Presenting engagements (including reviews) of poetry books & projects. Some issues also offer Featured Poets, a "The Critic Writes Poems" series, and/or Feature Articles.

Thursday, April 30, 2015



Uncontainable Noise by Steve Davenport
(Pavement Saw Press, Columbus, OH, 2006)

[First published in Chicago PostModern Poetry]

            The American confession is a howl, not caught in the throat or stuck in the chest, but crouched in the middle of the land.  It sounds the disappearance of that land, paved over by cul-de-sacs and substrated by lakes of gasoline and farm field run-off.  It is pushed beyond its bounds of containment.  The American confession demands its own mythologies, redefines its own sense of modernity.  In Uncontainable Noise, Steve Davenport goes a-yodeling on the Illinois banks of the Mississippi River; he gives voice to this confession.

            At the outset, the poems here could be read as explorations of the psychological spaces of American modernism.  If Georgia O’Keefe had painted Florida swampscapes.  If Wallace Stevens had taken the evening train to Taos.  If there are cowboys in New Athens.  If a poet can sing two songs at once.  However, as this collection sings, there is no music to contain all this.  Davenport’s poems are a full-on howl that rethink every glimpsed or shuttered image, every traced sound, and their consequences in this region and art.  There are buds and wrecks, cowboys and old gods, leafy vegetation and scratched 45’s.  Divorce boxes and the sound of big wax.  The uncrated past.  Everything seems vaguely threatening; a shootout is about to occur, although its participants are far from defined.  The reader may even be called out.

            Uncontainable Noise can also though be read as a series of love poems.  As Freud noted, “Against all the evidence of his senses, a man who is in love declares that ‘I’ and ‘you’ are one, and is prepared to behave as if it were a fact.”[1]  In such fashion, Davenport’s work pokes and prods the world along the Mississippi.  And if these are love poems, they open the question of who exactly are the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ here.  Are the poems speaking their broken songs into the ground?  The voice proves that it can love this space or even love its own sound as it stings the terrain, bounces off history.  In Davenport’s poems, that voice is glimpsed in its threatened displacement.  A voice sets the center into dissolution.  The song’s resolution:

                        No more diving into the wreck.  From this point on,
                        move outward, over, through.  Think prairie grass, badlands.
                        Think mountains.  Trade your harpoon for a Remington. . .
                        Tonto is the name we give to unchecked desire,
                        the place in us that understands dismemberment,
                        the open fields in us that resist narrative.
                                (“Up From The Wreck Conjuring Montana Sonnet”)
Spoken from flat on their backs, these are love poems that long to escape their spaces, whether those are defined in terms of sonnet or marriage, “the white picket fences of forever” (“Another Hundred-Line Drunken Cowboy Sonnet”).

            By turn, the confession’s traditional central space is domestic, the overturned kitchen table or the rumpled bed.  Yet is anyone at home in this America?  Witness the poems’ homey spaces here:

                        . . .nailed to the bedroom
                        window frame a fitted sheet straining like a sail.
                        Collapsing like a lung. . .
                            (“Last Night My Bed A Boat of Whiskey Going Down”)

Or the Midwestern domestic space,

The way you’ve draped yourself on the couch and arranged
the evening like a still life, legs crossed like fingers. . .
You’d almost think the Bat Phone is about to ring. . .
                            (“Making Like Scheherazade After The Smoke Clears”)
Davenport’s yodeling knocks down the front door to this space from the inside; it surveys the helluva wide land beneath that space.  The poems push against or argue with their spaces, both formally and geographically, redefining the focus and shape of the American confession.  Formally, the poet mixes sonnet and yodel.  Language explodes.  The closed spaces pick a fight:

                        . . .Something about those four walls
                        that mock the body, the bottle, the body bag,
                        that close a man or a woman like a fixed field,
                        that invite a prison break, a tunneling out
                        of the self, say, in the spring, or maybe out west.
                                     (“Godless Murfy Has His Say About Massacre”)

This sense of barely restrained containment echoes in the sequence, “O’Keefe and Stevens”:

                        . . .He’s this room, she tells herself.
                        An airless chamber.  A marriage box.
                        Nothing small about those flowers, he says.
American modernism gets remapped, its blooms hopelessly overgrown.  The confession gets tangled in a bed of local flowers.  The recognition:

. . .the perimeters of family can’t be mapped.
That desire is the open field. . .
                             (“Meat-Axe Bedtime Story For Grown Prairie Daughters”)
Here, the poems ask whether the poet’s voice returns to him or gets swallowed by an overgrown land’s width.  “Family history” is owned more by the land and its songs.  Wallace’s and Georgia’s songs are a “bundle of hiss.”  The final truth?

There’s a Story in Tulsa you don’t want to hear.
                              (“Godless Murfy. . .”)
          If there were a shootout in American poetry, where would it occur?  When?  What time of day?  High noon seems unlikely.  John Ashbery walking into a Manhattan dinner party, ticking sonnet strapped to his chest.  Adrienne Rich doing her spring planting under a foot of moving water.  C.S. Giscombe announces that he is now reading the map for us.  Juliana Spahr points out the landmarks and tombstones along the way.  In Davenport’s version of American modernity, the guns come out:

                        Ghost Ranch was Georgia’s.
                        [Wallace] blocked the light, talked too much.
                        Hard to tell who threw the first shot.
                                (“Wallace and Georgia Go For Their Guns”)

The “O’Keefe and Stevens” sequence plays with the violences not held by and within prairie shouts.  Words and images sound the broken domestic space; the poet’s voice tests the prairie:

                        They’re run aground tonight
                        by vague desire,
                        something about the memory
                        of their words. . .
                        something about these charts
                        and maps in the box
                        at their feet. 
                       (“Georgia and Wallace Mark Depth In A Dry Summer”)
What’s at stake is a remythed self, one rethought and resounded in the obliterated domestic space, in the howling prairie around the poems’ personae.  The land, not “Cowboy,” recognizes all these songs and violences, sung and done to self and others.  Meanwhile, Cowboy “knock[s] mud out of his boots off the back porch like he was in a movie” (“Horse Operas”).  The personae, the land, the wrecks and records, become the poems’ way of retelling the land, Davenport’s way “to explain my skin to you.”  In America, that skin is never self-sung or owned; it “burns,”

                        like the ground under 507 N Olive, my birth home,
                        Hartford dirt soaked with decades of product
                        piped from White Star, Sinclair, Standard, Roxana. . .
                                                 (“Hartford, Illinois”)

            In his own writing on the Mississippi as an “American Heartworm,” Ben Metcalf begins, “I proceed from rage. . .My grievances against the river are specific and they are personal.”[2]  With Uncontainable Noise, the river has again slipped its banks.  Starting from the rage of song, Steve Davenport has crafted new myths for the land, his own sharp confession.

[1] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents.  Trans. James Strachey.  New York: Norton, 1961.  13.

[2] Ben Metcalf, “American Heartworm.”  The Best American Essays 1999.  Ed. Edward Hoagland.  New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.  173-4.


Garin Cycholl teaches writing at Indiana University Northwest in Gary.  His recent work includes Horse Country, a collection of shorter poems that reconsiders the iconography of the horse in American culture, as well as a screenplay adaptation of Walker Percy’s novel, Lancelot.

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