One of our favorite poets and writers, Chris Dombrowski, joins us most months with a meditation on his recent enthusiasms from the world of verse. For this third installment of his series, Chris pulled together two Orion poets, Todd Davis and Derek Sheffield, for a conversation about poetry, time, and the natural world.
Backpack books: that’s what I call two wonderful recent reads in contemporary poetry, Todd Davis’s fourth collection, In the Kingdom of the Ditch and Derek Sheffield’s first, Through the Second Skin. The rarest of finds in our current literary milieu, a backpack book, by my definition, is a collection that can amplify the reader’s experience with the natural world, a book whose poems don’t pale when read by firelight under a wide swath of stars above a chorus of loons on a lake, but rather, are so formally and observationally authentic as to join the surrounding symphony.
Both Sheffield and Davis spend a great deal of time outdoors—Sheffield is an avid birder in Washington state and Davis hunts, forages, and fishes through the forests of Pennsylvania—but, to lift a phrase from Donald Revell, “to see (the) poems as the culmination of any process is to turn them against themselves, to make obstacles out of energies.” The poems in these nourishing new collections “dream the dark smell of bears,” (Davis) “stake the skeletons” of birds (Sheffield), which is to say the seeds of keen observation and compassionate openness to the earth were planted in these poets and have flourished in the rich soil of their imaginations.
These are not detached pastorals, though. Fully engaged with our postmodern ecotones, the poems tell of “Fishing for Large Mouth in a Strip-Mining Reclamation Pond…” and of encountering spawning salmon “Between Highway 2 and the Wenatchee.” “Splashes pulled me over and down / to the sand,” begins the latter, and these lines serve to describe the ambit of nearly every poem in these accomplished books: some occurrence in the world jostled the poet out of his mind and back into the world. The world speaks to us, they seem to say, and we attempt to speak back.
W. H. Auden once said that a poem should always be more interesting than anything anyone might choose to say about it. I tend to agree. And yet, when I listen to these two Orion poets, I’m quickened by the vivacity of their conversation, their passion for our non-human neighbors. —Chris Dombrowski
Todd Davis: What are some of your earliest memories of the natural, non-human world?
Derek Sheffield: I like what comes to mind at this question. So many things. But limited to earliest, I’d have to mention the bushes and dirt and cherry tree in our backyard in Portland, Oregon. I remember playing army men and shooting plastic discs from a plastic gun at various rocks and trunks. There was a salamander. I remember its slow strangeness and salmon skin that felt cool in my palm. Fast upon the heels of these memories come trips to my uncle’s place in the lush farm country of the Willamette Valley, playing with my cousin around an irrigation ditch, discovering water striders and guppies and barn swallows. Good question. Back at you.
Todd: My family had forty acres just over the Indiana border in southern Michigan. There was a wounded sugar maple that wept sap in February where lightning had struck it, a sweet slick freezing at night. I remember licking that slick over and over. I still have a serious maple syrup addiction to this day.
My father was a veterinarian, and many of my early memories relate to the care of sick and injured animals. In particular, at around four or five, I helped deliver my first litter of pups from a German Shepherd who was having a difficult labor. Perhaps the most intense early memory is fishing with my grandmother on the Saint Joe River, entranced by the vibrant colors of sunfish and bluegills, the barbed danger of flathead catfish.
Derek: I guess we both can be categorized as “nature poets,” but, of course, taxonomy never tells the whole story, and as I read In the Kingdom of the Ditch, I noticed that family moves you to poetry nearly as often as the non-human world. Is there some connection between the two? Why are these your triggering towns and not, say, language or philosophy or old paintings?
Todd: For many years I cringed at the idea of being called a “nature poet.” Not because I wasn’t in love with the world that sustains us. Heck, I’m even a professor of environmental studies! But there’s so much baggage that comes with the nomenclature.
Yet we do tend to write about our obsessions, our passions, the things we love or that remain a mystery to us. For me, family and nature are indelibly linked. I first went to the woods with my father and grandfather. I was taught by their actions that it was good to know the names of trees and plants, that marveling at the beauty of a wildflower, looking closely at the intricate design of its pistil or stamen, touching its silky petals, was worth doing. I also think because the world contains multitudes, because its mysteries will not be revealed absolutely, I somehow was offered a glimpse into who my father was, the mysteries he carried around with him.
My love for my father is so bound up in my love for what he showed me in nature, and now that he’s dead I feel I’m still connected to him when I’m in the presence of a particular tree or plant—a catalpa or paw paw tree for instance. We often imitate our parents’ patterns, whether we intend to or not, and I certainly have continued this way of loving the world and passing that love along to my own sons.
