An Introduction to John Davis by Virginia Konchan

Poetry creates meaning through metaphor, association, and connotation; it marks place through deixis (words whose semantic meaning is fixed but their denoted meaning variable depending on time or place: I, you, this, that, here, there, today, yesterday). But how does it mark materiality? John Davis’ five masterful poems speak to this “burden of language” to, if not to stand in for, then to bear the weight of labor and history. In “Guest Quarters,” the speaker hangs a “Goodwill painting of a solitary / schooner” above the bed of his college freshman son: the bed becomes a “lonely vessel” sympathetically felt in the “vacated home” of his parents at the end: “those who remained to endure . . . the tyranny of staying / and caring beside an ocean’s changing canvas.” In this poem and others, form and representations of nature offer a stay against impermanence and destruction (the “crushed optimism” after a hurricane), yet the speaker struggles to square our “well-meant structures” with impending, inevitable loss: the temporary warehouse shelter of a sparrow is “unlivable,” yet reflects his young daughter’s “straining” beyond safe enclosures; in “Antique Novelty,” a family heirloom (a marble run), becomes an occasion for his son to test his luck against “fate and physics” and also for the speaker to “witness and listen”; and in “Idalia,” he compares his “old-native experiences / with wind and water and terror” to abandonment by a governing force larger than himself, apart from chaos: “the rented roto-tiller’s circular blades” likened to “arms / that once reached sunward like a toddler / wanting a distant parent to pick them up.” Parenting in the apocalypse, in a state besieged by the worst of climate emergency, is not for the faint of heart, and culminates in the final poem, “Accordion File Physics,” where the speaker questions the value of his collected work in the face of time, change, and natural disaster, meditating on his hope that a reader of the file cabinet’s contents (requiring “pall-bearer lift”) will find “labor’s legacy / after so much leverage” and enjoining the reader to “feel the forceful pull and push” of history and circumstances beyond our control, “amid these gathered leaves.” Staying, caring, protecting, witnessing, listening, surveying damage, honoring, marking time: these may not be virtues heralded today. But they are eternal virtues for poetry and its readers, who look to language’s materiality as the only reliable trace, and history, of our mortal lives, pressed upon “words’ wooden captstan / worked by the pry and torque / of hand and memory.”

John Davis Jr. is the author of The Places That Hold (Eastover Press, 2021), Hard Inheritance (Five Oaks Press, 2016), Middle Class American Proverb (Negative Capability Press, 2014)and two other books of poetry. He has received many literary awards including the Florida Book Awards Bronze Medal and the 2021 Sidney Lanier Poetry Prize. He holds an MFA from the University of Tampa. His writings are published in literary journals throughout the South and around the world. He teaches English and Literature in the Tampa Bay area. You can find his profile from Poets and Writers magazine here: