As I was reading Carol V. Davis’s new collection, Because I Cannot Leave This Body, I was often reminded of Sidney Lumet’s great 1964 film The Pawnbroker, about a troubled Holocaust survivor in New York City. Even though he has managed to escape the horrors and evils of the Old World, he can’t—understandably—let them go. They haunt him and they add depth as well as an atmosphere of doom to all his encounters in what should be the capital of the Free World and the Land of Opportunity. No matter what happens to him, the ghosts of the Old Country will not go away. And they don’t go away in Davis’s poems, either. Superstition hovers over this collection like an ominous Easter Island statue, and often the “old wives’ tales” come from the Jewish experience in the Old World, though not, in this case, the Holocaust.
From the beginning, the reader is made aware of this dark, almost Gothic atmosphere with Davis’s affinity for words like raven, crow, willow, omen, hemlock, ghost, dybbuk, witch and Satan. One of the early poems is called “Long Shadows,” and that could be an alternate title for the book. It’s the long shadows of the past that can’t quite go away, even in an American landscape so different from (and supposedly much cheerier than) that of Poland and Russia. The shadows and the burdens of an antique European and Jewish past come into particularly sharp focus in “Speaking in Tongues,” in which Davis, an avid traveler, has come face to face with cowboys in a Wyoming bar. Even though she’s an American, she finds that on a deep level she doesn’t speak the cowboys’ language, nor do they speak hers:
In unfamiliar landscapes
Yiddish diminutives, terms of endearment,
drop from my tongue, morsels, a little sweet, a little sour.
Then the curses begin their training: bulking up
on a diet of sarcasm and sneers, centuries of practice
honed to this art.
The Wyoming cowboys in the bar
stare at me in disbelief.
They’re used to horses that whinny but this sounds
like something you’d attach to those decorated manes,
the kind no real cowboy would get near.
What exactly “this” is remains intentionally mysterious. Davis is condensing whole conversations, gestures, looks, into very concise language, but the key word is “curses.” It’s not spelled out entirely what she means, but I take it as a way of looking at the world that is tinged with, as she says, sarcasm and sneers, and a heavy load of shtetl suffering without (as she tells us in another poem) the usual humor we might associate with that worldview. “Speaking in Tongues” continues:
A geologist, also not from these parts, explains in a tone
reserved for restless third graders, just how to find a vein of coal.
Never mind the tops of mountains sheared off crew-cut style.
If he doesn’t find it, someone else will.
In Virginia they asked if
I’d ever seen a real movie star. I’ve seen plenty:
without all that makeup, they’re not so special.
In these two stanzas she does something very interesting: she dares to introduce people and set up quite a bit of “exposition” in a short poem. Normally this isn’t a good idea, and the way Davis does this doesn’t always work well, but here it’s fine. Nor does she ever attempt to be too musical; I sense she has no time for musical musings. She wants to get to the point in her direct, austere way. As for the content of these stanzas, she temporarily removes herself here from the persona of a shtetl survivor, to a conscientious (blue-state) American concerned about the environment in a state that ought to be protecting it; then suddenly she’s in Virginia—a big leap—confronted by people who believe Angelenos are always running into movie stars.
But she returns to Wyoming in her last stanza:
These curses didn’t know where to go. The bar was full.
Every time one fiddler sat down, another jumped in.
Barely room to squeeze in between one slide of a bow and the next.
The windows fogged up; outside the snow thickened like insulation.
It was time to get serious: the curses hauled out
everything they had and let them have it.
The fogged windows and thick snow happen in a Wyoming bar, but inside the poet, she’s somewhere in the Old World. Instead of embracing nature, she’s fighting the elements. Instead of enjoying herself with the locals, she’s engulfed by the old curses. She’s more in the world of Fiddler on the Roof than that of the American West (could the reference to fiddlers be unconscious?).
As for actual superstitions, they are mentioned time and again. In “Animal Time,” she relates how her parents “drove cross-country to / Death Valley, last leg of their escape from New York, / the thick soups of their immigrant mothers, generations / of superstitions that squeezed them from all sides.” In another poem, “Flying Off the Page,” she writes:
After I had babies, I’d rise in the dark, sleepwalk
to their rooms to check their breathing.
People once believed the soul escaped the body at night
to return to heaven and had to be enticed back every morning.
And a sneeze, an omen of death, expelled the soul.
Only a blessing would prevent Satan form snatching it.
And then, toward the end of the book, there is a really remarkable poem called “On a Suburban Street,” in which the superstition imagery reaches quite a climax. It’s got almost everything: snakes, spiders, scepters, a Greek chorus, crows, squirrels, lanterns, mockingbirds, warblers, an evil eye, tree roots, and an earthquake.
So what’s with all the superstition? Different things are going on. She is not noticeably religious, nor is she—I sense—genuinely superstitious, but all the old tales have come down to her as a quasi-religion, as her cultural inheritance, as a way of coping, and a way of connecting to a mythical past. Christian Americans have their religion, and Greek and Roman myths before that, either as something to believe in or as a reference point and a way to decorate their work. Davis lays claim to superstition as her own personal stock-in-trade, if you will. As much as it infuses her work, though, she’s not obsessed with it, and there are plenty of places where she reveals she’s a fine nature writer. From “Late January: Wyoming Storm”:
Sediment to rock, trilobites
in the sandstone and shale.
Minerals float to the surface, limestone
to marble. Pink-tinged granite,
there for the gathering.
You can track this landscape the way
a phrenologist traces protuberances of a skull.
Topography that expands, then
compresses to its vanishing point.
Davis is by no means always on the lookout for the czar’s horses and sabers; she may have concerns that haunt her book, but she lets her poems breathe. She has a whole series of fine ekphrastic pieces, for instance, and in her last poem she valiantly touches on a topic dear to all creative people, and maybe all people full-stop: the wish for applause and recognition. Here she is in “Master Class,” sitting in an audience but nervous for students singing their difficult arias in front of a demanding teacher:
They may not be here for applause, but isn’t that what we all want,
if only once: to be tossed a bouquet onstage, cheered and greeted
by throngs of well-wishers at the stage door.