In Through the Second Skin, you also write poems that bring together the human and nonhuman worlds of nature. “Near Wild Grasses” is a splendid example of this with its loving conclusion about your daughter: “As I bend to lift her into my arms, / she grabs my cheeks and sticks out / her tongue, wanting to know this man / who is becoming her father.”
Derek: What you say about your father here is a real gift—and I felt the connection you describe many times while reading the book. I feel it in the deep image at the end of “What I Told My Sons after My Father Died”: “A bee disappears down the flower’s mouth. / Although we can’t see it, the bee’s still there.”
I had a much different upbringing and have inherited other gifts from my father, but I am trying to teach him the names even as my daughters—ages seven and five—are becoming precocious naturalists.
Yes, I’ve been drawn to family as well, especially the daughters, as I’ve come to call them. In that way, our books present something of a contrast…and maybe a similarity. The daughters, who are very much alive, intrigue me—their wildness is imbued with a numinous quality that may be related to your father’s passing. The wildness of youth’s vitality and the wildness of mortality.
Your father’s death is just one of many evoked in your book. I wonder how your sense of mortality affects your worldview? Does its edge help whittle your poems?
Todd: I’m not sure if mortality’s edge helps me whittle my poems, but I suspect it does. The weight or pressure of the finite certainly has a sharp and dangerous blade. I can say with confidence that mortality keenly focuses my attention like nothing else, urging me to attend to the world, to notice as much as I can. To take in its smells, its textures, its striking visual details. I suppose this is what I mean when I say writing is a sacred act: bearing witness to the beauty and the pain and the ugliness and the joy.
Like many I’ve had my quarrels with death, but I’ve worked hard to come to see it in its rightful place. This way of thinking even impacts my love for wildflowers. Each spring there are certain flowers whose blossoms will only last a handful of days: dwarf ginseng, pink lady slipper, painted trillium, foam flower, fringed polygala, rue anemone, to name a few favorites. And these brief blossoming lives can be cut even shorter if we have an unexpected late snow or heavy frost. I scamper to the woods near my house, starting with some of the earliest flowers, like trailing arbutus, trying to get a few moments in their presence each day before they’re gone, their silk dresses dispersed back into the earth.
None of us knows how long our lives will last, but even if we live to be old, old men, you and I may only have thirty or forty more springs to witness these flowers. To do something thirty or forty times seems so incredibly brief. Yet our lives must give way, go back into the earth, to feed the lives that come after our own, whether we’re flowers or humans. So let’s celebrate what we’ve been given! That includes feeling a trout on the end of a line, witnessing a bobcat pad silently over a patch of frozen snow beneath your stand, enjoying a sow bear watching over her cubs as they blissfully and obliviously tussle near a creek, spending a hot June afternoon with someone you love, picking blackcap raspberries to eat atop a bowl of oatmeal the next morning.
So I’ve been wondering what drives you to write poems of such electric connection with other species? Here I’m thinking about “A Good Fish,” or the birds that fly through many of your poems, including “Ornithology 101.”
Derek: I feel much the same about my own finitude. My awareness of it helps me inhabit my senses as deeply as I can while I can. But you and I have transcended death because people will be reading our poems centuries from now. (Just kidding.) I mean, really, our kids: we have given our children all we can—genetically and culturally—and they will continue to be a part of the conversation this world is having, our little mockingbirds and more.
I love your point about the wildflowers. My house is near a riparian meadow, and every spring I can’t bring myself to mow the lawn until the wildflowers growing in it—spring beauties, ballhead waterleaf, and larkspur—have bloomed and gone to seed.
And going back to names for a moment, certainly they have their limitations, but they are so important. Language, I believe, is a crucial link to the nonhuman world and without the right language, we’re in even more trouble than we are now (think climate crisis). I have some neighbors who started hacking away at our riparian zone even though there’s a county-mandated setback. Their attitude changed when I started sharing with them the names of the things they were running their chainsaw through. And the next step was to show them how those scraggly elderberry trees attract the cedar waxwings, and to give them a good, spotting-scope to look at the waxwings dangling from those pendulant, wine-blue berries.
For the same reason, we say, “Someone’s in that pine to the left” and “He’s giving us a good long look” when we bird. We aren’t up at 5 a.m. for “it.” We are out there to feel what we feel when we see our first western tanager of the season. We feel full of their beautiful, unpredictable, non-humanness. Their otherness draws us the way sugar water attracts hummingbirds.
And as for your question, I would say, “Yes.” I write about other species for the same reason I write. For the zap that comes when I brush against something beyond my ken, but that is somehow deeply kin.
Todd Davis is the author of four books of poems, including, most recently In the Kingdom of the Ditch. His poem “Turning the Compost at 50” appears in the July/August 2013 issue of Orion. Derek Sheffield’s book of poems, Through the Second Skin, was published in 2013 by Orchises Press. His work has appeared in Poetry, The Georgia Review, Orion, and other publications.