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Poetry Moment: 'In Summer, in Pennsylvania' by Cortney Davis

Cortney Davis
Cortney Davis

This is poetry moment on WPSU – a weekly program featuring the work of contemporary Pennsylvania poets. Your host is poet and author Marjorie Maddox, a 2023 Monson Arts Fellow, and professor of English and creative writing at the Lock Haven campus of Commonwealth University. 

“Every cloud has a silver lining”— we’ve heard that before. But not like this. Poet and nurse Cortney Davis gives new life to the old image in her layered portrayal of summers in a Pennsylvania steel town.

Cortney Davis is the author of five poetry collections, most recently “Daughter” (Grayson Books), and three memoirs, and co-editor of three anthologies of creative writing by nurses. She explains her connection to Pennsylvania like this: “My family moved first to Squirrel Hill Pennsylvania a few years after my father returned from WWII, then to Mt. Lebanon. I remember how at night I could see the wavering glow from the steel mill fires in the night sky, and how my mother complained about the ever-present dust, the scent of slag in the air. The days were bright and beautiful, a balance to what seemed to me the menacing steel mills, the sky afire. I already had a poet’s sometimes too vivid imagination—and although we moved away when I was twelve, my writer’s mind was forever influenced by my childhood in Pennsylvania.” That was poet and nurse Cortney Davis.

 Now, you may not associate “the smell of slag,” “steel mills,” and “gray ash” with an ode, a lyric poem of praise. But Davis celebrates what is worth remembering, even—or perhaps especially—what arises from the feared, from the unbeautiful, from the seemingly insignificant moments of our Pennsylvania summers.

Here’s —
In Summer, in Pennsylvania

Cumulus clouds were dark, but the silver
underbelly shone, the smell of slag
from the steel mills rose
and gray ash covered everything.

So, I learned to fear death.
Not the not being here, for I believe in memory,
but death’s process: the slow forgetting,
the gradual ignorance not quite a blessing.

Childhood: My father drew elves’ footprints
up the kitchen door, across the glass
and down until they pointed to the doll
I’d wished for. Then love:

going hopeful to a marriage bed, the midnight
list of agonies endured for children’s sake,
and for children’s children. Therefore,
praise the maker of the small bird, the wild

horse, even the poisonous snake. Cherish
the half-observed moment: when the wind, like
an elderly woman negotiating her skirts, passes
through treetops in summer, in Pennsylvania.

- - - -

That was “In Summer, in Pennsylvania” by Cortney Davis.

Listen for Poetry Moment, with Marjorie Maddox, Mondays during Morning Edition and All Things Considered on WPSU. You can hear more episodes at moment.

Our theme music is by Eric Ian Farmer.

Marjorie Maddox is the host of WPSU's Poetry Moment for the 2023-24 season. She has been a professor of English and creative writing since 1990 at the Lock Haven campus of Commonwealth University.