Nearness as the End of Definition: Talking to Christina Davis

What does Transcendentalist-inflected telephonic poetry look like on the page? What does “near” look like as a very active verb? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Christina Davis. This present conversation (transcribed by Phoebe Kaufman) focuses on Davis’s poetry collection An Ethic. Davis, also the author of Forth A Raven, is the recipient of the Witter Bynner Award from the Library of Congress, and of residencies at the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, the James Merrill House, and the American Academy in Rome. She currently serves as curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard University.

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ANDY FITCH: You once loosely described Forth a Raven as a book of innocence, at least when juxtaposed to An Ethic as a book of experience. To introduce An Ethic here, could you describe differences in texture, acoustics, palette, something like palpable feeling between the two projects? We also could look at An Ethics’ George Oppen epigraph, and how this etymologically, or at least sonically, connects “ethics” and “ethos.” The term “ethical” in our present, often carries connotations of internalized self-restraint. By contrast, an ethos, or this book’s ethos, seems potentially more active, outward-tending, inviting. But I’d love to hear more about how an ethic might make one more open, less closed off.

CHRISTINA DAVIS: I’m surprised I ever said that about Forth A Raven, but I’ll let that stand for who I was at that point. I think the single demarcating factor for me was the death of my dad between those two books. That must have been what I was referring to in terms of experience. In fact, I remember receiving the book, Forth A Raven, about six weeks before my father was diagnosed with cancer, and then he died six weeks later.

It’s strange: when Forth A Raven was being edited by my dear friend Catherine Barnett, she wisely encouraged me to remove some poems that dealt with death, because she didn’t think I knew death. I was humbled by that, because she was right. She was a frank and intuitive editor, and I followed her advice. And then, sadly, within months of the book’s publication, I did know death. So the process of An Ethic originated in that loss and that knowledge.

I am also absolutely indebted to Stephen Motika, for a range of reasons, but also because between Forth A Raven and An Ethic, I moved from NYU to Poets House, and ultimately from my long-time home in Greenwich Village to Boston. The summer I went to work with him at Poets House, he introduced me to the work of George Oppen, which I feel very comfortable admitting I had never read. My education as a poet has been full of ignorances. What Oppen presented to me was an alternative ethical epicenter. There was a continuance in him. He very quickly stood in for, I would say, the ethos of my home. His poems and notebooks helped transition me into the unknown, and that’s why An Ethic had to be opened through the portal of Oppen’s statement.

An Ethic was borne of the death of a loved one and grappling with the fact that I am an atheist. Suddenly I had to face the fact that I had no formal structure or palpable framework with which to proceed. It seemed to me like the only place I could start from was, essentially, the earth in which we had put my dad’s body. I did not believe in heaven. I did not believe in the afterlife, but I knew his body was decaying in the earth, just beginning to be distributed. That’s the only thing I knew, and I had to grow my behavior, and even my literary behavior, around and from that humble site.

I think Forth A Raven was a slightly more eccentric book. All first books probably are. In Forth A Raven, obviously, that title is from the bible. My family (they hail from Kentucky) fled religion, and Forth A Raven has to do with a Western culture that often defines itself by what it rejects (for better and for worse). I think of my poetry as very gestural, so I was immersed in the gesture of forthness, instead of in being cast out because one is the raven, because one perhaps appears sad, or because one is sensate and fully feels, or because one is different, one is dark (in this country people find so many reasons to cast their fellow man out) and not the dove — constructing instead a volitional departure, a positive propulsion. Forward or “Onwards”…as Robert Creeley used to sign his letters.

In terms of propulsive departures, could we also bring in the reader’s experience? You have described in the past how a book or poem might operate as a portal. And for me, An Ethic often feels invitational. I mean this in the most complimentary way: when I read one of An Ethics’ hyper-condensed poems, I feel less need immediately to read it again (as so much poetry seems to desire, demand, beg for), but rather to turn back outwards toward my own emergent experience. Of course, soon afterwards, I’ll want to read the next poem. But did you find that authorial self-regard held little place in this book’s ethic? For me at least, if I consider An Ethic a book of experience, this experiential component comes in part from how these lyrics both channel and depart from the confessional, pushing each reader forward into his/her own particulars, rather than affixing us to your poem. We also of course could bring this back to your dad’s work in telephony — far speech.

I think there is something to this idea of the directional.

