By Ross Blanchard
Illustration by Allison Bruns
On a Wednesday evening in late June, in the faux-speakeasy in the back of Circa 33 on SE Belmont, poet Leah Noble Davidson stood atop an improvised stage — a three-foot-tall wooden box — in front of a packed room of fans and friends on the occasion of the release of her first book: Poetic Scientifica (University of Hell Press, Portland, 2013, $10).
U of H provided a solid lineup for the event: readings by other local poets, songs by Robert Duncan Gray and hosting by a very capable Johnny No Bueno. In the audience were a handful of past Oregon Book Award nominees (and at least one winner), as well as other local literary notables.
Davidson commanded the crowd with her piercing and authoritative voice, taking requests from the audience members who flipped through copies of her book and shouted out titles. Davidson, a consummate performer of her own material, recited more than a few from memory, dropping her copy to her side and engaging the crowd with intense eye contact. While the majority of poems benefit from being read aloud by someone other than the author, Davidson’s voice is set indelibly into her poems once you’ve heard her read them. Indeed, it’s hard to separate Davidson’s delivery from the writing itself.
Poetic Scientifica, a paperback of 110 pages, resembles a mathematician’s notebook from the outside. Inside, the book offers up a compelling introduction in the form of a hypothesis upon which the book is composed: How to lessen the gap between meaning and comprehension in a poem. To whit: Since we all think of different things when presented with a given word, perhaps we can better understand a poem if we write a poem for each of the words that make up said poem.
The first work, untitled, a four-stanza poem, sets up the experiment. Flip the page and the untitled poem is dissected into its elements — the words of the poem form a table of contents, page numbers next to each word. Seventy-three poems follow, their titles corresponding with the first poem’s words. (At the launch party, Davidson played a game with the audience. She read the initial poem and asked her audience to shout out one of the words they heard in it, and then she read the poem assigned to that word.)
Although the initial poem is rather abstract and unmemorable, Davidson’s collection is filled with vivid, concrete imagery and lasting impressions. Her language is gritty and forward, but elegant and economical, too.
The first word and therefore the first poem is entitled “Oh.” The one-line poem, trailed by blank space for the remainder of the page, reads: “She loved out of boredom.” Whether confessional or observational, this piece sets a tone that becomes familiar and more solid as you read on.
In the poem “Person,” Davidson paints a picture of a woman’s love for her man, and a man’s attempt to attain even an approximation of the self image to match what he perceives she sees in him. Therein Davidson transforms cliche into budding archetype through a zombie named Harold who hangs his keys in the space where his heart once was ( Harold’s heart is currently in a Safeway bag on a highway curbside in Los Angeles). A depressed Harold tries Pilates, considers quitting smoking and learns French to impress his girlfriend (although in his foreign phrases, romantic-sounding to her, he confesses banal, minor offenses and a longing for brains).
In “strangers” and in other seemingly autobiographical pieces, Davidson delivers powerful monologues — forming one side of a couple’s fight, or perhaps a goodbye letter — that would destroy the most hardened recipient. In others, you share in the bittersweet aftermath of an emotional struggle where couples reconnect and bond through the endeavor.
These tales of a rough upbringing, of failed relationships and of various shenanigans bring an occasional smile. There are glimpses of humor and all-out hilarity in some. But few, if any, are really light. In “me,” Davidson writes:
I love to watch a woman cry
when it’s not my fault,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The way she unfolds
from the tear ducts, vibrates
from cherry gloss to stiletto,
a precious humanity welling up in her
ancient and wordless.
I couldn’t squash a ballet like that with a tissue,
wouldn’t distract her to say, “Thanks.”
Reading Poetic Scientifica quickly feels like you’re having a drink with this author in a pub somewhere and you’re settled in to hear some good stories. Soon after, though, you’ve been roped into doing shots with her and somehow, even though it’s a school night, that seems okay. One great story leads to another. You’re laughing. You’ve been through something similar. Even the ones of a rough childhood, although tragic, seem distant. You commiserate. You’re drunk now. Then out of nowhere she hits you with one that shuts you down. It’s called “for.” It has nothing to do with either of you, but actually it does, and it completely breaks your heart:
She threw her two children off the Sellwood Bridge
that morning. Threw falls from teeth like wooden
blocks–as if her own blood would fight her.
Threw. As if she couldn’t drop her babies
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
the hands gripping at air,
And now you need to put the book down and sober up.