Though War Break Out.
Song of the Drunkards. By Brad Davis. Simsbury, CT: Antrim House, 2007. ISBN 0-9770633-5-6. Pp. 64. $15.
No Vile Thing. By Brad Davis. Simsbury, CT: Antrim House, 2008. ISBN 978-0-9792226-9-6. Pp. 64. $15.
Like Those Who Dream. By Brad Davis. Simsbury, CT: Antrim House, 2008. ISBN 978-0-9798451-8-5. Pp. 74. $16.
Accomplishing a poetic project that has spanned six years (2002-2008), Brad Davis has given his four recent volumes of poetry the collective title of Opening King David. As its title suggests, the sequence of lyric poems across the four individual books represents a poem-for-psalm poetic meditation on the entire Psalter. (Davis actually divides his long sequence into five books--two "books" or sections appear in his third volume--thus reflecting the traditional five-book division of his source.) This project began as an Advent exercise, in the author's words, "to make a slow, contemplative read (lectio divina) through the Bible's Book of Psalms, one psalm a week, and by week's end to draft a poem bearing an impression, however subtle, of the biblical text, with influence also from my surroundings--local to cosmological--and from whatever may have been of personal importance that week--lived or invented" (Though War Break Out 65). Scripture, surroundings, personal experience: these are the "three horizons" that consistently inform and populate Davis's lyrical responses. Thus these poems are not translations of the original biblical songs, nor are they even metaphrases, paraphrases, or imitations (to use John Dryden's helpful vocabulary on degrees of translation). It is unfair to Davis's poems, then, to look here for modern renderings of the Psalms and leave disapproving or disappointed; that is not the poet's intent. Instead, he prefaces his every poem with a salient phrase from the corresponding psalm, and the phrase is the core of what he calls in No Vile Thing "triggering verses" (61) of his own work.
There is a midrash-like quality to many of the poems, then, but typically they venture far from even that imaginative--but still text- and episode-based--freedom. For example, some poems scrutinize Davidic expressions and seek to appreciate more deeply their meanings, as with Psalm 96's phrase "the beauty of holiness." Another describes a dream brought on by the Authorized Versions rendering of the Hebrew word reem as "unicorn." (The NIV translation has "wild ox") (No Vile Thing, 37, 60). Sometimes lines from psalms appear in the poems themselves, giving voice to their meditations in an almost liturgical treatment, and other times an incident in a poems narrative, such as seeing a line from Psalm 121 carved in a wooden chapel interior, creates the engagement with the original text. Davis's poems often serve as epitomes or expositions. Some poems playfully question the extremities of feeling in the Psalms--David, when addressing his soul, comes off as "wholly// schizo" (No 53)--while another, "E-mails to Asaph," blends ancient composers with student writers: that resulting diminution, following the catchily anachronistic title, gives the poem a wry energy shared with Billy Collins's poem "Workshop." However, these are exceptional occasions, featuring more of the scholiast's eye than is usually the case. Overall, Davis's sequence should be judged ultimately as a collection of contemporary poems, albeit ones in long conversation with an ancient collection, from which they draw their pleasingly flee-ranging narrative, meditative, or even satirical occasions.
For a helpful comparison of intentions and resulting poems, readers may wish to consult John Rogerson's The Psalms in Daily Life (2001) or Words to God's Music: A New Book of Psalms (2003) by Laurance Wieder, who has also edited The Poets' Book of Psalms. Wieder announces his collection as a "complete English version of the Songs of David" (xvii), and finds in the personal voice of the originals--and its unique resonance--a justification and means to his own modern versions of them: "The psalmist's 'I' escapes from history, from doctrine," writes Wieder, "and speaks for anyone and everyone who reads his lines." Davis's poems, on the other hand, consistently approach the scriptural originals as the distant, challenging, inspiring songs that they are, almost always doing so in the familiar, forthcoming voice of a contemporary American poet, and more to the point, of an honest, often conflicted modern believer, sometimes exalting in and sometimes frustrated or troubled by the psalm lines encountered. For example, "To Self-Pity" ends in a devotional mode--"To Him I will cleave" (Though War Break Out 43)--but the verse "Those who trust in him cannot be shaken" elicits an opening line spoken by an irritable exegete--"This is bullshit" (Like Those Who Dream 37).
