blackbirdonline journalSpring 2012  Vol. 11  No. 1
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Review | Atlas Hour, by Carol Ann Davis
               Tupelo Press, 2011

Atlas Hour, sized at 9.2" x 7.3", is wider than a typical book of poetry. (Davis’s first volume was 8.8" x 5.8".) Even so, the book’s default margins are sometimes broken to accomodate long-lined poems that extend into the fold. Thus our use of a wide content page and fine print to ensure accurate representation of quoted passages.
Blackbird production editors

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One of the achievements of Carol Ann Davis’s new book is the skill with which she creates space for her reader in poems that are extremely intimate, even private. In Atlas Hour we encounter no public outcries, no odes bellowed from the mount. Instead we eavesdrop on conversations with painters, poets, and members of her family (particularly her two young sons). Remarkably, Davis cultivates a style that succeeds no matter which intimate audience she addresses. Her poems accumulate into an argument that is only hinted at and demonstrated through its engagements. Atlas Hour suggests that domestic life (even in contemporary America) is a tapestry of human feeling that exists outside place and time. That feeling approaches the metaphysical, and because it exists beyond the boundaries of memory, also the communal. Whether Davis addresses George Oppen or Simone Weil or her infant son Luke, she invites us to listen in on as well as to absorb each poem’s emotional resonance.

Davis’s poems achieve radiant feeling by means of ekphrastic vision. The trigger, whatever tapestry, drawing, or painting she references, hardly matters. Instead, Davis foregrounds a tender, authentic intimacy shared by her speaker and listener. Take, for example, this opening from “A Little Basket of Beautiful Apples,” a poem about a drawing that shares the same title. The poem addresses Hannah Cohoon, the nineteenth century Shaker artist who drew the apples.

They are beautiful                this bright morning                 the gift              of a drawing

and the stone           on the table                speaking to it               in bird call        and dog call

a bit like a sermon               for doubters                the basket full              its asymmetry

a believing               little else                    comes to pass              but breath and appetite

faceless because                  face implies ours                    is a divine shape                      implies

what little we have     is other than matter               other than action or                   abstention

as when                               in the blizzard                       the bum           from the hay bales

knocks at the door                and you let him in                 a “winter Shaker”           a faithless

needful being           like us                        sleeping blindly                       in the dawn

like us           nothing divine              in his blood

Obviously, excerpting a passage from one of Davis’s poems is a hazardous affair. She moves from phrase to phrase and line to line associatively and accumulatively. Often she eschews punctuation to signal pauses, and instead uses white space and brushstrokes of language to convey tonal shifts and syntactical variations. (The dissolution of the text, I must admit, troubled my eyes at first, but I adjusted after reading a few poems in this mode.) Format and pace underpin the privacy between Davis’s speaker and an obscure woman artist long passed away. The title of the book, Atlas Hour, suggests deliberate placement in space and time, though every gesture here blurs the dimensions by which we locate ourselves. The emphasis on the verb “are” in the poem’s first movement firmly establishes tone and situation. If the lines were written more conventionally (that is, without so much intervening white space), the gesture would feel too deliberate in an ekphrastic poem, especially when followed by the image of “bright morning” (a phrase that any undergraduate workshopper would say has gotta go, as well as “the gift of a drawing,” and the arch-poetic images of the stone speaking to the apples and the dog call “like a sermon” ). We sense the poem’s monument of expression by means of Davis’s careful pacing and emphasis on phrases. She also skillfully calibrates the equation between private and public realms. When we arrive at pronouns such as face implies ours                    is a divine shape” and the repeated “like us” in the ninth and tenth lines, we see how carefully Davis keeps the private and public balanced. She convinces us of the beauty of Cohoon’s apples even though we haven’t seen the sketch (which seems the goal of an ekphrastic poem—to convince us of beauty beyond beauty’s object).

It’s impossible to overlook art’s role in inspiring the poems of Atlas Hour. Gerhard Richter, Mark Rothko, Vermeer, and Fra Angelico are invoked by name, and many other paintings, particularly from the Italian Renaissance, appear in the book. Fra Angelico’s “Adoration of the Magi,” set in Florence, provides a framework for the conception of the speaker and her husband’s first son, though the painting itself mostly serves as a title and touchstone, the circumscription of a symbolic mood. Another notable poem, “Rothko’s No. 1 (1949),” reads as something of a family treatise, beginning,

remember that             it’s not                         that we grow close               not that we mean

to love one another      but just             that what is bright                is common

tension                        equals                                      curbed desire                        the rooftops

where I am now           glistening                       into want                or apology

In passages such as these, Davis implies that living itself, even domestic living, can be contextualized and represented almost entirely by tonal gestures. Meditative movements prevail. They serve as little doorways into a mind’s process, but a mind in the act of approaching and filling a clean sheet or stretched canvas. From phrase to phrase and line to line, Davis’s process transforms to a physical experience on the page.

