“What does a landscape dream of in its unsettled dreams?”
Todd Davis’s newest collection of poems, titled “Native Species,” opens with this question. The question is gentle and idle. It’s the kind of thing you ask yourself while half-asleep on a streambank on a hot day. But then there’s that word “unsettled.” The landscape may be “settled.” It may be cultivated into farm and town… but its dreams are unsettled, uneasy, perhaps even wild.
As the poem winds through images of a flooded house, the reader becomes unsettled, too. And is reminded that landscapes––including the ones that humans shape––can shift in ways that we do not expect or control.
Todd Davis excels at this kind of movement––the kind that starts in streambank idling but ends in a landslide. Or, just as often, the kind that begins in an abstract concept and distills into a single, sparkling image. In “Native Species,” his sixth full-length collection of poetry, Davis returns to themes his readers will find familiar: community, family, economic hardship, and deep and abiding love for the natural world.
“Native Species” is rooted in central Pennsylvania, where Davis is not only a professor of environmental studies, but also a hunter and fisherman. He is involved in his community with an eye searching for the beautiful, the brutal, and the both at once. The result is poetry full of intimacy. In one poem, an Alzheimer’s patient, lost in the woods, invents her own names for the trees. In another, a fur trapper’s daughter locks eyes with a snared mink.
As such examples demonstrate, the “native species” in this collection are often human. The Harvard Review describes Davis as “unflinchingly candid and enduringly compassionate,” and these traits are on full display in his portraits of people. Poems like “The Woman Who Cuts My Hair” and “Hard Winter” are difficult to forget, and difficult to quote. They are whole stories, narratives that portray individuals and communities who must navigate grim realities, such as mental illness, substance addiction, sexual abuse, and death. Such poems commemorate the resilience of rural existence and the grit that people and places draw upon to endure and recover, despite continued wounding.
Regardless of Davis’ subject matter, his poems unfold with a certainty that is easy to trust, only to slip at the last moment into a space you didn’t see coming. Informed by his lived observation of the natural world, Davis is a poet who can keep readers grounded even when he ranges freely across time and space.
Whether mourning or celebrating, sharing family stories or blurring species boundaries, Davis’ poems offer precise and patient attention to our complex and enduring world. The result, in “Native Species,” is a collection of poetry that brims with implications, but runs crystal-clear.
Todd Davis will read from his book tonight (November 14th) at 7:30 PM at the Pattee and Paterno Library.
Reviewer Talley Kayser is a poet and lecturer in the English department at Penn State. You can read some of her work in the “The Hopper.”