Various other poems display a fruitful wrestling between the speaker's modern sensibility and the desired vengeance apparent in many Psalms, or with the confidence that God is surely on the psalmist's side. (See, for example, "Reading the Psalms" in Song of the Drunkards 31.) Alternately, other poems arrive at realizations that the landscape and actors in the biblical Psalms are little different from our own. "The Wicked Man" imagines readers who may resist the "heavy ink //against" the poems title character, so ubiquitous in the Psalms. The poem ends on an admonitory note: "The wicked man is no//mere figure of speech. Ask the miserable" (War 26). (This is one of several poems that achieve an arguably stronger ending one to four lines before they actually end; one of Davis's few weaknesses is an occasional overwriting of his conclusions or a tone change that undercuts the culminating effect of prior lines.) This poem begins with these readers "Opening King David," and the presence here of the entire sequences title suggests that, for Davis, to read the Psalms most profoundly today involves coming to terms with their utter resonance with and resemblance to our own hearts, our own era.
Some psalms treated by Davis don't enact crisis but speak to a preexisting burden in his lyric personas, and the responses become occasion for renewed spiritual examination. Prefaced with the phrase, "Test me, O Lord, and try me" (Psalm 26), the poem "General Confession" acknowledges "we test positive / for impurity" (War 42), but denies readers the "lurid details" of past confessional poets. Instead, Davis builds a steady, clear confession reminiscent of his fellow American poet Jack Gilbert:
I am merely--how does the song go--"prone to wander." So have we any chance, this side of heaven, at a constant heart? Or even modest progress toward that end? (42)
As he more simply puts it in "O My Soul,' near the end of the entire sequence, "I thoroughly disgust me" (Dream 60)--less elegant and rhythmically controlled, but still the psalmist's sharp note. Davis's poem reacting to Psalm 51, one of the most famous of psalms, is a beautiful, spare poem that deserves rereading, but it is not especially memorable as a mirror for Psalm 51's powerful acknowledgment of fault.
Again, readers should not be too fastidious in looking for correspondences: Davis deflects our expectations for other highly recognizable psalms--23, 40, the elaborate 119, 137, 139. He seems to take special care to respond to verses from these psalms in surprising ways. That said, readers looking for topoi from the Psalms will be repeatedly pleased to recognize Davis' knowing appropriations, formal, imagistic and otherwise. Thus we find an acrostic poem late in the first volume; images of humans as worms, as the grass; contemporary culture figured as an open grave; wishes for reckoning charged with eschatological longing, as well as praise for One who "may restore gladness" and bring healing in the mean time (Dream 13); and a clever gratulatory poem entitled "For the Director of Music"
Davis's fifty-first poem may not reflect the penitential power of its model, but several others dramatize that awareness of imperfection and self-chastisement familiar to any reader of the Psalms. At times this contrition swerves toward exasperation, which also evokes the psalmist's outbursts: "Get off my back" says the speaker in the opening to "Lord" (War 58), and an intercessory poem in Like Those Who Dream audaciously demands, when its speaker considers a struggling student, that God "do better than stoop to look. Raise her up" (20). This, too, is the psalmist's note.
These laments are mainly personal, but they occasionally take broader aims--shame at humankind, its linguistic duplicities, or "anything ignoble or half-assed" that humankind creates (War 21). Certain poems with this tone of jeremiad resemble verses by R. S. Thomas; the "clever ad executives" whose messages "gangbangled]" TV watchers' minds in Davis's "Isolato" are right up there in their sinister ugliness with Thomas's computers hemorrhaging numbers (Song of the Drunkards, 54). Incidentally, Davis also shares Thomas's talent for memorable phrasing--"urgencies of the discontented" "chill of divine review" "icon of the good dream" "gravities of unbelief"--all of these choices in their prepositional relationships fortify the poems' meanings and augment their aural qualities.
Some laments in this sequence articulate a deep frustration and sense of complicity with the author's war-waging nation. In one memorable allegorical poem in No Vile Thing, the U. S. is Goliath-like: "a smooth, well-aimed stone crashes / against the high wall of your forehead" (45). The "high wall" metaphor there connotes borders and defenses, and clearly refers to the quagmire that the Bush administration failed to anticipate in Iraq. Davis in a note calls it a "profoundly political poem" (61), and elsewhere he deploys biblical language--Babylon, the tents of Kedar--to bring political protest into conversation with the earlier centuries from which the Psalms emerged. Naturally these broader complaints and their earlier equivalents charge each other, and the link suits Davis's personal approach. The English priest and poet Peter Levi, introducing his own translation of the Psalms (1976), writes, "Above all, the morality of the psalms is popular. Their God is the God of natural justice" He continues, "The hunger for justice in these psalms is as personal as the continual insistence on honesty and uprightness" Davis, likewise, is interested in justice and commemoration.