The poem “Upon Seeing the Terezín Children’s Drawings, Two Parts” serves as a threshold in the book. Terezín, better known by the German name Theresienstadt, was a ghetto for Jews from Czechoslovakia, something of a way station between the pogroms and Auschwitz. Children’s drawings, presumably reprinted on postcards as a form of historical documentation, prompt the speaker to dwell on her own two sons whom she and her husband left at home at their grandparents’ house. One can imagine the ways in which such a stimulus might catalyze the sudden deep longing felt by a mother. This longing becomes the occasion for the poem. Here’s a passage from the end of Part I, presumably addressed to the speaker’s husband:

a museum full of names                                   our own children
in an apartment             full of bees
but here           the names of the dead   so many children
their pictures                             on postcards
perfect jellyfish-bunny-ears-starfish-electric-eels                      it was like
listening to the music                            of their childhood
or walking                     out into the deepest
possible water                           strange fish       if I could I would follow you
stitch your name                                   into history somewhere.

The sections of the poem mirror each other, so that the beginning of Part II opens with the final line of Part I and tracks backward toward its first line, with many minor variations on the way. Both sections exhibit the exquisite balance Davis is capable of, in which public history and private reference illuminate each other; for example, the speaker expresses her desire to stitch her husband’s name into a history that also includes pogroms and ethnic cleansing.

The tradition of ekphrasis has probably existed since the beginning of art, and it’s an alluring tradition because it piggybacks the cultural and artistic sensibility of some collectively recognized entity. The Terezín poems aesthetically pave the way for Davis to find inspiration in her own children’s artistic projects, as unlikely as that sounds. To celebrate a child’s drawing in this manner takes guts. One might think that only child psychologists, nursery school teachers, and grandparents could possibly take such deep interest in a three-year-old’s self-representation with crayons. But Davis’s task succeeds in part because of her daring, open style. In “Easter Morning with Magic Markers” she posits:

This marker     in your hand                is solvent
and on special paper    reveals                         you tell me
a butterfly’s wing                                 its underpinnings         colorful
though the surface       is black                         oh my colors
you said                      the moment you saw it               in the basket
the colors I wanted

I have recently learned how difficult it is to write a poem with a toddler in the room. Most of us who write have some primal urge to separate our acts of writing from daily domestic life. But Davis wants for her own poems some essential quality she finds in her son’s drawings. That quality gets enacted here in her dissolute lines and especially in the splicing of the child’s voice (especially the lovely moment “oh my colors,” which captures the element of delight but also the possession of the markers in a way that sounds childlike). Davis is a wonderful recorder and splicer, especially when documenting the lives of children. Just as the “underpinnings” of the child’s drawn butterfly are surprisingly colorful, Davis uses syntax, inflection, and enjambments to unsettle our expectations at every turn, nearly always at the ends of her lines but often within them too. The impressionistic appearance of the poem on the page strengthens rather than strains the wire of emotion felt between mother and child.

The description quoted above gives way to a scene of the young mother/speaker leaving the boy with his markers to run off to her other child, one month old, crying upstairs. This convincing convergence of private and public, of art and domestic life, makes Atlas Hours a book worth our attention. When Davis observes life carefully, and renders it in such rich language and artful arrangement on the page, she discovers a way of being that reaches the metaphysical. That pace and arrangement have everything to do with who we are regardless of our position as readers standing at the periphery of the poem’s drama. Her method is never more lush and convincing than in the following passage addressed to her youngest son. While calming him, she looks through a window and sees an Easter scene unfolding on a church lawn next door, girls

          covering a cross                       with wildflowers
          between bites                                               of cupcake
          each stem          finding its place                                            in foam
          I don’t know                   what desire                          sleeps in us
          to make lovely    their shivering           your natural peers
          in their new dresses                  your faith-loving counterparts
          bells that accompany                                     your butterfly-wing-in-the-dark.  

Carol Ann Davis is the author of two collections of poetry, Atlas Hour (2011) and Psalm (2007), both from Tupelo Press. Davis is an associate professor at the College of Charleston, where she is an editor of Crazyhorse.

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