"And tadpoles, / like oil, / laid between / drowned leaves” (1). As much as any piece of writing I’ve encountered, Noah Davis’s poetry collection Of This River, transports me to a very specific place—here, in these poems, the mountains and valleys of Central Pennsylvania—via his beautifully rugged descriptions, reflecting the land and the spirits that inhabit them (human or otherwise). Admittedly, this is partly because I was raised on the other side of the mountain, opposite Davis’s Allegheny Front, where the steep peaks on maps stagger into the Allegheny Plateau.
For instance, when reading the poem “Drowning as Taught by Short-Haired Girl,” as our speaker says “while the water entered me I did / recognize the sleeve of reservoir” (3), these lines pull me deep into my own memories of driving the winding roads of a precise mountain, seeing the woods peel back to reveal the sublime sight of the reservoir above Tipton, Pennsylvania—where Davis grew up. But when I recall how that road hugs tight against a highwall overlooking the dark water, I can never keep track of what vehicle I’m in, or who’s driving—my mother, my father, grandparents, great-aunts and uncles, or myself—as my memories flit by like tree trunks. This same feeling grabs me when I read Of This River, as Davis’s poems ask us to savor both past and present. Though, unlike my distorted memories, Davis is always urging me to the next line, the next page—maintaining a sense of momentum.
From the beginning, Davis’s placement of poems within the context of the collection is as important as each layer of meaning within individual lines. For example, “Drowning as Taught by Short-Haired Girl,” the second poem of the collection, allows itself to be read as a thesis and synopsis for the book as a whole. As Short-Haired Girl, “thought of the snapping turtles at the base / of the dam… / [waiting for her] to become meat, / a lesson they learned / from eating all those / who drowned before” (3), these poems become a body that represents the literal flesh, the accumulated life of our protagonist, serving to remind us of our vulnerabilities, complexities, and interconnectedness.
The images and themes of human beings encountering choices, over generations, with the larger natural world are juxtaposed with scenes of rural life and underlie many of the poems that make up Of This River. But rather than limiting this story to one voice, Davis calls on a multitude of characters, which include Short-Haired Girl’s parents, her brother, her grandmother, brown trout, coyote, and a raven king, among others, to create a fuller picture of Short-Haired Girl, and her environment.
. . . Davis crafts the poem’s line breaks and white spaces to read like ripples cascading down a mountain stream, embodying the smooth, playful motions of a trout . . .
Gram kept snapping turtles in used oil drums by the garage…We fed the turtles watermelon until shit coveredthe water’s surface. My brother and I skimmed off the flakes like oil.When Gram was ready, we turned the barrels over in the yard, and sheshot the turtles in the head with the .22 Pap gave her. He believed yougave guns to the people you loved (42).
Jordan Tyler Temchack is a poet, songwriter, and folk artist. He lives with his wife and dogs in Central Pennsylvania, where they wander the Allegheny Mountains. His work can be found at Northern Appalachia Review, Prime Number Magazine, and Passengers Journal.