I flew to Philadelphia for a three-day conference that June. I had never visited the city but had little time to tramp its streets. With me I brought along The Golovlyov Family by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin and that issue of The Threepenny Review. The days were long and that’s how I wound down in the evening in my hotel room. Davis’ poem shares with Larkin’s a seemingly straightforward absence of faith: “These are the dawn thoughts of an atheist / Vaguely embarrassed by what looks like grace.” In a stringently philosophical world, Matisse’s colors are “a fake.” However, “Still we consent, and actively connive / In their unreal adjustments to our being.” Positivism, in the final stanza, never quite triumphs:
“Still, still we long for Light’s communion
To pierce and flood our solitary gloom:
Still I am grateful as the rising sun
Picks out the solid colors of my room.”
The upper-case “Light” is left undefined. It might be the deity, as “communion” suggests, despite the speaker’s self-definition in the first line as an atheist. No sane person would choose to inhabit a world in which “neither Fauve nor Esfahan survive.” I remember Davis’ poem, on first reading, kindling a sense of buoyancy. Humans are more than passive sensory receptors.