by Geffrey Davis by Keetje Kuipers
pages—BOA Editions, Ltd. 2014 pages—BOA Editions, 2014
ISBN-13: 978-1-938160-28-8 ISBN-13: 987-1-938160-26-4
Reviewed by Julia Bouwsma
Geffrey Davis’ debut poetry collection, Revising the Storm, and Keetje Kuipers’ second collection, The Keys to the Jail, were both published in April 2014 by BOA Editions, and my copies arrived together, packed in the same manila mailer. From the moment I removed these books from their shared packaging and first flipped through their pages, I could not get it out of my head that they somehow belonged together. And as I burrowed more deeply into the rhythms and voices of both collections, I became increasingly convinced that the two collections were speaking some kind of shared, or at least complementary, language. That they were engaged in a very real, if coincidental, dialogue. And that the language they shared was that of shame.
Shame has long fascinated me as a language because it is simultaneously collective and, at the same time, searingly private. It is a language of physicality, of violence and self-violence, of repetition and cycle. It is also an incredibly difficult language to master. In a recent Late Night Library interview, Kuipers acknowledged both the centrality of shame within The Keys to the Jail, a collection that chiefly focuses on the aftermath of a failed relationship, and the arduousness of the task: “I challenged myself constantly in the poems in this book to write to emotional places that actually shamed me.”[i] And I must say that “challenge” strikes me as a fair word here, since it is an inherently counter-intuitive process to give voice to those words and emotions we feel we must censor. There is a razor-sharp reckoning that runs through both Kuipers’ and Davis’ books—hard-won and gleaming despite “a belly of rusted metal.” Breaking silence with nuance, rather than hysteria, requires practice and skill. The danger, as Elizabeth Bishop famously put it, of “more and more anguish and less and less poetry” looms large. And the world of contemporary poetics—paved with those who failed to obtain that elusive balance between craft and the force with which withheld words emerge onto the page—has only added to the difficulty by attaching its own tradition of stigma, of self-indulgence and failure, to any exploration of personal shame. (I myself cannot think about shame as a language without recalling the first time I heard the word “confessionalism”—how I was thirteen, in love with Sylvia Plath’s knife-twisting craft; how it fell from Anthony Hecht’s bellowing tongue with a splat, and I knew instantly that it was a dirty word.) And yet, for all its pitfalls, shame seems to be something unavoidable, even captivating. No matter how much we are schooled against it, shame is a language we turn to again and again, both on the page and in our heads. Which is why, when I look closely at Revising the Storm and The Keys to the Jail together, I find myself wanting to study not just the similarities and differences in how these books view shame, but the process by which shame becomes poetic craft—how emotion manifests into words that crawl up the spine in secret, that spread across the cheeks in waves of damp, blushing heat.
Both Davis and Kuipers excel at rendering the physical worlds in which their poems were born. Davis summons his childhood farm’s “sweet musk of horse” and “the waterlogged heft of a drowned / barn cat carried in the shallow scoop of a shovel” as easily as he depicts “the grey rain of my Seattle” or “the edges / of the water, august poplars / casting shadows along the bank” as he fishes. Kuipers moves between “the salted taste” of California’s Bay Area, where the ocean is “a gray hand across her lips,” and her native Montana, where “we burn our garbage,” with its “landscape governed by false erasure of snow” and “the cold of the drive-in.” Within these commanding, often severe, physical landscapes, an examination of shame becomes, first and foremost, a matter of survival—of basic, animal necessity. Shame becomes sustenance of a sort, as in Kuipers’ “Letter to an Inmate in Solitary Confinement”: “Sometimes I put my fingers in my mouth / and chew on what they’ve done.” We must learn our shame as we learn our own bodies, our stories, and the land off of which we live. It is simply the physical index of the human condition—of isolation and wanting—something we carry with us, within us, everywhere we go. For as Davis quietly observes in “What I Mean When I Say Farmhouse,” the first poem of Revising the Storm: “We have our places for / loneliness—that loaded asking of the body.” Davis’ “place” seems to suggest that primal intersection of body, land, and word—an intersection where shame becomes wedded to our landscapes and our bones. Where, as he writes in “What I Mean When I Say Roller Pigeon,” “our obsessions can turn / the miracle against itself.”
Shame obscures our perceptions, impairing our ability to clearly see either the self or what we have left behind. “Fence-lines pin drifts in their barbed hold, / animals abandon their tracks behind them,” writes Kuipers in “Wolf Season.” Her speaker’s shame is the physical manifestation of loss, pitched to such manic levels that the self begins to splinter under its own unrelenting gaze. In “The Extinct,” she interrogates herself to the point of fracture:
It’s not my fault, but
it might be. Should I keep changing until
I become something that has an other?
