In the Kingdom of the Ditch by Todd Davis (a review)

In the Kingdom of the Ditch
Todd Davis
Michigan State University Press, 2013

I was at a meeting recently where someone made the off-hand comment, “but no one spends time in nature nowadays anyway.” Reading In the Kingdom of the Ditch I was reminded of how untrue that is. In this fourth volume of poetry, Davis takes us back into the outdoors, finding the beautiful, terrible and sacred in the everyday workings of the natural world.

Nature is a vehicle in these poems. In it are questions about God, death, our relationships with one another. In “Imago Dei”, Davis describes a weasel’s violent killing of a muskrat and follows that with the question “ What’s left / of the idea we were made / in the image of God?” A worthwhile question given how people turn against each other, murder and are left with a “stomach red with joy.”

The natural world that Davis shares with us reminds me more of Flannery O’Connor’s world (who he honors in a poem in this book) than that of Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry, poets he has been compared to. A broken world, with “torn limbs, entire trees on the ground” (from “Two Sounds after an October Storm”).  Death and decay inescapable.

In these poems, the beautiful is made more beautiful when brought into stark contrast with this death and decay. In “The Gospel of Beauty” “Bees have made honey under the ribs of the dead”, indicated that new sweetness and life can arise from destruction, a theme seen again in the poems on family life and children, as he writes of his father’s death.

A section of the book is dedicated to persona poems through the eyes of Thoreau; fitting, given Davis own environmental studies background and connection with nature. Some of my favorite poems though were those that seemed to be the most personal–poems about his sons and his wife, like “Perigree”, “A Prayer for My Sons…”, and “Transfiguration.” 

I’ll leave you with one of my favorites from this fourth, and my favorite, collection of Davis’ poetry:

Dona Nobis Pacem

The moon grows from nothing to a porcelain sliver.
The cat bloodies her feet against the screen chasing moths.

Our children sleep in the rooms above while I drag a cloth
across the red petals the cat leaves on the kitchen floor.

I join you in the bed of this passing hour, knowing
porcelain will again sift through the screen, and, again,

moths will flood to it: light cut by their beating wings,
which come morning our children will find in pieces.

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