Portals to The Places That Hold: The Self-Forgetting Poetry of John Davis Jr., reviewed by Christianne Goodwin

This poetry collection is full of holes. That is to say—this poetry collection is full of “portals.” As Scottish poet Don Paterson put it in “Portal Agony” for the UK’s Literary Review, good poems, such as the kind we encounter in John Davis Jr.’s The Places That Hold, are “miraculous connections” made between unlikely things—doors opened in midair. But when it comes to the poems published in “this month’s little magazines,” Paterson is generally unimpressed. These self-interested poems are not portals but “just one hole, leading absolutely nowhere.” 

If the reigning commonality is, indeed, what the Scottish poet calls “self-absorbed” and “private” poetry, then it is in the work of John Davis Jr. that we find its antithesis. Davis’ collection, which represents decades of the Florida poet’s work, confronts history, inheritance, and identity in a way that is self-interested, but not self-absorbed.

The shifting landscape is captured in a poetic myth-world made vivid with Davis’ own Floridian epithets: “die-cast cars” and “fingernail-crafted caves”, “soft-hedged suburbs” and “armadillo dark.” In the poet’s memory, object and man meld together; the poet himself recognizes how he is bound to the landscape through responsibility and memory. In the poem “The Farm I’ve Willed You,” the poet’s ancestor speaks of: “the knots of your knuckles, planks of your palms.” There is a humility, a desire for the poet himself to understand the place where he is rooted: 

Return when my strong ghost is gone:

When the ax-yard stump’s black center 

grows moss, when the barn rafters 

lose my fingerprints, after every post 

forgets the warmth of my work-breath. 

In his “Letter to Ancestors,” the poet begins with a grand promise: to “write them back into existence” with an “ink resurrection.” In the last stanza, however, Davis grapples with the unruly power of his own work; he recognizes how it will expand beyond him. 

Here you move in monochrome:

Reanimated into square 

Capitals, squat vowels, 

And thick punctuations— 

Pauses like windowsill wasps

Here, early in the collection, Davis releases control to the abstraction of memory and language itself. The poet submits himself to the work—a true indication of his mastery. 

It must be said, however, that the “self-forgetting” nature of the collection makes it, in no way, less personal. In “Whittling Lessons from an Absentee Father”, with the dualistic subtitle “Always away; never toward,” the reader sees how abstraction becomes the poet’s escape. By the end of the poem, he is shucking away the “weakened hide” of time itself – “perfect for stripping, forgetting.” The poem that follows, “My Father’s Funeral Tent” is not embittered or vengeful; it lets the reader fill in the gaps: “Here at last is the shelter /You never taught me to pitch—”

In the closing lines of this poem, the poet is showing his own son how to find Polaris: “a shovel of black sky, spiraling.” The reality of fatherly absence receives its own quiet response in the poems for Davis’ own sons. These family poems are placed alongside poems about his own childhood—a beautiful melding of lived and vicarious experience. In poem such as “Advice to My Son Before College,” the abstract gives way to wise simplicity: 

... But you

must seek cooler, darker, and deeper layers 

of understanding. Begin with a point 

bent into quandary, and finish 

with certainty hard as scale, well-rounded. 

ask for more bread to catch fatter fish. Eat better. 

Though many of Davis’ poems do indeed reflect his roles as a father, son, and husband, he lends a nearly anonymous, knowledgeable voice to history left unturned. A set of poems is dedicated to the victims of the Dozier Reform School in Florida, a site which may already be familiar to readers because of Colson Whitehead’s novel The Nickel Boys. Davis dedicates his collection to the Dozier boys, and this set of poems commemorates their lives, the torture they endured, and their mass grave marked only by a “cathedral of knees.” In these poems, we encounter recognizable aspects of Davis’ writing, the epithet-like descriptions, “mine labor or its blue-collar cancers”, or the  “long-lashed eyes,” a line referencing the torture in the white-grout rooms. It is the poet that writes their names in stone, and overshadows what is remembered on “small-town pedestals.” Even with some recognizable aspects of form or diction, these poems somehow sit apart and carry a distinctive shift within them. We sense the poet’s care for his subject, enabled by the absence of ego.

The collection ends, fittingly, with a poem that reads like a song to oneself. In what he imagines as a “smaller Argos floating towards winter,” the poet tells a past self that he will encounter heavy grief and a winter of the soul, but promises the coming of “The Poem You Need,” borne out of this trouble. Through these lines, “another voyage” will begin. As Davis writes the poems that he may need, he welcomes the reader to plunge into “darker and deeper” depths. But the poems do not satisfy an existing need; they create one. 

And here, I suggest a portal jump—if you will—back to the first poem of the collection, “Tractor Ghosts”: 

Grandfather, I am driving your memory back to the shed.

Your tractor’s power steering is shot, and the navigation demands

a farmer’s muscle to raise specter-gray clouds of soil.

Diesel smoke stays in this baggy work shirt, and it triggers

your lessons: solenoid, stater, alternator, filter, and all 

the anatomy I’d need to keep your machine intact.

Davis must confront that he himself is at-odds with his ancestral land and work: 

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.

This is a collection of acceptance. The poet knows how his work differs from that of his ancestors; he is at peace with the past, comfortable with mystery. He is driving all of his memories back, rumbling through a storied field. He will leave them swirling in the myth-shed of his poetry. For our sake, he’ll leave the door unlatched.