I Was Building Up To Something. Susan Davis. Moon Tide Press. Irvine, California. 2011.
It happened again last night. I was reading Susan Davis' splendid I Was Building Up To Something and I got to her poem "Undertaking" and I cracked through the silence, alarming Kirsty something fierce. I whoooooped. It hadn't been any sort of angry silence or unhappy silence, just the usual, late at night, both of us reading, toes touching, silence. We'd talked our day over earlier, made our usual little complaints against the universe, solved some problems that weren't ours, laughed a little and then, as usual, read.
As I've said before, it takes a bad poem or a very good one for me to break the silence.
Then I usually read that bad or good poem to K. She either scowls, laughs and goes back to her The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt or whatever other tome she is reading, or she puts down her book and takes my hand, shares the moment, and then goes back to her book.
K loved this poem.
She had to wash away
the black silt
worked into his pores, into
the wrinkles around his eyes
that made him look older
than his 47 years.
She walked his naked length
on the table at her waist
where she kneaded dough,
where she told the men to place him.
She had given them the children
and made them all leave.
She took her time.
By lantern-light, she washed each finger,
cleaning underneath the nail with
a splinter sheathed in cotton.
She started once to wrap him
in a blanket. He was so cold.
She found a mole on his hip
she never knew was there.
I thought he would have liked
to have her find the mole like this
when he was still alive.
I said to you
when the husband died,
The way it's done now,
they make her leave the room,
leave the body with a stranger
who zips it up in a plastic bag,
tags it like a specimen,
puts this warm sweet body
in a drawer.
They let a stranger handle you
that one last time.
They would have to drug me.
They would have to drag me away.
Remember how I told you that?
Today's book of poetry frequently falls victim to romantic shambles and Susan Davis has that voice honed, whet-sharp. In her poem "Hindsight" when she intones the following I almost fell apart:
What do we want so badly
that we give up those we love to get it?
Lines like these haunt me like a ghost. So I passed I Was Building Up To Something around the office, like we always do, and was surprised. Milo read it last, as usual, but today when he finished reading he didn't scowl and throw the book back at me. Instead he asked, almost politely, if he could keep it until after lunch. He wanted to give it another go.
This is poetry that reminds the reader of what it is we really struggle with, the basic firmaments of our desire to be good. Discovering basic goodness is a life long pursuit and Davis provides us with some very illuminating and instructional moments.
Davis writes serious poems that resonate in the reader's ear as though it were common knowledge we were being reminded of, that we are all this wise. Davis is just reminding us.
Ticking marks seconds players use to list words starting with a
It is the end of concentration and a style of thinking.
I have won before. And the smile of summer at table under trees.
Rugs looped on little metal spikes and sheets stiff from sun-drying.
O! the looping car sighs in the suburb summer.
The tire blimp is grinding over like a rainless thunderstorm.
Ten years ago its pilot grabbed a trailing rope to reattach the
and it took him off into the small plane space just above the houses
but high enough. He was trying to save it. He was going up with
and then he was falling away. What was he thinking? When did he
he had misjudged? At the gym we talk fat, muscle, bicep curl,
If he had been stronger. She says work to failure. Exhaust the
And I want to rest. I get tired of holding on. His body whipping
along like a flag
over the woman strolling her baby and the boy cutting grass for
People watching the towers burning and groaned as the bodies
a very simple way. There's no help. Then falling is what's left to
Davis kept me riveted from beginning to end of I Was Building Up To Something. These poems hum with all the right tension. They are sometimes passion and sometimes pain but always right on target. By the time you get to the end of I Was Building Up To Something you feel completely invested in the poetry of Susan Davis.
I Was Building Up To Something is like a photo album full of strangers who look like you - it is a familiar. Not because Davis knows you but because she know us - because the good stuff is universal.
My conclusions are often wrong, but I don't find out until it's
too late. Then again, who gets to say it's too late? I'm not dead yet.
That sounds like my daughter. She thinks she'll never die. If
I were sixteen with such fierce grandmothers, I might feel the same.
They'll live to be a hundred. That's a conclusion.
Endings got heavier with my father's death - the only son,
after my brother - the only son. Now my aunts and their sons are
dying, as if a plague had been designed to stamp out the family.
I read about the Tutsis and the Hutus in Rwanda. In
Waimanalo, they wait for the day when the north part of Oahu will
be returned to the Kanaka Maoli. I don't know how my Great Aunt
Mattie's land was split up when she died. There are no natives left
to return it to. I don't think Ina Claire will keep up the practice of
stocking the pond and giving each grandchild for birthdays an acre
and a calf to raise.
Today's book of poetry simply liked the way Davis talked. These plain speaking poems are all an open door, their geography welcoming, the weather unpredictable but always instructive.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Davis's poetry reflects a birth in Louisiana, a childhood in upstate New York and stints in the giant states of Texas and Alaska. She now resides in California with her husband and directs under-graduate creative writing at University of California, Irvine. Her poem "The Season Begins in a Waiting Room" was chosen for the 2010 Rebecca Lard Poetry Award, and the poem "Farm Days" was installed on wind screens at the Lake June transit station in Dallas in November of 2010. She is the mother of two daughters. I Was Building Up To Something is her first book.
There's an ancient Chinese sensibility to Susan Davis' poems, a compression of line and idea, but not of emotion, which I found profoundly moving. While trying to write these lines, I kept replaying her haunting music and rhythms. A first book with the wisdom of several, and I haven't even mentioned that she already owns her own stark, unflinching, original vision or our redoubtable, ever-mysterious world. It's a pleasure to help welcome a new and memorable voice to our literature.
- Philip Schultz
Susan Davis' poems remind us what reverence is, its sources, why we might quiet ourselves down enough to remember and to hear what brings us to our knees, sometimes with pain, sometimes with joy. Allow the quiet. Kneel down in the garden. Read these perfect, careful poems.
- Michelle Latiolais
With an astounding clarity, I Was Building Up To Something looks at the world of family and faith, the vicissitudes of love and longing. The poems explore deeply the fundamental experiences all thinking, feeling people face in a world where spiritual longing is often met with terrifying silence, and the sensation of time passing is both a blessing and a curse. Plainspoken, fresh and unpredictable, they heighten the sense of human attachment. This is a beautiful book. It should be required reading for anyone wishing to live a serious life.
- Alan Shapiro
Susan Davis' book has the indelible yet understated quality of certain great photographs. Sharp edges of narrative, clarity of emotion, distinct images in declarative sentences, the velvet, gradated shadows of loss, unpredictable rhythms of violence and tenderness in country life and family life: from the precisions of that exacting surface rise the mysteries of life itself, caught in the trigger-slices of these urgent, concentrated poems.
- Robert Pinsky
reading from I Was Building Up To Something
at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center
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