I was just looking at the cover image for the book, which was my guiding image for this text as it grew. I had that on my writing table for the entirety of the time I was constructing An Ethic’s poems. I had this idea of these trees as the direction (with that human relationship at the base) and, like those trees, each poem, each line, might be simply a fraction of the possible trajectories and provisional directions that could be taken. I do feel like my poems include some sort of establishing gesture. I see that a lot in poems, where you want to create that trust, that baseline of some common ground, which I think is where the telephony part comes in.

How does the voice in a conversation establish itself? I feel like so much of my childhood was studying the voice, both chorally (my brother and I sang in an amazing chorus outside Chicago) and in terms of telephone calls. It’s a strange extracurricular activity, but I remember our family during a certain period had to test telephones as a part of my dad’s job at Bell Labs.

Sounds fun.

Prior to his work in developing the country’s cellular infrastructure, he was involved in testing which voices we trust — for those early, automated mechanical voices. I do think (and I’m sure this is the quest of most poetry) my poems are always trying to find that space between my idiosyncratic vocalization and some common lingua between us. I discard almost everything that doesn’t meet those twin credentials.

And the work I’ve been doing for the Woodberry Poetry Room has accidentally continued that sonic speculation. That’s been a fascinating detour that has actually grown integral to my life.

So while I’m trying to think about “far speech” here, it’s odd, because my whole new book is about nearness. Farness, I’m sure, is a permissive stance from which to speak. I think of my grandfather who used to sit up in his attic in Paducah, Kentucky, and do Morse code from there, which is really a way of testing how far language can travel. That’s essentially what ham radio operators do.

I guess I’ve never believed that poetry falls short of some border. I think I’ve always been trying to find a way over the wall, a way past the house. I think each book has traveled a little further, and that’s really all I ask of them. One-person-further is what any word means.

Perhaps with Morse code in mind, could you discuss, as you initiate or establish direction in a poem or a book, the place of silence, of white space? This gets thematized in various passages within An Ethic, as silence allows you to empathize with, to approach, invite, mirror, or echo your father’s presence. You also mentioned all the discarding you do in your work, all the cutting away. Could you talk about the physical, sonic, psychological, interpersonal space that get cleared or created amid these discardings?

It’s funny: I feel like such a spacious poet. Not in terms of content, but in terms of the offering. My poems acknowledge the need to have spaces of admission, entry, encounter, and (definitely) exit. In this I’m only mimicking and admiring the spaciousness I require or seek when I encounter certain works, which is really just permission to near (and I mean that as a very active verb). I’m not as drawn to works that are crowded, that don’t seem to require to me, or at the very least to acknowledge the possibility of me as mind and matter. What has been most compelling to me about poetry is that it can accompany you, with the Whitmanic gambit of “whoever you are…”.

When I’m writing, I’m always seeking — and I don’t know if I’m supposed to be embarrassed about this or not (that’s the superego of the “poetry world” for you!) — lines that are small enough that a human being can choose to carry them, and that are wide enough, entity enough, that someone will want to. I want human beings to be able to draw a line away from the work and do with it what they will. That’s it for me, actually: an entity that has enough specificity (and fulfills the basic requirements of fact), but enough breadth and lack of imposition that it can be borne away by another life and mind.

An Ethic tries to find that balance. That’s what I see in Oppen. And when I said “Oppen” just now, I meant specifically “Of Being Numerous.” That really precarious balance between individuality and the numerous is the attempted stance of An Ethic, and I think will be the struggle of my work for a long time to come — if I’m lucky!

Should we bring in the idea of singularity? Singularity appears often in Oppen’s work, situated amid the numerous. Thoreau, another celebrant of the singular, the solitary, both the near and the far, circulates throughout An Ethic. Whitman appears and invokes this mystical, political, cosmological unity: what the United States are, not what the United States is. And again, in An Ethic, all of this arrives under the sign (or sometimes the specific title) of “Elegy,” pushing beyond any sense of fixed iconic presence or permanence.

Just looking at it now I remember distinctly that the early versions of this book really tried to engrave my dad’s singular identity into the world. I tried everything. I even tried to publish his obituary in the New York Times. That was a no-go! I think everyone believes their parent is famous, and I was shocked and humbled to learn otherwise. I gradually had to realize that I can’t perpetuate him or any man (or being) for that matter. I can’t demand that anyone care about my dad.

I’ve come to focus instead on the passage of a person, the wake from their vessel, the directions that do not die. A line in one of my new poems, which focuses on immigration, concerns something Vijay Iyer once mentioned in a talk: “the endangered passage” (I think those were his words) of persons and beings. That resonates with some of the gestural lessons I’ve been learning (or readapting from my earlier life as a dancer), regarding the transmissional. In An Ethic I’ve tried to find what in my dad can I bring forward, since he has already become an Outside.