Often this approach is most apparent when setting comes most into focus. The poet knows New York well: a speaker in many poems visits a grown son in Brooklyn, and Davis himself lives nearby in Connecticut. Unsurprisingly, given the proximity and family connection, a few poems sensitively approach the specter of 9/11, or subsequent anxieties related to the attack. The most impressive poem of this sort, "Then" (Song 52), uses the repetition of the title word to convey the difficulty of retelling the events of that day, even from the perspective of nervous parents or students far from the city. Yet the repetitive effect also assumes a solemn, dirge-like quality. Once again restraint is present here, and once again Davis's work is more powerful for it.
The social justice of which Levi speaks above is a concern repeatedly on display here. It is hard--isn't it?--to write a poem from a perspective of privilege and wring one's hands in a way that sounds genuine, not to mention capable of drawing conviction in readers. These poems again use their settings to dramatize these themes of inequality and injustice. Certain speakers appear at this or that fund-raiser or lavish wedding, which often leaves them perturbed and brooding. Psalm 31 says, in Miles Coverdale's enduring version, "Thou hast not shut me up into the hand of the enemy; but hast set my feet in a large room"--but in Davis's poems with these latter settings, to be placed in a large room is invariably to feel alienated, if not surrounded by enemies. At these times, he, like the psalmist, feels "my soul in adversities" and wishes to be absent, or at least invisible. By far the most common of these privileged settings is a "chi-chi" preparatory school, with its "presidential" lawns. (War 44; Dream 56). In fact, Davis has taught in such a setting in Connecticut, and he handles with admirable transparency the ambivalence he feels--holding great affection for this place and the community there, while also recognizing it as a privileged "world apart" an inn where many others will find no room.
Davis's speakers seem most fulfilled by the natural world around them, which as part of divine creation is good and should be treated well. It becomes in various poems a symbol of flourishing, of sustenance, "love's best ally" (from "Philia" in Dream, 41, a poem that recently appeared in Christianity and Literature). In "Snapshot" he lets go of his exegetical efforts in favor of the bright-eyed world--"the faithfulness of daybreak / slanting orange through a scrim of new snow" (War 27). Daily or seasonally, the natural world models for us a faithfulness and helps us not to be dispirited by war or ceremony. An eagle, "wholly unmindful of its brilliant tail-feathers" (Dream 44), serves as a different kind of model, though in this case a tension arises between it and the introspective, examining ethos of the Psalms themselves. The poet admires this natural world, but it is not finally sufficient in the dense, relational lives found in this sequence.
Some of the most rewarding experiences in nature, then, take place with friends, and one friend in particular, Bill, appears in all four books. His transition from a supporter of his spouse, suffering from cancer, to a widower, then to someone with a "new heart" (Dream 26) creates a poignant storyline through the sequence. Just as David has Joab and Shimei in his story, Davis's poetic world too has its minor characters. Often they appear to refract Davis's own religious feelings: Rolland wishes for more solemn forms of worship, or Roger is offended by the shepherd/sheep metaphor when he hears as sermon as a visitor, and so on. Other friends, more assured in their faiths, set Davis's persona and his spiritual struggles in relief. Characterization is a strength here, and some of the most successful poems are persona studies, including an anonymous musician in a country bar with an apparent hankering for Judy Garland, and Peter with his "redneck heart of a fisherman" (No 16). Other figures inhabit the sequence's world, too, which includes allusions to Hopkins and Stevie Ray Vaughn, and outright references to John Berryman. Davis's lines are dense with biblical echoes, most often from Genesis, Isaiah, Luke, Philippians, Revelation.
Most ambitiously, though, Davis conceives of a Christian restoration, a making right of all things, in almost civic terms, a theme that intensifies in the last two books. We, a speaker claims early in No Vile Thing, "are figures in an inscrutable poema" (13), a reference to St. Paul's addressing of the community in Eph. 2:10. The word reappears at the end of the volume, where "poema" is set against a Spenserian allegorical creation, the "University of Pornea," which symbolizes anything impure, unhealthy, and obstructing of the "good future" (Jer. 29:11) that the poet seeks. This wish, in the end, explains the vitriol that fuels other poems of complaint or outrage elsewhere in the sequence. Psalm 139 says (again in Coverdale's words), "am I not grieved with those that rise up against thee? Yea, I hate them right sore, even as though they were mine enemies." Likewise, the occasional fury in some of these poems derives from allegiance to the divine, and a strong desire for the good future of humans and of creation generally. This elevated, optative, kingdom-oriented theme also interacts in subtle ways with an important early function for psalms, their use for public worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. (1 Chronicles 16 credits David with assembling the first Temple musicians.)
