Noah Davis’ debut poetry collection Of This River (MSU Press, 2020) opens with a poem about water in which the liquid hardly appears. This first poem, titled “First Memory of Water,” acts as a lyric introduction and includes what flora and fauna live in it. “Newt coiled round newt / while catfish spawned,” Davis writes. This quiet and very close study of beautiful life occurs throughout this book. This poem, however, ends with “tadpoles, like oil, laid between drowned leaves.” So, while Of This River testifies to the beauty and wonder of its Appalachian setting, it also carries the burden of elegy. The reader learns in the next poem that the person who has drowned goes by the name Short-Haired Girl. This persona reappears frequently in the collection, narrating her death, the deaths of family members, and other heartbreaks, but this girl-turned-spectre remains, always, devoted to praise.
In another early, brief poem, we encounter Short-Haired Girl swimming again and the reader might expect the worst to recur but instead the speaker quickly pans away:
while her two mules sleep
their cheeks press saucers of heat
into the grass
So, while one might anticipate grief, the poem shifts gears and eases into a sweet and quotidian image. In this way, Davis bridges the gap between elegy and ode. And he does so even on the level of punctuation by omitting all of it here, enacting in-betweenness like the speaker cut the poem out of a longer sentence. Without overstating what amounts to interlude or lyric stitching of the book’s narrative, this poem serves as an example of the stellar work happening in Of This River. Again and again, Davis’ speakers flit between acknowledgement of hardship and reinscription of faith. This deft movement from one to the other doesn’t, however, flatten either. It enacts an understanding that one cannot exist without the other. A poem like “Murmuration on Bell Tip Road,” for example, includes a visceral depiction of a boy who crashes his car head-on into a truck. Even while possible irreparable damage might be occurring, the speaker takes care to notice “the single / note the boy believes to be song collides / with his mouth.” This doesn’t romanticize this event but rather acknowledges the complexity inherent in both violence and tenderness.
Of This River bears the hallmarks of a collection written in the lineage of nature poets and imagists like W.S. Merwin whose words Davis has placed as the book’s epigraph. Like Merwin, Davis uses the image not just as a tool in the poet’s toolbox but as an engine of the poems themselves. Imagery in these poems, despite taking place within deeply local occasions, manage to expand and range from the pastoral, the violent, the erotic, the cruel, the tender, the loud, and the quiet of this place. Most impressively, these different tones and angles into the locale cohere in a way that avoids redundancy. Davis capably couples these meticulous images with his use of figurative language which, in turn, gives the poems a sense of expansiveness—like the hollers, hollows, and fields the book’s speakers attend to. The fact that the personae of these pieces live in this rural space, as well as Davis’ use of folklore and dreams, might make it seem that the book tells a simplistic version of an Appalachian story. One might worry for a t redux. But the poems themselves work hard to refuse any assumed narrative of authenticity or victimization. Anything that looks plain only has yet to reveal itself as deeply complex, hurtful, joyous, or all three at once. The beauty of Appalachia manifests itself, too, in its diverse peoples who live in the ruins made by capitalism and with addictions and so many loves. These poems embody such particular and astute strains of complicated living.
One of the most impressive aspects of Davis’ treatment of this subject matter includes the rejection of a singular narrative or feeling surrounding the people living in them. Human beings, animals, the dirt, river water, and stone all resemble one another in the careful studying of these speakers. For example, in the poem, “Short-Haired Girl Praises a Child on a Horse,” the titular persona begins by saying:
When I see a child sitting on a horse, I believe
for a moment that they are the same animal.
Like owls sleeping in larch trees.
Like geese resting between cattails.
The speaker appears to hesitate as she makes this initial metaphor. She couches the end of the first line and the beginning of the second with “I believe” and “for a moment” but, even still, she makes this grand comparison of bodies. It becomes an argument that each body might be, in fact, the same body. Or, at least, that the distinction between them proves more slippery, far more blurred, than one might think. The difference between animal and human (and plant) is negligible, these poems say. Davis tells us: we must afford them all love and gratitude by way of our close looking.