And part of what gets carried forward here seems less like a solitary person, more like a relational experience — irreducible, singular (in that sense), shared, and inherited all at the same time. So again singularities and pluralities get confounded. “Ethos” seems more implicitly (more collectively) prescriptive, whereas “an ethic” seems more exemplary, more explicitly made manifest within an individual life. But then your acknowledgements declares that your parents’ lives (plural) were and are an ethic.

You said it well. I do think that even though I still have my mom (truly my best friend on Earth), with my dad’s death there was the loss of the illusion of security. A wall fell. I remember wanting to figure out if any good could come of that exposure, of that destruction. There was this sense of past law, a past governance and gravity that had held me safe far beyond childhood. As Marie Ponsot asks: “What is a safe childhood for” if indeed at some point or another, late or soon, we are adulted?

“Big Tree Room” asks how does one construct a home that admits this from the outset, that acknowledges nature/death/threat and integrates these into the very architecture of our upbringing (the tree piercing through the room), letting them inform the shapehood of what comes next….

Maybe just to make some of this even more concrete, could we look at two successive poems, “Fundament” and “Transcript”? “Fundament,” upon first reading at least, speaks lyrically to the lived experience of individuals killed during the September 11th attacks. “Transcript” explicitly speaks from actual transcripts of survivors. Individuals perish on their own across these poems, reminding me of, say, Virginia Woolf’s depiction of death as something like the ultimate cultivation of, curse of, and also cure for individualism. But also both poems seem to speak from, and/or to, a collectivized “we.” And in terms of extractable lines from your poems, “falling is what it is called but not by those that fall” stood out, again restoring some sense of dignity to the irreducible and infinite complexity of the particular person’s mortal fate even while caught up in mass-media spectacle. And then this diptych ends on a reflective note, not eagerly pointing fingers, not arriving really at conclusions. Could you parse some ways in which an ethic and/or an ethics of representation play out across these two poems?

I could call every poem “Fundament.” I have moved that title around to so many poems, in part because of the role a form of Christian “fundamentalism” played in my parents’ young lives and their ultimate rejection of it.

But to your question: I guess I should simply say that I was at home on the morning of 9/11 (I once said to myself that I would never use the phrase “9/11,” and now I do — I have succumbed to its shorthand). I heard a long, low sound, looked out the window, saw the plane, called my parents, and grabbed a camera. My dad was a volunteer fireman for my entire childhood and, in addition to fighting fires, he also documented them through photography and recordings. So I ran down to the Trade Center, camera in hand, assuming I would do the same. I didn’t realize how big of a plane it was or that a second plane had crashed. By the time I arrived, the destination as I had known it did not exist, and I fled west with a woman from Ohio who had escaped AT&T.

“Fundament” obviously comes from the base of that experience. There was something elemental and extravagant (literally meaning “diverging greatly”) about 9/11. 9/11 connects to An Ethic because it’s about a building or structure in which one places one’s faith and one’s fate. This is not a home, but it is a place to which one’s body has entrusted itself. One of a building’s primary elements is its stairs, and so I decided to research the first forms of architectural ascent, which is how the Mayans enter the poem.

And then for “Transcript”: again, I hate to historicize this or introduce my person, which was purposefully stripped away — but just looking at this poem reminds me that in addition to my camera I had a penny-colored notebook with me. As I was walking down to the Trade Center, I was jotting down what people were saying. Many people hadn’t seen it yet (like a moment out of Auden’s Icarus scene), and they were walking north. I was rushing down Sixth Avenue. Or they had seen something, but didn’t know what it was. Very few of us had cellphones. For some reason, something compelled me to pencil down these observations. Then as the whole situation took shape (just as the buildings lost their shape) and words were found for it, I also started to take more copious notes, which I can now back-translate over that day.

I lived right near the Village Pizza restaurant where people were posting “missing” signs, and there was the palpable agony of those fliers and faces themselves being rained upon, exposed to the elements. I was writing down what people said as they scanned the faces.

