River, forest, and mountain

Todd Davis’s Native Species: Poems

Reviewed by Andrew C. Gottlieb

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Michigan State University Press | 2019 | 94 pages

Native Species: Poems by Todd DavisWith Native Species: Poems, Todd Davis gives us a collection of rich, well-crafted poems that address his favorites topics: death, life, joy, and the natural world. This is his seventh collection of poetry, and these poems are some of his best, attesting to a maturity of work that only practice may bring.

He opens the book with a poem entitled “Geomorphology,” a meditation comparing a landscape’s dreams to a human’s, a mountain exploring its dreams of constant change: fish in the closet, a boulder in the bathroom, the front porch descended to the bottom of a reservoir. The mountain is our narrator, sliding to “a new zip code” in the final lines.

This scope and the tectonic possibilities of it are what drive Davis’s work. Whether he encounters a fox, frozen whole in a block of ice, ear-tips only emerging into air, or is witness to the blue feet of his father, a few days before death, Davis—while presenting the beauty of the specific—steps back and crafts his way toward its place in the honest scope of an old, enormous earth.       

He writes in “Returning to Earth”:

I open the window to hear
the river sailing away,
riding the stone boat of the basin
carved by spring floods

And we can feel the wistfulness of a morning or evening in spring, pushing open the window to hear the creek or river hurtling along in flood stage. Yes, it’s beautiful, but we can’t help but also feel left, for the river is always leaving us, after all.

Davis is sometimes addressing the raspberries in his garden, a fall harvest, the last cow his family owned, trout in a mountain stream, porcupine scat, or an Alzheimer’s patient. And, yet he’ll manage to address the mystical, whether God or the blessing of nature, in his examinations. In his poem “Memory,” while speaking to his young son about the age of the sky and the journey of thrush migration, he writes:

I told him they followed the moon’s slivered path, the same
ancient corridor we use when we leave the earth.

Davis’s poem “Lost Country of Light” bears an epigraph by Christopher Camuto: But I am not trying to get to heaven. / I am trying to get to earth. This could well join the William Stafford epigraph that precedes the poems as representative of the felt soul Davis shares, of the goal of his work. Davis is a religious man, and the religion of these poems is firmly anchored in the magic of a vulture’s feather or a knife slicing beans.

It’s easy to imagine Davis at the top of swaying Jeffrey pine riding out a storm, Muir-like, all the while jotting down on wet, flapping pages the words he’ll later use to describe the energy he feels at the magic of the storm. We’re lucky he does the same. What a reader will find in Davis’s work is—with each poem—a new way to say something old, true, ancient, and familiar.

Some of the best work lies in his deceptively simple rhythms, as in the opening lines of “Talus”:

Even the stones speak in this field of scarlet
             huckleberry leaves. Tomorrow’s Dia de los Muertos,
and I should be baking bread for my dead father
             whose ashes help these bushes grow.

There’s comfort in the dactylic beat underlying the lines, but where the rhythm is halted—single syllable words juxtaposed or inserted for spondaic effect—the lines slow with an intentional, measured syncopation. Stones speak. Baking bread. Dead father. These are gorgeous lines well-paced with the organic feel that the best poetry always offers. Everything is alive: the lines, the stones, the huckleberry, even Davis’s concern that he’s not yet paying homage by kneading the requisite dough. For sure, Davis’s father is ever-present, both in mind and in the nourishment of the huckleberries. Like much of Davis’s work, the poem concludes as a meditation on time, death, and homage to the same.

Native Species contains 58 poems broken into three sections, with “Geomorphology” as a preface poem. These poems are kin to our best naturalist or farmer poets, those writing from the recently-planted acreage, from the deep woods in which they find themselves: William Stafford, Wendell Berry, Sandra Alcosser, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Maurice Manning, Rose McLarney, Nathaniel Perry. To name only a few.

Todd Davis’s poems demand slow reading. They offer a palpable joy, like a long morning’s warm sun moving across a wooden countertop. They’re poems that soften the soul, while reminding one to grasp the present, to gratefully engage while we have—within the vast scope that time may seem to offer—this ever-vivid moment.



Andrew C. GottliebAndrew C. Gottlieb’s most recent chapbook is Flow Variations (Finishing Line Press). He’s been writer-in-residence at three national parks as well as a number of other wilderness locations, and he’s on the editorial board of Terrain.org. Say hello at andrewcgottlieb.com.
Read “The Question We’ll Ask,” a Letter to America, plus three poems by Andrew C. Gottlieb appearing in Terrain.org.

Header photo by Pexels, courtesy Pixabay.



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