Review of Nancy L. Davis, Ghosts
(Finishing Line Press, 2019)
By Courtney Bambrick
In her collection Ghosts, Nancy Davis presents a changing and challenging American landscape. Her poetic terrain is in turn at odds and at ease with history and wilderness. The first poem in the collection, “Sanctuary,” offers a glimpse of the layers of earth and time:
the dead are buried here.
contaminated fish bones compressed into
strata of an unintended geological age… (5).
Throughout the collection, we dig through that strata and examine the bones Davis unearths in poems that connect modern living to a pervasive but opaque past:
Like a mole, blind in its star-starved
pursuit of light–a tuberous longing
Far up the hillside, a mausoleum
of memory haunts. Children play
in the dirt… (“Ghosts” 11).
Setting poems in both domestic and untamed places — gardens, forests, cities — allows Davis to reflect on the interactions of time and place and the uneasy balance between:
in the lake house on the bluff
a woman opens her door
peering out somewhere between
dusk and remembrance… (“Into the Garden: Dreamscape” 17-18).
Davis shows us a land that is as scarred and aching as our own bodies, and as vulnerable. Birth and death are visceral and natural — shocking, but expected. In the garden, for instance, new life may be possible:
…mounds of freshly shredded mulch:
hardwood pining for resurrection,
While in the poem “Desire” Davis describes a bear, she might be describing the unconscious or the way memory asserts itself unexpectedly and without welcome:
All at once it appeared: barreling out of its musky secrecy,
voracious demeanor, ambling with surprising speed and grace
up the hillside. clawing madly with one massive, capable paw
at the foliage caught in its thick, black pelt (27).
The “invasion” is jarring to the poem’s speaker and to the reader, reminding us of the dangers we don’t often see beyond the edge of our backyards. The bear reminds us of other bears we’ve seen or read about in the news or in fairy tales: “…bear stories circled the valley/like hungry hawks.” They are familiar and foreign, “the most terrifying and exuberant,” and like our memories, they threaten damage, but might pass quietly if we are lucky.
As it expands personal memory to cultural or political memory, the poem “Firestorm: Checagou” connects histories and peoples to the physical earth through work and violence. Industrial and natural imagery vie for attention through the poem as through the collection. The dangers evolve and transform as time passes and the landscape reflects human manipulation.
A clear-eyed and open-hearted reflection on our place in the American landscape, Ghosts helps the reader navigate a relationship with the relentless but fragile natural world and reminds us of our proximity to both danger and safety.