a brick that builds a wall. "What the Poem Wants," begins, "I am wanting everything from the poem right now." This swift and personal proclamation exposes Davis' vulnerability and sacrifice. It lays bare what she needs and shows how she intends to get it. Davis asks the poem for years she hasn't lived, for her father to appear as a young man. She asks the poem to give her these things, saying, "It happens all the time. It all does."

The poem, however, wasn't born yesterday. Davis states, "The idea that language puts the coin between our teeth. / Let me wander inside that, I ask the poem, / and come back saved." The hard bite of these lines cracks the poet's dreams. She is left helpless, and her offerings grow wild.

"The thief in me/ would sleep off these hours, their gravel/ and jackals and graves," and then, "The child in me donates my fingers to the poem."

But still the poem refuses. In the end, rather than get what she can't have, the poem itself becomes the answer.

Davis progresses with calculated steps. More than vision, her wall demands precision and strength. She is economical with words and has an expert eye for structure. "Naming You," dedicated to her son, Willem, displays the wide arena in which a poem can journey.

The first line reads, "Before you were named, you came in a white boat." This sure-footed imagery mysteriously clouds a newborn's arrival and taps the magic of motherhood. "I considered Indigo, / its long history, then ate some Chinese / which made me sick."

Parallel lines between a pregnancy's symptoms and the pursuit for a name's significance buffer the lineage that extends from mother to child.

Psalm is a contemplative collection. The poems succeed for their execution and ability to turn familiar experiences into fresh achievements. Davis mourns the death of her father and challenges it with discipline. She extrapolates introspections and puts them on the page.

From "In the Room":

he wakes

from something very near

time beginning again,

my father's breath startled, as if

it could all come back to him at once.

Her hope is startling when we realize the time she's spent examining a singular interaction with her father. Through her efforts, the poem has an insider's candidness with an outsider's reserve. The sudden turn from slumber to startled breath is a jolt of life. Her father's will is strengthened, and the reader better understands a relationship forged from a mutual struggle for survival.

Davis describes mortal events with sophisticated mechanics. Her poems motor along, maneuvering from sorrow to happiness. In numerous poems, Davis is left admiring the world's cultural arts. In turn, her personal world, at once so heavy and hemmed in by the loss of her father, is liberated, and her joy becomes this collection's evergreen.

The daunting aspect of confronting death is shocked with exhilaration. From the ashes the phoenix rises.

But poetry is a dual sport. Uncovering the profound in the mundane is as important as discussing the epic themes of life and death. In "Chaos Theory" Davis declares, "Let the Church of John Coltrane break at noon for cookies and punch."

"For Johns in South Carolina" states, "When I think of you in South Carolina/ I think of my foot in the sand."

These are an observant poet's intonations, hallmarks of a world that continues to turn no matter the debilitating events of the day. Therefore administering her collection a streetwise shot in the arm, Davis holds steady as her wall gains scope.

Psalm is a grave for mourning, a monument for prayer.

It's a launching pad for a poet with room to fly.


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