Great albatrosses drenched in sacredness,
Go read some other book; for I confess
I cannot make my verses to your taste.
And though they are not trifles made in haste,
Mine are to those such light things, little birds,
Sparrows among their kind, whose one last shift
Is shelter from the universal drift."
In a few of us, at some rare and unforeseeable point, humility and defiance merge – a point often mistaken for self-pity, knee-jerk rebelliousness or aggrieved entitlement. But some people really are different from the “universal drift,” for reasons internal and otherwise, and a few among them serve as witnesses who report back to us, the naïve and skeptical masses. Their news is not happy or hopeful but possesses the rarer virtue of clear-eyed truthfulness. The intelligence they supply is reliable.
Until now, Catherine Breese Davis (1924-2002) as a poet and woman hardly existed. The lost souls among us leave little evidence of their existence. Their lives and deaths are anonymous. Davis’ fate is described by George Eliot in the final paragraph of Middlemarch: “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” The long-deferred publication by Pleiades Press of Catherine Breese Davis: On the Life & Work of an American Master (2015) gives readers a chance to appreciate a gifted poet virtually erased from the memory of readers.
Helen Pinkerton, who attended Stanford with Davis and edited her poems in an earlier unsuccessful effort to get them published, contributes an essay to the new volume, placing Davis’ poems in their poetic context: “Her best poems are in the classical plain style of the Elizabethan and Jacobean poets – Wyatt, Ralegh, Donne, and Herrick—and are further influenced by the modern American plainness of Edwin Arlington Robinson, Louise Bogan and J.V. Cunningham.” Davis’ academic pedigree is impeccable. Among her teachers were Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, Cunningham, Yvor Winters and Donald Justice. Another Stanford veteran, Kenneth Fields, in “Learned Distrust,” writes of the poem quoted above, “Passerculi,” part of a sequence of epigrams titled “Insights”:
“Davis herself understood how fragile the survival of her poems might be, and she expresses this in her references to the Roman poet Catullus. In “Passerculi” (little sparrows) she at once refers to Catullus as well as the rhetorical formula of the lesser contrasted to the greater—Sappho staking her territory of amorous passion against Homeric epic warfare is one example. Davis is thinking of Catullus mourning the death of Lesbia’s sparrow, one of the little things (like all of us) destined to be lost in the obliterating underworld.”
Fields briefly chronicles Davis’ “rough life, never far from poverty.” Her father went to prison for armed robbery when she was a baby, and she never saw him again. Her mother was a textbook monster. Davis suffered a mild case of cerebral palsy, misdiagnosed as polio. When her mother discovered Davis was a lesbian, she threw her out of the house and never saw her again. Davis suffered from mental illness, alcoholism and Alzheimer’s disease. As Fields says, “She knew about loss.” Her best and probably best-known poem is “After a Time,” which 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.”
One is impressed not by the pain or even by Davis’ stoicism, but by the way in which her command of form contains the suffering and loss. This is not writing as therapy. There’s nothing “confessional” about it. Davis is an artist. She’s not competing in the crowded field of the Victim’s Marathon. Please read Catherine Breese Davis: On the Life & Work of an American Master, especially the earlier poems, for their artistry, not because Davis belongs to some demographic du jour. Fields writes: “It’s pointless to wonder what she might have been like as a writer in less straitened circumstances, but I wonder anyway. Richard Savage had nothing on her; Doctor Johnson would have loved Catherine Davis.” To my knowledge, Davis never murdered anyone. But Fields is surely right about Johnson.