And now I see the word “presence” juxtaposed with “unfinished.” I’ll have to think about that. But again, it is this opening to multiple directions. We found out where everybody was. We then found out who everyone was. We then found out that these people had existed. Someone’s death is often an invitation to know of their life, or that they lived at all. I think so much of the narrative of 9/11 is where people were on the stairs, where people were in the building — those irreducible details. But I cannot remember why “Transcript” was a significant term for me, other than because it has “Trans” in it and “script,” and the helplessness many writers/artists felt that day, and yet the assuaging and at times crucial role that words played. I remember the sorrow of my father. As I mentioned he was a volunteer fireman, who was supposed to be working in an office in Lower Manhattan that day, and who would have run into the buildings to help people. I told him that through his work on the cellphone, he had provided a crucial tool that allowed victims and survivors to communicate with their loved ones.

Just returning to that “falling” line, and to what you’ve said about walls crashing down: I had from the start wanted to ask about how walls play out across this book — most explicitly in the forms of human fear, of religion, even of education, which seem to build divisive walls or cages within the book. Unities of the vulnerable will seem to coalesce, as in the phrase “all whose walls have fallen,” which speaks to much of what you have described today. And as I read through this whole book, I sensed the terms “wall,” “fall,” “call,” and “all” echoing across it. “Wall” and “call” intuitively fit together, even as they might suggest opposites. Sometimes each becomes the medium through which the other manifests. “All” and “fall” certainly fit well together in various ways we’ve discussed, particularly when mortality prompts us to conceive of unity. Or in terms of An Ethic’s unifying practice (never a fully explicated principle), do “wall-ing,” “call-ing,” “fall-ing,” “all-ing” basically arise in every poem?

The call, the wall, the fall, and the all. And probably I would also add that word “awe” (which has, to me, the agapeness of the “all” in it), from the opening Oppen epigraph — a word that widens the mouth to say it.

When you brought up laws earlier, I think that got me to start thinking about “wall,” because it’s just “law” backwards.

Exactly. I feel a deep conflict within each poem. In my non-writing life, I feel very wild, very sensate. I speak and think all forms of freedom, but my poems are very governed, self-governing. They are almost frustratingly law-abiding poems. I’ve never been quite able to find the right life for them. I suspect that will always be my struggle.

Well this book’s back-cover description states that “An Ethic looks forward to a new unity.” And An Ethic includes any number of moving passages outlining possibilities for fragmentation, as with “Big Tree Room,” which starts: “It is hard to keep remaining whole // as for the leviathan to stay / surfaced is hard.” An Ethic posits that we carry our child selves within us, and/or form new child selves by newly merging with others, and that we carry both our births and deaths in our possession of bare feet and first names. Again even “we,” that pronoun recurring throughout the book, always posits transitive beings, only existing so long as they coexist, so pointing us back towards a singularity/plurality of subjecthood. Or “Troubadour” contains the line “When you lived, I spoke to you.” Or Martin Buber appears in your notes, and I/Thou. And we definitely can push beyond the exclusively human here. Subsequent poems long for, in one of my favorite lines, “a solidarity across the creatures.” Could you discuss how such singularities and pluralities of self and/or other point to the new unity towards with An Ethic moves?

I might have to go off on an unmarked trail and see if this ultimately aligns with your question. I’m thinking about one of the ways that I test my poems. Increasingly with An Ethic, I read my work aloud. Which is to say: I write my work out loud. When you said that about I/Thou and “Troubadour”: I suppose that in writing, or editing, I’m always working towards some sort of meeting, some kind of unexpected resonance. The extended and as yet unshaken hand….

Here’s the tangent: part of my fascination with telephony is the destruction of dense, ancient networks of forests to forge new modes of relation. But those relations weren’t limited to mankind. With this devastation emerged a new ecology for birds and squirrels — a totally different framework, newfound wires on which to gather and to rest, new lines and lineages. There were new formations to come about if I could just perceive them….

“Big Tree Room” could have been an alternate title for the book. I remember thinking of John Muir’s line that “home is the most dangerous place on earth,” which I worked into this manuscript at one point. This new unity might require us to give up these constructs that seemingly protect us (“household,” “homeland security,” “United States,” etcetera), and to realign and grow recombinant.

Sure just looking at “An Ethic” right now (the early poem), my eyes get arrested by the last line, with its: “on no.” On a micro level, that mirroring phrase could resemble a Buddhist mantra, let’s say, but I also see a pair of eyeglasses. Or it could evoke an alpha-omega sense of compressed completion.

