Todd Davis is the author of five full-length collections of poetry—Winterkill, In the Kingdom of the Ditch, The Least of These, Some Heaven, and Ripe—as well as of a limited edition chapbook, Household of Water, Moon, and Snow: The Thoreau Poems. He edited the nonfiction collection, Fast Break to Line Break: Poets on the Art of Basketball, and co-edited the anthology Making Poems. His writing has been featured on the radio by Garrison Keillor on The Writer’s Almanac and by Ted Kooser in his syndicated newspaper column American Life in Poetry. His poems have won the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize, the Chautauqua Editors Prize, the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Bronze Award, and have been nominated several times for the Pushcart Prize. His poetry has been published in such noted journals and magazines as American Poetry Review, Iowa Review, North American Review, Missouri Review, Gettysburg Review, Orion, West Branch, and Poetry Daily. He teaches environmental studies, creative writing, and American literature at Pennsylvania State University’s Altoona College.
Todd Davis talks about being prompted by occasion, enjambment, audience awareness, and finding physical objects that are catalysts (or carrier) for emotions/ideas in his poems “Accident” and “What I Told My Sons After My Father’s Death.”
By Todd Davis
They tell the son, who tells his friends
at school, that the father’s death was
an accident, that the rifle went off
while he was cleaning it. I’m not sure
why he couldn’t wait. We understand
the ones who decide to leave us in February,
even as late as March. Snows swell.
Sun disappears. Hunting season ends.
With two deer in the freezer any family
can survive. I know sometimes
it feels like you’ve come to the end
of something. Sometimes you just want
to sit down beneath a hemlock and never go
back. But this late in the year, when plum
trees have opened their blossoms?
Yesterday it was so warm we slept
with the windows open. Smell of forsythia
right there in the room. I swear
you could hear the last few open,
silk petals come undone, a soft sound
like a pad sliding through a gun’s barrel,
white cloth soaked in bore cleaner,
removing the lead, the copper, the carbon
that fouls everything. My son knows
you don’t die cleaning your rifle:
the chamber’s always open.
I told him to nod his head anyway
when his friend tells the story,
to say yes as many times as it takes,
to never forget the smell of smoke
and concrete, the little bit of light
one bulb gives off in a basement
with no windows.
[First published by Indiana Review. Included in The Least of These (Michigan State University Press, 2010).]
What I Told My Sons after My Father Died
By Todd Davis
The emptiness of the catalpa flower’s mouth opens
into nothing: stamen encased by cream.
My father called it a weed tree, despite his love
for the light it provided in June, the colors it caught
as dark came down over the garden we tended. The way
he told the story, after my great, great grandfather
escaped from a Confederate prison, he traveled north
by night along creekbeds. He rested beneath the draped
boughs of catalpa, drank branch water and ate pawpaws.
Supposedly in dark’s false stillness he could tell the difference
between a hound and a groundhog, that in the water’s hushed
movements he could pick out the stones breaking the surface
of the stream long before dawn woke those who hunted him.
In trying to explain the stillness, I don’t wish to add
to my sons’ sorrow. If I could play three notes
upon the fiddle, I’d do that instead. When my first boy
was born, in the nights after we brought him home,
I stood above his crib, head pressed over the rail
to assure myself he still breathed. I did the same
when I was a kid working at the animal hospital.
I’d open a cage, my ear flush with the chest
of a dachshund or Doberman and listen to the heart,
after the strain of surgery, as it settled back into a sound
like a kick-wheel turning clay. My father taught me
the names for trees, which in turn I’ve taught my sons.
That’s what it was like after he stopped breathing.
A bee disappears down the flower’s mouth.
Although we can’t see it, the bee’s still there.
[First published by River Styx. Included in In the Kingdom of the Ditch (Michigan State University Press, 2013).]
Writing Prompt: Think about a time someone you loved (or didn’t love) died. It could be a person or animal. Write a poem in which you try to explain the significance of that person/animal’s loss to someone you know. Pick a specific audience. (Like Davis addresses his sons in the poems above and helps them understand how he responds to his neighbor’s suicide and his father’s death from cancer.)
Definition of Terms:
An occasional poem is a poem written in response to an event or an occasion.
Enjambment happens when you break a line in an unexpected place (there’s no punctuation or natural pause).