The magic of opening a new poetry collection from an author that you’re unfamiliar with is that you never know when the meteor is going to hit. It might be the first page, it might be half-way through, or you might be three pages from the back cover when a poem just smacks you across the face. As a reader it pulls the excitement from your eyes, and as a writer you realize that you’ve got so much more work to do.
Hayes Davis’ collection Let Our Eyes Linger is full of meteors. His poetry manages to be simultaneously approachable and deep, crafting vivid characters out of American folklore at one moment and enlightening readers about the bitter and sweet tribulations of fatherhood. A deft storyteller who knows how to position an ending, Davis’ last lines consistently satiate the appetite for a poem to feel whole.
Broken into four different thematic sections Hayes’ collection first shows off his ability to touch on his experiences and make them real for the reader. “Etiquette” invites us into the mind of a young Davis as he sits in anguish at the dinner table because his stutter prevents him from asking to be excused. His struggle with verbal communication as a youth is at odds with the eloquence he embodies on the page. He paints a picture of a youth who knows of his voice, his ability to see, but cannot yet wield it.
The second section of the text exposes the racial prejudices that Davis grew up battling against. He reveals hesitations about buying a watermelon in public and dressing to ‘fit the part’ that society expects of a young black man in “Capitol Hill, SC.” He speaks his truth without pretentiousness, stating subtly, matter-of-factly, ‘the averted eyes, clenched mouths usually exchanged pleasantries with my khakis, sweater, top coat.’
Let Our Eyes Linger uses its third section to present the untold story of Slave Jim from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Davis seamlessly transitions from his own experiences to those of Slave Jim lending him a voice through a series of seven poems to flesh out the runaway’s story line. Hayes only inserts himself once in this whole section, ‘inviting’ Slave Jim into his classroom to comment on their discussion in Jim Observes a Class. Even here Davis remains a nameless ‘teacher’ letting Slave Jim have the final say in his tale.
Without revealing too much, section four doesn’t pull any punches. Davis demonstrates repeatedly through poems like “Knot,” “New English Teacher,” “Presence,” “How to Test a Marriage,” “Make it Work for You” that the unfound voice from the boy in section one has unquestionably gained its edge, and that edge is sharp, cutting to reveal deeper truth. For instance, the meditative voice in “How to Test a Marriage” remembers thinking that the biggest challenge of marriage is simply finding someone you love, and the new-found scorn of this old naivete. Ultimately, Davis speaks with wry wisdom and a commitment to witness, revealing the peaks and valleys of fatherhood, romance, and navigating through life (even at the end of your wits) with poise.
Next week Hayes Davis is bringing his voice to The Turning Wheel (formerly Fear No Lit), a monthly reading held at DogStar Books. The event will take place Thursday, August 11 at 7 pm, at 401 West Lemon Street, Lancaster PA.
Hayes Davis holds a Masters of Fine Arts from the University of Maryland, where he won an Academy of American Poets Prize; he is a member of Cave Canem’s first cohort of fellows, a former Bread Loaf working scholar, and a former Geraldine Miles Poet-Scholar at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. He has also attended writers retreats at Manhattanville College and Soul Mountain, and appeared on the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU, 88.5 in Washington, D.C. and at the Hay Festival Kells in Ireland. His first volume, Let Our Eyes Linger was published by Poetry Mutual Press. His work has appeared in New England Review, Poet Lore, Gargoyle, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Delaware Poetry Review, Kinfolks, and several anthologies. He teaches high-school English in Washington, DC, and lives in Silver Spring with his wife, poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis, and their children. Read more about Hayes Davis at www.poetsandparents.com.