I have waited till now to speak to Davis's poetic style and his use of language. This may have been an error, since poems do not centrally consist of their mental conceptualizations, conventional modes, and applied typologies, all of which I have attempted to address thus far. Poems are language enacting, are forms making meaning. Davis's engagement with and use of the Psalms will be of greatest initial interest, however, and so I have treated these matters at length. Within his verses, he is conscious of his project overall and the aesthetic choices he has to make. Most apparent will be his use of a plain style, which he defends variously. The voice and diction of his poems are almost always conversational, personal, and proud of their clarity and accessibility. In a more literary critical poem, he distances his poetic values from those of "an Ashbery knockoff ascending / into the euphony of coherence" (War 20). He prizes "coherence" straightforwardly, I assume, but "ascending" and "euphony" with "coherence" I suspect are used a little cheekily, given Davis's traditional poetics on display here, and the traditionalists' common complaints about Ashbery and his lyrical descendants. From the outset, the poet prefers iambic pentameter lines, and uses them with great flexibility, and he also writes many fourteen-line poems, not always demonstrably sonnets. He speaks of one as "this middle-brow sonnet" (Dream 23), a note that acknowledges a humility inherent in the plain style. It's a note that the author sounds from the epigraph of the first book, a passage from C. S. Lewis's Reflections on the Psalms.
This modesty suggests a spiritual condition befitting a project that began as an Advent meditation, yet some readers, I suspect, will find a few of these poems to be too formally easy or prosaic in diction or flat in word choice to be adequate responses to the Psalms. After all, Sir Philip Sidney famously upheld the psalms as the great example of majestic verse and divine poesy, and he and his sister Mary created a Psalter displaying all of the rhetorical flourish and poetic confidence of the Renaissance in England. More recently, Donald Davie, in his essential collection The Psalms in English (1996), warns against an underappreciation of the Psalms' highly developed poetic features: "So far from authorizing," he writes, ':.. a 'flee-form' poetics, the psalms represent a strict form preserved and observed through hundreds of years" (xx). Davie himself is one of many writers, including lately Robert Alter, April Bernard, Brian Clements, Carol Ann Davis, David Frost, Stephen Mitchell, and James Calvin Schaap, who have translated the Psalms with formal attentiveness or have attempted a modern sequence or book-length exploration of psalm-form. (Some of these, it should be said, treat the word quite generally--what sometimes results are "odes that are sorta sacred-feeling.") For a final example, look up Scott Cairns's recent "Idiot Psalms" in Poetry magazine. These poems are some of the most cadenced, constructed psalm variations in recent memory, and reveal limitations in prosier, less song-like examples.
Brad Davis should be listed among these poets who have approached the Psalms and psalm-form in fresh ways, and with a style worthy of their great biblical models. One might point readers skeptical of the casualness of some poems to any number of lyrical successes. Consider the careful lineation and consonantal pleasures of the short poem "On Silence, Briefly" (War 57), a poem dedicated to Barry Moser, the cover artist for these four books. Consider how the repetition and the line breaks, working against syntax, work to make memorable a meditation on a divinity beyond our imaginations, "whose nature limits his wardrobe to what is//of love and lovely beyond whatever we mean / by beautiful" (No 27). Simple in language, but composed with elegance. On a smaller level, enjoy with me the enviable rhyme of "weighted payload / Radiohead" (36), or steady, strong sentences like the following: "Far better: the subtle tremble that signals a new music rising in the predawn dark, startling awake the singular voice" (Song 46).
Davis in various places announces this new music, a new song, and he frequently frames himself as a Davidic counterpart facing "the work he has been given to do" (Song 54). "Give me the bread of gladness" he writes. "... Though none join me, / I will not be silent" (51), and for 150 poems, he is not. His persona becomes a comically modernized David when, instead of being a skilled lyre-player (1 Sam. 16:16), the poet has a hissing Telecaster and Blues Junior amplifier (War 54, Dream 11). The figure is prominent toward the very end of the work, where a catalog of thanksgiving includes "For the rhythms of this work and art's long / obedience, thankful" (Dream 66). This poem, "Toward a New Song," stands as the penultimate one of the sequence and serves as its coda. Davis, offering a final poem that is five words long and echoes the final sentence of Psalm 150, is attentive to the very end.
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|Title Annotation:||'Song of the Drunkards', 'No Vile Thing' and 'Like Those Who Dream'|
|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2009|
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