A Topography of Salvation: John Davis’ The Places That Hold — A Review by Virginia Konchan

The Places That Hold
by John Davis
Eastover Press, 2021
Reviewed by Virginia Konchan

Poetic accounts of places are to be found throughout the history of Western civilization, both imagined and real: Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s poems about farms and farming, Dante’s Inferno, Wordsworth poems of the English Lake District and T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. Contemporary poets joining this lineage include Mark Doty, Natasha Trethewey, Robert Hass, Ilya Kaminsky, James Wright, Charles Wright, Terrance Hayes, C.D. Wright, and, brilliantly, John Davis Jr.

The place and milieu of John Davis Jr.’s fifth poetry collection, The Places That Hold, is Florida. “The past is dead,” wrote Wallace Stevens in his poem “Farewell to Florida,” but it is very much alive in this profound collection of historical record, ancestral legacy, and metrical syncopation. Dedicated to the students who died while imprisoned at the now-closed Dozier Reform School for Boys in Marianna, Florida (anonymous graves and records indicating 96 deaths) and the school’s haunted survivors, Davis approaches his subject matter with sensitivity and grace, particularly surrounding the subjects of masculinity, fatherhood, labor, and Southern history.

The collection opens with “Tractor Ghosts,” a moving poem that memorializes the speaker’s grandfather’s agricultural labor, contrasted with the speaker’s unfamiliarity with machines: “Grandfather, I am driving your memory back to the shed . . . Everything falters . . . I cannot pour—I cannot keep—life inside it . . . Stubborn, it will crank again, sensing the wrong spirit controls / its way. These unscarred fingers, these lineless eyes know city / currency, university books. They fail the stiff-turning wheel.” Davis’ poetics come at a time in American poetry when pastoral poetry, especially blue-collar pastoral poetry such as Davis’ work exemplifies, has given way to the necropastoral, in the face of climate crisis, and eco-poetry, with similar themes of species extinction, global warming, oil spills, and the grieving of other Anthropocenic horrors. Davis, however, looks to his own personal history to shape his spare poems’ content and form, with an ear reminiscent of the cadences of Frost and Robert Hayden, the latter of whom wrote in formal poetic forms while celebrating, like Davis does, a wide range of voices and techniques. In an era of literary publishing that privileges flashy, new, and trending voices and styles over time-honored subjects and the formal skillfulness necessary to contemporize ancient values and truths, Davis’ commitment to his own “lineage and legacy,” and Floridian history, lends his poems a gravitas and centripetal focus that can only come from experience, from living inside words.

“I am writing you back into existence,” he writes in “Letter to Ancestors,” an epistle that emphasizes how the craft of poetry is his way of honoring them: “reanimated into square / capitals, squat vowels, / and thick punctuations— / pauses like windowsill wasps.”

Davis is a master at deploying the objective correlative: his ability to evoke emotion through objects and symbols in nearly every poem—his grandmother’s garden hoe, his father’s watch, his mother’s Grapette bottle, his wife’s scrubs, bird feathers—provide a vehicle for the poem’s import and urgency that grounds the poems and reminds the reader of the formative statements of the imagist movement in poetry. In 1908, poet T.E. Hulme spoke of poetry based on an accurate presentation of its subject, with no excess verbiage (or, one might add, abstraction): “Images in verse are not mere decoration, but the very essence.” The visual concretism in Davis’ poems is arresting, and conveys an abiding respect, devotion, and empathy for his ancestors and family. From “Ironing My Wife’s Scrubs”: “Steam breathes / through cotton pockets; / hot metal smell rises / with my prayers. // Understanding blood / may stain them, I starch / the blue sleeves anyway, / create scalpel-edge creases . . . When she returns to me, her body / has shaped the clothes: her turn, / her stretch, her strenuous elegance / perfect what once was uniform.”

The formal elegance and restraint of the collection’s first section, in remembrance of family and the difference between manual and poetic labor (recalling how the word “verse” derives from the Latin “versus”: a turn of the plow, a furrow, and later, a line of writing) continues through the following four sections, involving themes of class, masculinity, fatherhood, machines, music, inheritance and lessons, elders’ wisdom, Christianity, returning, mortality, and the speaker’s relationship with the natural world. In many of the poems involving nature, there is a sense of haunting: Davis resists personification or simple praise songs, instead showing the reader how inextricable his appreciation for nature is from his literary craft, and naming what’s been lost.

From “Rabbit Hunt”: “The Eastern Cottontail / will not run from your steps / but the pause in your stride . . . Poem, I halt for you, / hoping your fright reveals / a heartbeat’s fleeting line.”

And from “Early Bird Prayers”: “When I, as a child, was asked to pray at breakfast, / I began with thanks for birds—the closest things / to heaven in my mind . . . Replace these empty skies with beaks and eyes; / send note-filled breasts to wreath-shaped nests, / press color and music again against these clouds.” There is a Hopkinsesque sublimity to Davis’ perfectly-pitched music: his slant rhymes, sprung verbs, neologisms (“ankle-nubbed man”), debt enjambments, and unsentimental reverence for nature also recall the lyrical metaphysics of Keats and Donne.

Yet other poems elegize a loss of kinship with the land that previous generations possessed.

From “The Old Gardener’s Lament”: “Alert the papers: Horticulture is dead. / Suffering came in nettles and vines. / Snails sought cooler, wetter stones, hauling homes / south at a desperate desert crawl. / Snakes left trellises and stakes overtaken / by tightly wound Virginia creeper.” This poem and others depict a landscape turned barren and desolate, abandoned by laborers. Yet what is fascinating about Davis’ intervention is how he connects the state of the earth with his poetic consciousness (“Land hardens into memory”), and, in “The Farm Poet’s Lament,” the relative uselessness of poetic labor contrasted with the dignified labor of harvesting the land.

