City that Ripens on the
Tree of the World
Kraków, March, 2004
I stand on Wawel Hill
in early March and morning snow
falls in flocks
tiny paper cranes
descending blowing dissolving
one into another
on the cobblestone walk
an avalanche of light
I believe this must be
what death is
shining and melting, shining and flying
Walking with head bowed,
the shadow of a butterfly on ground ivy,
the soul’s movement through this middle earth.
The city of Kraków, where Davidson taught for a year as a Fulbright scholar, figures prominently in this collection. Strolling around Jordan Park, surrounded by the busts of esteemed Poles, including poets, the American poet experiences “history’s pulse,” perhaps without realizing that she herself wills that experience into being and is thus part of the commemoration. After all, she is, not unlike her heroine Mrs. Schmetterling, “Any century’s woman,” whose “imagination is / pressed like a tiny chestnut blossom between the pages.” But ironically, and victoriously, Davidson is also after mapping out “the enormity of space,” where one’s sense of belonging evaporates as much as it allows one to cling to “a possibility for more // than dissolution.” Indeed, this book is filled with poems that sing and cry, and while doing so they echo with “an ancient call” that keeps us company when we search for God, watch “cumulous clouds rising above a death camp,” or free the “soul’s wilderness” to spread “like milkweed / in the garden plot that no one owns.”
Robin Davidson is an award-winning poet. The awards bestowed by her peers speak volumes about the excellence of her work. To those volumes, I wish to add a few remarks that point to some of the specific aspects of that excellence. Her poetry is not religious, but it has a distinctively complex metaphysics, a metaphysical sensibility grounded in the sensual world that exemplifies why Martin Heidegger, the preeminent philosopher of poetry, believed that poetry offers an exemplary model of what thinking and being should be. Davidson’s poetry is masterfully Modernist insofar as it re-envisions a shattered world by projecting new coordinates of order and meaning; it is also importantly historical because it bears witness as a literal bearer—and translator—of the memories and perceptions of a multiplicity of public and private histories; it is world-bound, like a Greek temple, in its amazing ability to illuminate the material reality of the non-human within the human context in which we work, love, suffer, hope, and die; it is finally and insistently spiritual in its deft capturing of the inherently spiritual significance of the sensual world. If Heidegger were alive to review her work, he would say that Davidson is among the rare poets who are able to illuminate the holy by setting the earth into the world.
Literary theorists have often observed that the greatest poets of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries are attempting to make us both understand and experience the indwelling truth Heidegger described in “The Origin of the Work of Art”: “At bottom, the ordinary is not ordinary; it is extraordinary.” Robin Davidson is one of those great poets.