Opening the Lid of Todd Davis’s “Coffin Honey”
Appalachian landscape; Appalachian culture and lives. There is a vastly rich intersection between the two in Todd Davis’s new collection of poems coffin honey, Michigan State University Press, 2022. Not as much a righting of a world gone awry, as a kind of witnessing or coming-to-rites of the world as is, each poem in the collection drips in both death and sweetness, spirit and lives on the brink.
There are poems in this collection like “Learning to Tie a Fly,” that at once feel familiar: “in the basement: crafting thoraxes, claspers,/ and twin tails, the colors that cause fish to rise.” And poems in this collection like ‘Buck Day” where I might as well be opening the door to a neighbor’s house: “Downstairs her mom cooks eggs and deer steaks,/ pours coffee in the bottom of a cup clouded/ with milk and sugar.”
While I grew up in the dusty mountain west and have only visited Appalachia twice: once during an artist residency in Gatlinburg, TN, and once for a wedding in Celo, NC, I left haunted by resemblances between the two. On its surface, it is hard not to be stuck in coffin honey by some of the poems caught in the drama of human lives: the hard working, hardly working, generationally ground down, high and broke on resource capitalization story of turning bitter on things once loved.
A reader doesn’t need to grow up near or in Appalachia to recognize families, neighbors, towns, students, the familiar habits of a darker side of humanity that preys upon itself and the surrounding landscape. Or, for that matter, redemptions of life. But it is what lies underneath that surface of allegory, a darker ecology, that brings me back to the collection again and again, that seeps into all of the poems, creating a high-tensile lyrical web throughout. Structurally, the book is scaffolded by the “Dream Elevator” sequences that ethereally move the reader through the larger collection. There are also re-occurring Ursis poems that stitch the narrative fabric of the human, natural, and spiritual worlds of the collection together.
Perhaps ultimately coffin honey is a collection of poems about spirit: the spirits of people, the spirits of places, the spirits of animals. Not uplift, but rather a darker, more primal set of spirits; the subjects of these poems often find themselves in the midst of some kind of dark rite or passage, some kind of recovery or passing.
If you fully immerse in coffin honey, spend time pressing your spiritual and intellectual weight into each poem, it is nearly impossible not to emerge without its residues of images changing or challenging your lines of thinking. And, after reading this collection you may also be left with a similar question: “Is this the direction we are headed as humans interacting with each other and the natural world?” Todd Davis’s lyrical web has been woven, the dystopian allegory of coffin honey is all too real to be ignored, and reminds me as a reader and lover of humanity and the natural world, many a reckoning, if not already in the past or present, is just around the bend.