I do think my poems have an almost independent visual life, and I am highly conscious of that. I think, on the other hand, that I haven’t achieved a fully authentic life on the page. I’m still very obedient to the left margin — to the walls, so to speak. But just looking at “on no”: I would say the word “one” also obviously plays into that. And “only.” If you follow the left margin down the page, you get: “one,” “one,” “one,” “only,” and “on no.” That poem probably is my favorite in the whole book. It’s the only one I read when I read from the book, and I very rarely read from published books. I almost only ever read from what I’m working on, what is next.

Didn’t you write a thesis on rejectionism, a thesis which perhaps you could establish in its entirety through the phrase “on no”?

Well the opening poem of my new chapbook is called “Neighborn.” As I’ve been reading it to people, they’ve pointed out that in fact it’s really got a “nay” in it, an implicit “no” that birth is, a separation that bears us away — and a rejection of constructs such as marriage, land, property, like kinds, etcetera. I can see “An Ethic” anticipating this new work of mine, and some of those themes being carried over. One of the guiding lines in the next book is that: “to have to live in someone else’s idea is civilization.” That essentially opens the book. And the work tries to confront this “contrary journey,” as I call it.

Well you’ve discussed your limitations on the page, which I clearly don’t find. But you also have described yourself elsewhere as experimental in thought if experimental at all. How might you articulate An Ethic’s thought experiment, or experiments — or thought experiments across your poetics?

My whole work at Harvard, my work anywhere, frankly, is founded on this belief that poetry is, if anything, a mode of thought. I believe that people choose (if they have the luxury to do so) the art form, the industry, the office, or the community that most closely aligns with how their mind needs to move. For me, this happened to be poetry. Poetry afforded me a space in which to think in the widest way. I don’t think I’m stylistically or structurally experimental, but I feel pretty convinced that I am making possible thoughts that wouldn’t exist without poetry — that only take place in poetry and as poetry. I can’t point to any one of those thoughts, because I don’t think of thinking as a final outcome, because it relies on that most unpredictable of elements: reception.

And here again I see Nightboat as a press that has, in many ways, embodied (but I don’t want for “embodied” to suggest containment) or incarnated my ideal of poetry, which is this bringing together of highly unlikely entities, and not forcing them to abide by definitions or constraints. Nightboat persists in doing that so subtly. They have been so impressive to me in that way.

But again, the reason why I think in poetry is because sound, silence, rhyme, rhythm — all of that is a part of thought, which often gets severed from it. But poetry brings the body with it. A mind is essentially what happens from head to foot.

In terms of embodied thought-experiments, you’ve mentioned that your new book centralizes an exploration of nearness. Nearness also appears in An Ethic. And nearness seems less exclusionary (at least in some ways) than intimacy. For one quick point of reference, the five-line “Manifest” reads: “When we had reached the West // the sun delivered / its last instruction. Nearness, // it said, nearness / is the new frontier.” Or in “Long Now” nearness replaces something like a religious faith in farness. Could we close with you tracking the ongoing trajectory of this poetics of the near?

My next book began as a defense of solitude, and as a celebration of that choice (in my case, not to be permanently partnered or married, not to have children), and as a way of challenging the vocabulary of lack that often accompanies the idea of being single. I wanted to replace that with something plural and plentiful. Amongness — that’s what I’m after, and that’s what solitude permits me.

When you are what we call “alone,” there are more creatures near you. There’s more possibility of their fearless approach. So too I find, for myself at least, that more fearless thoughts come: ungoverned by the proximity (or filter) of someone else’s criterion. Relationships can be little laws.

I’ve been driven by a word that Celan once used (thanks to Pierre Joris for translating it), this idea of the “solidary.” I don’t know what the French word is, but essentially it’s described as a solitude that is turned towards society. That strikes me as my stance as a poet and as a person.

What’s really important to me is that, more and more, my way of being a human and my way of being a poet are coming closer and closer together. I do not see a divorce in them. I don’t think many people do, but I had. There had been more artifice in my work, previously. But more and more I’m finding unison in my way of being a poet and a person in the world, which is very heartening. This also takes us back to what I love about Oppen, to this sense of the molecular or the numerous. As you near someone, they become more and more molecular, arterial, or you see the many contributory elements of them. From afar everything’s borders are intact. But as you near, it no longer becomes possible to contain something in its confines, or to tell it from yourself, and that’s also what I’m thinking about. That fear of nearness (or amongness, as I like to call it), or of recognizing that as our condition. Nearness as the end of definition. “Fear” and “near” will be the rhymes that shape the next book.

I sense a little “ear” and “hear” also might find their way in.

Yeah.

 

Author photo by Joanna Eldredge Morrissey.
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