I’ve tried that. What else can I do for love?
Shame erodes our memories as well, staining the narratives by which we define ourselves. In the title poem of Davis’ Revising the Storm, it bubbles up un-beckoned like a leaf-rotted spring, spilling out over the speaker’s recollections of childhood and his relationships with his father, mother, and brother:
I was going to say memory fails me, but perhaps I mean something more
immediate, more violent, like pride or shame that cuts through
this remembering. Was it I who lost nerve and fled as the first
raindrops fell and lightning downed the large maple just beyond the pasture?
Davis’ speaker struggles to reconcile the pain his addicted and largely absent father caused him, as well as his own transgressions, commanding himself in “Write the Memory of Throwing the Stone,” for example, to “tell it right this time” as he reminds himself of “the hurt you created, as children do, / by accident and on purpose.”
Indeed, both poets have moments where they seem to downright revel in the act of self-flagellation. “Let us turn memory’s blade against ourselves,” invokes Davis. “Dogsbody about in the filth of it / if it helps you feel / any closer to the thing,” directs Kuipers. And Kuipers, in particular, seems to enjoy playing Russian Roulette with shame—intentionally dancing the thin line between the intoxicating cadences of Bishop’s “Art of Losing” and her stern admonition against “more and more anguish.” Her speaker castigates herself for “putting this self-sadness in my mouth” then flauntingly takes to the streets where “everywhere their / eyes were upon me, the high-pitched tune of / so much staring.” It’s a risky move, and at times Kuipers’ poems seem almost greedy for emotion, but the intellect that runs through the book is palpable and stabilizing.
Ultimately, both collections move toward a place of resolution as these intensive confrontations with personal cycles of loss, failure, and regret gradually culminate in the owning of one’s words and self. Though this evolution is more fully realized in Revising the Storm than it is in The Keys to the Jail, as we make our way through both books, we begin to see shame for what it really is: an exercise of process, a difficult but necessary step in developing a personal poetics and in possession of one’s narrative identity. Or, as Kuipers puts it in “The Girl,” the first section of “Five Women Ending in a Flower”:
Is the bear who comes back for more poisoned
meat. Is knowing I’m a traitor. Is shame
like clarified butter growing cold. Is owning
what I’ve said.
Davis, too, writes for ownership. Many of the most crucial poems in Revising the Storm explore childhood memories, narratives Davis’ speaker must revisit in order to reclaim them for the adult he has become, a mission he makes quite clear at the end of the very first poem: “ I’ve come / to write less fear into the boy running / through the half-dark. I’ve come for the boy.” And so, poem-by-poem, he moves—through a failed marriage, into a new successful one, and then into the promise of a pregnancy—toward a more conscious, intentioned language: “And I can’t lead us back / to the old silences. I refuse to be the spilled wine / on the grass.” Thus he eventually eschews silence along with the shame that accompanies it. And in the final poem of the book, the gorgeously fluid “Upriver, Downstream,” he even rejects ownership too, as he gracefully exchanges the solitary act of reclaiming memory in favor of a shared and improbable future:
Alone, I rifle streamers through pockets
deep enough to hold fish large
as memory. With others, I will wade
waist-deep all day, for the small
paradise of watching someone
run their fingers along the belly
of what was once impossible
to touch. And release everything back.
By comparison to Revising the Storm’s evenly paced, building, and deeply satisfying resolution, the conclusion of The Keys to the Jail is more muted and less tidy. The penultimate poem, “A Beautiful Night for the Rodeo,” is narrated in a dissociated voice, and while its final lines end with a sense of empowerment and promise, we also see that the pending fracture of earlier poems has, in fact, been fully realized, the self broken now into two: “I told someone else / she could be that brave, that I’d show her how.” Similarly, the final poem, “Jonathan Plays in the Key of E,” carries the choppy, hiccupping quality of a child running out of air at the end of a tantrum. Shame lingers, as habit, perhaps: “I want to say / I’m the only thing that can’t,” writes Kuipers, before switching tone abruptly, “But there’s been a wedding and I’ve been / swimming. Anything can happen tomorrow.” And just like that, the spell of shame is broken, and Kuipers’ speaker rises up with a trembling and jagged honesty that cannot be denied.
Julia Bouwsma’s poems and reviews are published or forthcoming in journals such as Cimarron Review, Colorado Review, Cutthroat, Natural Bridge, The Progressive, Puerto del Sol, RHINO, Salamander, Sugar House Review, and Wisconsin Review. Bouwsma is Book Review Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Coeditor of Shape&Nature Press, and Poetry Editor for New Plains Press. She lives in the mountains of western Maine.