BookMark: "Winterkill" By Todd Davis

Jul 14, 2016

Reviewer Marjorie Maddox.

Todd Davis, a professor at Penn State Altoona, teaches environmental studies, creative writing, and American literature. In his newest book of poems, Winterkill, he draws on all of these experiences.

Winterkill is Davis’ fifth full-length collection. It portrays not only our seasons, but also the complex intersections of natural and spiritual. The opening epigraph by William Butler Yeats says much: “There is another world, but it is in this one.”

Davis expertly uncovers nature’s microcosms. In “Whipperwill” he writes, “The news of the universe I’m interested in is written on the sides of these fish.” In another poem, Davis muses on a dead fawn, now “alive again” as “maggots writhe/the rib-cage.” He goes on to link maggots and resurrection, describing the still immature insects as “commas trying to connect the brief distance/between life and death.” The unlikely comparison is powerful.

Throughout Winterkill, Davis draws extensively on both Judeo-Christian and Chinese literary traditions. He also sees much in common with nature and “how it feels to make a poem.” The poet explains, “I want language to curve/into a question, like the shape the rod takes as it allows the trout/to play out aggression, our fear of lost freedom.”

And Davis has questions. Many of these focus on aging and his father’s recent death. “In poems such as “Turning the Compost at 50” and “Dreams of the Dead Father,” the poet confronts mourning and mortality. An avid hunter, Davis finds similar questions throughout nature.  In “How Animals Forgive Us,” he recounts, “Tonight at the supper table my mouth is filled/with meat, as I gnaw the bones of this deer/I watched eat pears from the neighbor’s tree.” 

In Winterkill, death circles back to life; grief returns to joy. In one poem, Davis’ dead father stares at him through the face of an owl.

For poet Todd Davis, nature is the ultimate teacher. “Without bird song,” he asks, “how would we know the sun is the cut skin/of an orange rolled into a circle?” “Or that night/is a gray fox stalking a ruffled grouse…?”  How indeed? Without reading this poet’s insightful new book, how would we so clearly understand nature as the poem it is?

“Winterkill” by Todd Davis is published by the Michigan State University Press.

Reviewer Marjorie Maddox is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Lock Haven University. She’s published 10 collections of poems. Her most recent is "True, False, None of the Above."