a review of The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems
It was a while ago I first found the writing of Olena Kalytiak Davis. At Roger Williams University. In the Creative Writing Bachelor’s Program. It was my senior thesis, and though I’d been busy sending frenzied currents of studies through the writing of Pound, Olson, and Creeley, and though I’d perked my ears to the vocal undulations of Amiri Baraka, Saul Williams, and Sage Francis, my understanding of a poetry innovation, of the public, of the private, of the secretive, was minimal. Through my young and drunken eye slits and hip sways, I was lacking so much, but what could I know that I had not seen?
In an act of serendipity, most likely spawned by an advertisement or interview in Poets and Writers or another magazine sitting on the tables and counters of the school’s English Department, I found Olena Kalytiak Davis’s earlier work. After I read her, in awe, I read again. And again, again, and again. Back in those days, Davis fortified a certain level of lingual play I could simply not find in the masculine archaic canon, those pillars of “cool” in “my research.” I had been searching for a place of “the beyond,” beyond an echoing sense of feminine, but more “otherly” than that, beyond the binary flight and fight of gender.
Davis provided me, those years ago, through Shattered Sonnets, a way out of the dry and pretentious patrilineage of Modernism, the Beats, and my comfortable introductory niche of slam. Her words felt like gifts, like messages scrawled on folded paper in grade school, to be cherished and stored in a sacred space as they were New. That I could leave William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein for a moment to enjoy a fractal sense of raw poetry, an exponentially new paradigm was inconvenient and fucking liberating. That transference felt youthful, highlighted in the purity of truth and beauty beyond a classroom, beyond “study.” Davis’s writing felt much more like the reflection of experience I was after at the time, during a sequence of moments where the poet-as-celebrity-object needed to be squashed, cindered, swept off into a corner. Perhaps the mania of amphetamines spurred me on?
Fast forward to Greg-as-unacademic all these years later. I picked up Davis’s new work, The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems, which I’d been staring at for about a week, wondering how to approach it. I had no thesis. I had no big project needing solving, no unanswerable question needing a rhetorical answer. And yet I was curious. I received the book and stared at it. It was not hiding from me, but rather staring back at me, obliged, from the top of the waist-high bookcase I keep next to my desk. Part siren, part growl, the book emitted an energy of warning: you do not know this but you should. Do not enter this prematurely, even if you have no reason to enter at all. You already know this writer. You already studied her, for Chrissakes, eleven years ago. I was hesitant but faithful to my previous passions for her lyric, and so I dived in. What started was the equivalent of light snowfall followed by dim, cheerful sunlight and a melting bit of ice on conifer. These feelings. This resonance: memory, nostalgia, an innocence tweaked, played through, and enjoyable.
(from “Threshold”, pg. 41))
But darkness, then, next, abrupt. What I found, what appeared amidst those lines of intelligence, smartness, and elevated beauty was more than I ever could have expected. Whether she wanted such an arrest or not, Davis actualized an encounter through the twist and turn of her books capable of completely and totally disarming me, the innocent traveler who took the siren and the growl as personal construct and did not heed them thoroughly. Amidst the book’s maze I sat and was subdued. The wave of that which furtively diminishes the reader, forces the act of the pause overcame me. I stared and silently I stammered: so brutal, so possessive, so total.
the longest night–the selfsame dark–
you know it well, the descent that both begins and ends
in lark, in nightingale, in hell–bleaker depths
reserved for crows way better (less wide) than you:
(from “Alaska Aubade (Winter)”, pg 42)
From scanning the book’s pages before the full, linear read, I knew it was a tome dense with lyrical poetry, Davis’s sense of craft utterly pulmonary in rhythm, layer upon layer, her words in book form are layered with staggering line lengths, one hundred pages of different energies, and yet I was still unprepared for what awaited me, performed by Davis, shot into the reader, the event. On page 82. That moment where the entire world of her and you, author and reader, speaker of words lighting the lamp: it all changes, where Davis’s persistence in living is suddenly torn open and flayed to provide that much more soul. Utter, abject terror meets a fuel line of catharsis. Blunt object to the reader’s head, need for dowse of water, drinking to fill parched lips: it will shock, it will numb, there will be the saintly chill of horror, and the resolution that follows.
