The final paragraph in The Unsung Masters Series book Catherine Breese Davis: On the Life and Work of an American Master reprints her 1996 journal entry. After years of trying to publish a book: “[ . . . ] sometimes when I get exasperated with all this, I think the poems will all end in a black hole. I certainly don’t want to have a posthumous book, but it may come to that.”
Well it has come to that, and it’s our good fortune that Davis met the criteria of bringing “great, out-of-print, little-known writers to new readers.” Many of Davis’s formal and free verse poems and miscellany are included in this collection, plus essays on Davis’s work and an interview with Marie Pelletier, Davis’s companion for several years. I was hoping for a chronological perspective, but dates of publication don’t accompany the poems. However, flip to the back of the book and you’ll find dates and the journals they were published in.
“Out of Work, Out of Touch, Out of Sorts,” first appearing in 1964, is a good example of Davis’s skillful though easy-to-read style:
Already past mid-June,
And something should be done;
I sit all afternoon,
Feeling both out of touch
And out of sorts, and sun
Myself on a bench near
The fountain; there’s not much
On a temporary basis
That I know how to do.
These are lines from “An Ordinary Sunday Morning in Iowa City,” published in 1996, with its superb ending:
All Sundays tend to be a little blank.
But here, without The New York Times to hide
Behind, to clutter the rooms, the mind with news [ . . . ]
The day has nothing up its sleeve but rain.
My review of this book is probably swayed by previous knowledge of Davis; her mother was less than loving. “My mother used to say: ‘I’ll beat the living Jesus out of you.’ She almost did.” Those are lines from “Second Thoughts,” and these, from her 1977 poem “She”:
gave me life
what a hell
on wheels she was
Her poems were no idle ramblings. She was born in 1924. Her mother ran a brothel, and for a while Davis was in a foster home and later a Catholic convent boarding school. Mom had Davis thinking her name was Patricia Louella. According to Pelletier. She “[ . . . ] only found out when she got her birth certificate, probably when she was enrolling in college, that her father had given her the name Catherine Breese Davis.”
But Dad was also no prize. Pelletier continues: “She grew up without her father, who committed an armed robbery with an unloaded gun; nevertheless he received a seven-year sentence and as a result Catherine never knew him.” Furthermore, Davis had mild cerebral palsy.
But she was spirited, receiving degrees, teaching at universities, and publishing in literary journals and an anthology titled A Formal Feeling Comes. In that book she explains her switch from writing formal poetry to free verse. “Poets of my generation did not consider formal poetry an anomaly. Rather, it was the air we breathed.” Later, influenced by poems of Robert Lowell and William Carlos Williams: “I began to write, much to my own surprise, free verse while continuing to write formal poetry; [ . . . ] I could never see why I should not practice both, [ . . . ] Neither one is superior to the other.”
Essayists in this book frequently mention Davis’s villanelle “After a Time.” Helen Pinkerton Trimpi refers to it as “perhaps her finest.” It begins:
After a time, all losses are the same.
One more thing lost is one thing less to lose;
And we go stripped at last the way we came.
Amongst her finest, “After a Time” showcases Davis’s skill in form poetry. Martha Collins examines an epigram called “Kindness”:
Your kindness is no kindness now:
It is unkindness to allow
My unkind heart so to reveal
The differences it would conceal.
Collins points out that “seven variations on the title word appear in the ten lines of the poem, which ends by evoking two additional—well, kinds of kindness.”
The last poem in this book, “Blood, Flesh, and Bones,” is unfinished, but even these unfinished poems are worth reading.
[ . . . ] I dreamed of a clarity
it would dazzle
the clear-eyed dew.
You’d think I’d have liked
the shape I was in. But I couldn’t get over what I took to be
the simple location
Davis died in 2002. She had been through alcoholism, mental problems, disability and poverty. Pelletier, who parted with Davis in 1993, sums up Davis’s last years: “The continuing straitened circumstances of her life eventually took their toll and also robbed her mind.”
Catherine Breese Davis: On the Life and Work of an American Master is an inspired tribute to a gifted woman. Read this book, and be rewarded with her courageous and beautiful words.