Consolation Miracle

John Poch

Consolation Miracle
by Chad Davidson
Southern Illinois University Press

Remember that scene from The Jerk where Steve Martin’s character is bankrupt and forced to leave his plush California estate? He says something like, “I don’t need anything…well, except this paddle-game.” But then he comes across another small object, like a pen. He admits he needs this pen, too. Then his favorite thermos, then a chair, a lamp, until we see this sensitive man misunderstood and rejected by the world (a poet?) standing on his front steps desperately clutching an array of seemingly unimportant objects. When you hold Chad Davidson’s book in your hands, and you read these poems, you are holding a bunch of ordinary objects: a pear, a match, a starfish, a mushroom, a bra…but by the time he’s revealed the thing for what it is, what you should have known all along, you don’t want to let go.

There is a sly wisdom in these poems about the things of this world as remarkable as what we find in Richard Wilbur. In fact, the lines are as well-wrought as Wilbur. Considering Davidson’s authority, his ability to teach us so much fact, history, and trivia, we are reminded of the old standards: of Auden, Lowell, or Bishop. But the poems seem to have a contemporary sheen all their own.

The introductory poem to the collection, “A,” is clearly a touchstone by which the rest of the poems can be approached. This prose poem, like so many of Davidson’s poems, has the clear made-ness of Amish clothing. The very fact of its simplicity, its black-and-white-ness (and some red stitching) helps us understand the hard work that goes into making such a thing. Instead of flashiness, we admire thread, buttons, dye, lines, punctuation, ink. We don’t think, “Nice outfit.” We think, “Someone living has sewn this with their very hands.” Here’s the second stanza:

Pin it to an adulterer’s blouse. Shout it as you careen into the rocks, or just before. Or when you rise out of bed at night in sweat, knowing only what you dreamed was so elemental you have no word. An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Apple an and away. And your apple falls away from the page that stays the way it’s able, that lies there, lies to you.

Much the way Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas,” says, “yes, language doesn’t exactly correspond to what we think it should, and good,” Davidson’s “A” immerses us in what it is like to be a reader for the first time — defamiliarizing, making a letter new, strange, sad, our nemesis and our very salvation. So many of Chad Davidson’s poems return to the complaint of the failure of language (a sketchy ground on which to situate oneself as a poet). But mortal language, for Davidson, can’t help but get resurrected. This theme is nothing new to contemporary poetry, but Davidson’s diction and syntax is styled and lively. In the first few lines of “Cockroaches: Ars Poetica,” poems might be foul but you have to admire their persistence: “They know that death is merely of the body / not the species, know their putrid chitin / is always memorable.” In “Bite Your Tongue,” Davidson warns:

Speak in tongues, but bite

your tongue when you have spoken too much.
As in Double Indemnity. My favorite line
is shut up, baby: bold, recalcitrant boredom

Even a yawn, seen at its most violent, is given a voice:

I look in the mirror
witness myself eating air,
agasp, my daily chance to gaze

into this face’s oldest pain,
more than some mute renegade
wail, this tooth-jeweled grenade
thrown out of the well again.

And in “Boxes,” a self-conscious double sonnet, we hear:

Lazarus made
whole again. A voiceover begins: It is late
one April afternoon. A typical town
by all respects. The church turns under a flight
of clouds balloonlike. The boy who coaxes
the balloon along hears his own
voice then say rise, rise rise. The light
flicks on. It’s over. The boy is in his box.

Here, language lives as Lazarus himself, as a balloon, as a boy, rising, yet back in the box at the end of the poem. But you think, not for long.

Davidson’s grammatical toolbox is open. Readers will notice the glut of conjunctions and transitional fragments that keep a poem swerving into new directions and then back onto the macadam. The imperative verbs demand a cinematic engagement with the reader: “Listen,” “imagine,” “bite,” “take,” and even “video.” They steadily appear throughout the book. His use of the flat sentence amid stanzas of rich diction and syntax (stolen from Lowell) is arresting. Sentences and fragments like: “Boredom.” “This is wrong.” “Dido died.” “I am a metaphor.” “Take any page.” “It is April.” Yet, none of these techniques are overdone. And, really, when is the last time you fawned over a poet’s splendid sentence variety?

I have not mentioned the best poems in the collection: “Cleopatra’s Bra,” “The Match,” “All the Ashtrays in Rome” and the powerful long lyric “Space.” Each deserves a review for itself. All are poems for the next round of anthologies.

Consolation Miracle is a mature collection (a minor miracle?) in a time when so many poets are settling for “poetry” or “the idea of a poem” rather than poems, when poets are praising artifice rather than art. It might be the strongest first book of poetry in the last ten years. If, for some reason, I were forced from my home — along with the family photos, and my pocketknife and my favorite coffee mug — somewhere in my arms would be my copy of this book.

Smartish Pace
Smartish Pace