I won’t describe for you what Davis is meant to. I won’t explain what this moment of crisis (and, immediately too, epiphany) has for your binding, for your enlightenment. What I will do is mention how it affected my behavior, forced me to set the book down, pace around the room, pace in my mind as well, and stare at the blankest spaces in my walls, feeling my own weaknesses developed patiently, excruciating, through that conquering of a certain wound of victimization presented, performed, etched into the seams of life by Davis’s pen: I sat wondering who I had just been reading for an hour and a half. Quite unlike any book I have read before, it froze me.
(from “SONNET (seized)”, pg 76)
What came after that encounter, that space of shock and disorientation, was a reintegration into a book that continued in many ways how it began: subtle gestures, realizations, a certain cycle of grace and retribution was achieved in the pages leading to the back cover, where earnestness and faithfulness harken back to those core ideas only understood through clarity and an immediate intimacy with innocence, blankets of feelings and energies wrapped around the book because there was a before, that before being beyond.
Another beyond: beyond Davis’s poignantly dramatic terror, she is a sincere and masterful confessionalist, a hyper-biographical wordsmith whose cunning in this new text far exceeds her earlier work, continues to soften the blows to the egos of the readers, the listeners, the viewers, the voyeurs. She has prepared us well. She has crafted the vehicle from start to finish.
Davis fills every page with the ideas existing within the beauty she encounters in her life: ideas augmented by the beauty, rather than vice versa. This is heady and intellectual only as far as it is complicated: humanity is beautiful. We do forgive. Usually Davis’s poems fall just outside of strict conceptual constraints deadened to emotions, blunting to arousal, lovely linguistic play and entrapment but earnest, tender, and forthright. The sharpest knife slicing through the smoothest butter.
Davis uses the constraint to her experimental advantage: she is still the poet of play, both before and after the encounter, despite the encounter, exercising how language might best allow her to explore this energy or that, this experience or that. I imagine a certain sense of displacement in her use of personal language allows her to understand and fulfill the poet’s place with the more excruciating interactions needing address, not abandoned. It never feels as though Davis is exploring the crutching upon of fictionalization:
“i” almost thinks “bathed in sun and snow” but stops herself.
“i” feels that “i” can maybe find, really start, really finish her sex poem tomorrow.
(from “The Lyric “I” Drives to Pick Up Her Children from School: A Poem in the Postconfessional Mode”, pg 9)
And yet there is a power in wonder. There is a power for Davis in the ability to shy off certainty. What is certain can be, for many, painful. And so we know that the question arises to question or not, to beg an answer as ambiguous as it is amorous. And to relish in such a liminal space, a purgatory of the possible.
but i don’t know what. i can not see it.
what is he pointing to? what is he talking about? that tree
over there in old blooms dying, but refusing to not tree
up? the moon already fake and fading,
but still sexed, still hot? . . .
(from “My Lover Asks Me to Consider”, pg 77)
I want to be able to write about all of the poems in this book. To quote them. To explore them. To feel “good” about giving Davis her due. But it shouldn’t be that way. It should be: go read the book. Go have the experience. Go watch the tide rise, then catch, and then fall. Go to the pacing and the space that Davis has created for you. For me. For each of us. Find a space to stake up within it, for it has been provided. It is providing. This book: a lesson in how we each receive the currents of humanity, and what process we are left with when burdened.
Greg Bem lives in Seattle where he runs and co-runs several literary-infused event series, including Ghost Tokens, Breadline, and Seattle Poetics Lab Presents. From 2013-2014 he wrote poetry and organized literary events in Cambodia. In Fall 2014 he served as associate curator for citydrift: Portland. He is currently preparing for a residency with sound poetry group the Four Hoarse Men at Cornish and an upcoming literary exploration in the industrial area on the Duwamish river. Visit gregbem.com for more juicy, juicy details.