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Catherine Breese Davis: On the Life and Work of an American Master

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I have admired Catherine Davis’s exquisitely sculpted lyrics for over forty years. But it has been futile to recommend her work to others because it has been nearly impossible for anyone to find the poems, most of which were never published in book form. What a gift to have this lost poet restored to us.
-Dana Gioia

Catherine Breese Davis fills an important but unsung niche in the tradition of women’s poetry in the U.S.—and now unsung no more. The editors of this book have given us a brilliant selection from Davis’s poems, combined with illuminating writings about her work and life. This volume is a true labor of love, a priceless introduction to a lucid, poignant, and unflinching poet.
-Annie Finch

“Go, little book,” Catherine Breese Davis intones, echoing the venerable tradition of the envoi as she announces herself to the world. But the poetry of Davis renders the poetry of ages past with singular immediacy, whether wandering dark woods with Dante, warbling with Wyatt, dwelling in indolence with Keats, invoking the winged madness of Baudelaire, or chanting with Herrick of the burnished shores of poetry. This is a poet who knows “how to hold in mind / a place—a house or river scene— / That keeps an earlier time intact.” That earlier time is woven of houses and rivers but also the great voices of the past who serve not as masters but as contemporaries, interlocutors, and companions. Davis is a poet seeking answers anywhere they arise—in tragedies ancient (the Eumenides) or contemporary (the assassination of MLK). “How does it help to see / how sick we are / Or to find out where we erred?” wonders Davis. These unsung songs are living puzzles that “master time.”
-Joseph Campana

215 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2015

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About the author

Martha Collins

29 books13 followers
Born in Nebraska and raised in Iowa, Martha Collins was educated at Stanford University and the University of Iowa. She founded the creative writing program at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, and for ten years served as Pauline Delaney Professor of creative writing at Oberlin College. She served as Distinguished Visiting Writer at Cornell University in 2010, and currently teaches (and is available for) short-term workshops. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Author 9 books318 followers
July 4, 2015
This is the second volume from Pleiades Press's Unsung Masters Series to appear unexpectedly in my mailbox since I acquired a subscription to Pleiades by reviewing a book for them in 2014. Although now she is all but forgotten, the Minneapolis-born poet Catherine Breese Davis (1924-2002) was much admired during her lifetime for her masterful use of the elements of poetic form, which earned her publication credits in the foremost magazines of her time, including The New Yorker, Poetry, The Paris Review, Measure, and Poetry Porch . This success came in spite of the many difficulties she faced throughout life: poverty, disability (she had cerebral palsy), abandonment by her father who was imprisoned for robbery when Davis was a baby. She moved around quite a lot, studying with Yvor Winters at Stanford at one point (Edgar Bowers was one of her classmates), and also doing stints in Boston and NYC.

Davis's flawless deployment of rhyme and meter, repetition and refrain, is evident from the very first page of this book, which consists of a 73-page portfolio of Davis's poems followed by seven analytical essays written by scholars who have a deep familiarity with Davis's work and a handful of marginalia. (Vocab words I learned from the highly learned essays: acedia = apathy; caducity = senility.) All that being said, this book didn't really pick up for me until page 65 or so: up until that point, the poems struck me as being too abstract to really sink my teeth into, too coyly evasive in the way they avoided the mention of specific details. Consider, for example, the epigrammatic six-liner "Message (To C.D.M.)," believed to have addressed to Davis's estranged sister Charlotte:

Dear Sister, where are you? You never knew
What time and time's remorselessness could do.
How can you think your silence is complete?
The heart fails, but pitiless years repeat
The clear, unspeakable malice of the dead;
The grief you came to was the past you fled.

Short as it is, this poem is chock-full of hazy abstractions ("time," "time's remorselessness," "silence," "heart," "pitiless years," "clear, unspeakable malice"). Upon reaching the last line, the reader must resist the desire to shake the poet's shoulders and demand, "What was the grief that Charlotte came to? What was the past she fled? What, in God's name, is this poem about??" It seems almost oxymoronic that a poem should be so tight-lipped and uncommunicative.

A more successful family-oriented poem is "She," a free verse poem in which Davis grapples with her emotionally fraught memories of the mother who disowned her after learning she was gay:

      ...always in a storm of
         rage   laughter
torrents of
   words and
         curses and
   (or as the song on the jukebox goes
"if you think I laugh too loud
            you should hear me
   the collisions
      the wrecks as if
   by some demon
      lover of
         go and
            find and
   (but what?
      not money)
      the good die
         young so
   she kept going...

Reading this poem, I feel I know exactly what the speaker's mother is like; I feel I can relate to the speaker's experiences wholly and entirely. "The good die/young so/she kept going" -- what a terrifically effective burn!

The poems in the latter part of the portfolio are overall less coy, less secretive, than those in the first part. In these later poems, many of which are written in free verse or in rhymed-but-unmetered center-justified lines, Davis speaks openly about alcoholism, about being hospitalized for mental illness, about her overwhelming devastation when Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. She also writes searingly about a failed love affair in the poem sequence "for tender stalkes," a group of sonnets written not in the usual iambic pentameter but in a sarcastically clipped iambic tetrameter that perfectly suits its subject matter -- a pair of lovers so emotionally damaged and poisoned by cynicism that they could not help injuring themselves and each other. Here is a link to one of the strongest sonnets in the group: http://www.lavrev.net/2011/06/catheri... . My favorite of the "for tender stalkes" sonnets, though, is this one, so tightly controlled and syllogistic in its logic that the psychic pain it communicates flares out all the more movingly:

Do but consider how you went
To prove another's worth, and more
Than once; returned, restlessness spent,
To find what you were looking for.

What did I do then? Did I scold?
Refuse you? Did I play your game?
Who reasoned, reconciled, consoled?
On whom then did we place the blame?

Who's constant? You? because you go
But always come back? at your leisure.
Or I? who changed to let you know
That love, not I, would be the same,
And thus was self-betrayed: Your game.
I go; I'll come back. At my pleasure.

As a footnote, it amazes me that this collection of poetry almost failed to see the light of day: Davis's longtime companion was initially hesitant to publish Davis's manuscript after Davis's death because, not being legally married to Davis, she feared she had no legal right to do so. In the wake of Obergefell v. Hodges, it makes my head spin to think that such a valuable collection of poetry as this almost became a casualty of marriage inequality.
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