“Will these words increase the sugars in our fruit?
How will harvest measure their value and price?
What gain will come to the coffin-like mailbox?

Language must make more meaning than memory.
No verses ever fueled a red tractor.
No meter, except for the rain gauge, matters.”

This harsh indictment of poetic and intellectual labor, made possible by the labor of generation’s past, continues in the poem’s third and fourth stanzas, which warn the poet against hubris, and differentiate between agricultural and poetic knowledge, manual labor and poesis (“to make”).

“Be not arrogant, you dark academic,
for your learning is pathetic amid this
demanding farmland droughted by your letters.

Hear it? It mourns for one whose hands know till
and welcome the blister and ache of making.”

Not only does Davis seem to suggest that the earth has consciousness (the Gaia principal), but also that the poet’s “precious literature” has been vitiated by a lack of contact with the earth, resulting in sterility both of land and letters. The poem ends, “Dying trees rattle and wag damp finger bones / in brittle points of blame and shame . . . The rain still falls. The land goes on without you. / Every serif bares a tiny sharp tooth / severing heritage.”

More accusation than apologia, this cautionary and critical stance toward literary production in the above poem reads as an ars poetica on Davis’ craft, one that recapitulates suspicions of Plato (and later, Derrida) regarding the use value and verisimilitude of the written word, and poetry: or, as Derrida formulated it, “language bears within itself the necessity of its own critique.”

What makes this conflict within Davis’ work so rewarding is how he encodes the defense of his own poetic labor and craft by underscoring the materiality of language as a mediated form, yes, but one that is also characterized by marks, fonts, and, in “Typewriter Thief,” “silver keys,” a “well-oiled melody,” and “white holes of zeroes,” all suggesting a “rhythm of permanence.” Again in “Letter to Ancestors,” Davis suggests that his craft and aim—to preserve memory, and create some fragment of the everlasting—is indeed valorous and sacred, writing, as he is, “an ink / resurrection so permanent / even history’s rising heat / cannot fade you.” This dialectical pull, against and for the value and utility of poetry, is echoed elsewhere in the collection, particularly in poems that contrast the written word (and world) against the Biblical word and eternal truth.

From “After Reading the Bible and Wendell Berry”:

“Every season a deliverance:
the sky sending down its tools
to dig, to till, to plant, to reap
with work’s careful pressure–creation […]

Let the rain be your rhythmic rake
today, farmer. Let it scratch out
lines and contours of care—
a topography of salvation.”

This tensile balance between critique and affirmation (and, elsewhere, between order and disorder, trauma and restoration, play and industry, and biology and spirit) permeates the collection with a seriousness of thought and feeling matched only by Davis’ exquisite prosody. In the end, the question of the value of our work as poets (or as laborers in any field) is answered by the excellence and tenderness of this collection: our value inheres in the legacy of care we pass on to others, and new generations, as well as the care we take with our work, and souls.

Davis shows himself to be concerned not just with his own soul, but also of those who have passed: in tragic circumstances, for the 96 boys imprisoned at the Dozier Reform School who lost their lives due to abuse and neglect. “Laundry Duty, 3 p.m.” (for the boy who was punished by being put in a dryer) is a heartbreaking poem, depicting the boy’s suffering and the others “ordered to ignore him” while folding towels. Other poems in this series decry the corporeal punishment inflicted, broken fingers and other bones, elegizing the 55 discovered anonymous graves and indicting records: “A silver spade cradles a gray mandible / as though it might fit a poor Yorick skull / somewhere beneath these exposed striations / of history and blackness.”

If the marks we leave behind seem to be insufficient, or insubstantial, on earth, Davis reminds us that the earth, too, is vulnerable and imperiled. Whether our labors are mimetic of hers, or in an analogous relationship, our aesthetic objects—specifically, our language and how we use it—are still capable of not just changing, but remaking the world. “Daily I press fading footprints in sand populated / by overnight shells polished and pushed ashore.” A paean to Florida, to generations, and to the singular power of humans to make, as well as mean, The Places That Hold invites the reader to explore the etymological valences of “hold” (to possess, to cherish, to watch over, to maintain one’s course, to be patient), offering a place of refuge both of the earth, and divine.

Virginia Konchan is the author of four poetry collections, Bel Canto (Carnegie Mellon UP, 2022), Hallelujah Time (Véhicule Press, 2021), Any God Will Do and The End of Spectacle (Carnegie Mellon, 2020 and 2018); a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift (Noctuary Press, 2017); and four chapbooks, That Tree is Mine (Gaspereau Press, 2020), Empire of Dirt (above/ground press, 2019), The New Alphabets (Anstruther Press, 2019) and Vox Populi (Finishing Line Press, 2015). Coeditor of the craft anthology Marbles on the Floor: How to Assemble a Book of Poems(University of Akron Press, 2023), she holds degrees from Beloit College (BA), Cleveland State University (MFA), and the University of Illinois Chicago (PhD). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Atlantic, American Poetry Review, The Yale Review, Best New Poets, The Believer, andthe Academy of American Poets; her essays and criticism in Kenyon Review Online, Boston Review, American Poetry Review, Jacket2, and Guernica; her translations in The Brooklyn Rail, Asymptote and Circumference; and her fiction in StoryQuarterly, Joyland, and Memorious. Her work has been anthologized in several collections, and her honors include grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Vermont Studio Center, Ox-Bow, The Banff Centre, and Scuola Internazionale di Grafica. Co-founder of Matter, a journal of poetry and political commentary, she is currently the 2023 Amy Clampitt Residency Fellow, and from 2023-2024 will be reviewing books for the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Books.