“The Places That Hold,” by John Davis Jr.

John Davis Jr.

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

A trim, eloquent book of fifty-one well-wrought poems, The Places That Hold (Eastover Press 2021), by John Davis Jr., is rich with evocative images which will captivate and charm readers. His accessible phrases are subtly complex, weaving more than a bit of mystique into his nuanced layers. With his poet’s eye for the telling details, Davis creates a rich tapestry alive with farm and city, birds and brutality, the cautious child and the fearless grandmother—and more. An eight-generation Floridian, Davis never goes far from home in his poems, but each still reaches out with a universal scope.

Organized into five parts, the poems vary in topic and even style, though each conveys a theme or story written with a precision of language and a certain delicacy. The poet’s voice in his poems is often clear and direct, but the more one reads and savors these poems, the deeper they become—which is, of course, the magic of great poetry. Using a variety of poetic techniques—from animism to simile—Davis has tight control over his talent and his vision in these poetic gems.

Perhaps the most potent poems are those which relate to one of Florida’s historical tragedies—the Dozier Reform School for Boys in North Florida. Dozier School made news this past decade as more of the atrocities—and bodies—were uncovered from this place which operated as a state facility from 1900 to 2011. Located an hour west of Tallahassee, Dozier became infamous for its physical and sexual abuse of the boys imprisoned there. Prominent authors Jon Jefferson and Bill Bass (writing as Jefferson Bass) tackle Dozier in The Bone Yard, and author Colson Whitehead won his second Pulitzer Prize for The Nickel Boys, based upon a fictionalized Dozier. However, Davis reaches well beyond plot or fact in his Dozier poems, which focus on individual, specific accounts based upon gruesome true events, like this example, in “Crooked Bones”:

They laughed the day they broke my humerus
and splinted it with wire coat hangers wrapped
in black tape so my skin couldn’t breathe,
so I’d understand honest pain.

Among the Dozier poems, perhaps the most harrowing and haunting is “Laundry Duty, 3 p.m.” Hapless inmates are forced to fold towels flat enough to please the guards even as they are ordered to ignore the boy caught inside a dryer:

Behind his twisting white palms on the circle
of glass, we saw his wide and long-lashed
eyes trying to escape, his tumbling
red face. Bent backward,
his legs turned less than symbols.

In his foreword notes, Davis dedicates the book to the Dozier boys “many of whom were merely truants and lesser offenders” who survived to suffer PTSD and “night terrors from events that took place during their stay at Dozier.” He also takes witness testimony and official records into account in writing these poems, not all of which are from the boys’ point of view. For example, “The Disciplinarian” comes from a 2009 deposition of a Dozier “facilitator”:

Smoking was a spanking offense.
So was reckless eyeballing.
When a boy talks about running
away, you’ve got to talk to him.

These poems lament the lost boys, and this is poignantly clear in “To the 41 Dead and Undiscovered.” Taken from factual news stories, this poem seeks recognition where “Suited and uniformed men deny you—there are / no crosses, no stone statues of limitation.” And in “To the 55 Uncovered,” Davis plaintively asks: “Where is justice?”

While the Dozier poems have a restrained brutality, other poems in The Places That Hold, are remarkable in their tenderness. For example, Davis writes lovingly and with admiration of his wife in “Ironing My Wife’s Scrubs.” After describing the actual ironing and starching, and paying homage to her work with patients, he concludes the poem with “her body / has shaped the clothes…her stretch, her strenuous elegance / perfect what once was uniform.”

As with the “Scrubs” poem, family and heritage often take center stage within this collection. In the opening poem, “Tractor Ghosts,” Davis describes driving his grandfather’s old and partly broken tractor back to the shed. On the surface, the poem operates like an objective description of an ordinary event. But the poem reaches beyond that basic experience to grab at understanding the relationship the narrator has with his grandfather. With the opening line, “Grandfather, I am driving your memory back to the shed,” the poem introduces complex and earnest emotions. There is regret in the poems also as Davis describes the busted power steering so that the tractor requires “a farmer’s muscle to raise specter-gray clouds of soil.” Yet the last line of the poem reveals that as a poet with “unscarred fingers,” and hands that know “city currency” and “university books,” the narrator’s hands “fail the stiff-turning wheel.”

That the poet/narrator is a person now removed from his grandparents’ farming life returns as a theme in “The Farm Poet’s Lament”:

Dying trees rattle and wag damp finger bones
in brittle points of blame and shame, accusing
as you scratch and plot your finite wonderings.
The rain still falls. The land goes on without you.
Every serif bares a tiny sharp tooth
severing heritage.

For a Southern poet to write of farms, land, and grandparents is to risk being trapped in a sentimental trope, but Davis escapes that with his direct narrative phrases, his attentive line breaks, originality, and creatively controlled images. In “Avenging Eye,” he writes succinctly about his grandmother, “the stronger woman,” killing an invading snake with a garden hoe while crows “gather in the grove, awaiting.” In “My Grandfather’s Exhibit,” Davis writes movingly of his grandfather’s “museum,” that is, his barn full of “work aged” tools. In “Ode to Inherited Ties,” a poem which won the 2021 Sidney Lanier Poetry Prize, he not only describes with crisp visuals the “[t]oo broad and fatly patterned for the present” ties he keeps “suspended from silver hooks behind the closet door,” but also “the final picture the church took, grandfather / you stare straight ahead in a deacon’s dark suit.”

Davis also expresses heart-warming gentleness in a few select poems about his children. These poems read with an astute and well-crafted intimacy that makes them feel very personal without being cloying. For instance, in “The Talk: Youngest Son,” Davis writes of explaining the facts of life to his child:

Not even a metaphor of birds. You deserve
truth laid plan. You, who yesterday
floated a milk-carton ship to the far shore, hear
how humans are made: Biology.

In “For a Cautious Son,” Davis reflects with obvious affection about a son who “will not Tarzan / across the creek like your / younger brother who swings / wildly on vines.”  While the narrator of the poem understands the “limbic instinct” of the cautious son, he can’t help but say “Too soon, I will cut / you free to the world again. / Oh, how I wish you’d jump.”

Perhaps the most beautiful poem in the collection is “Early Bird Prayers.” In this poem, Davis combines the ordinary with the ethereal nature he perceives in birds and with a longing that appears to anticipate the coming mass extinction often now spoken of by scientists. Yet he captures the foreshadowing of grief without becoming pedantic:

When I, as a child, was asked to pray at breakfast,
I began with thanks for birds…

Nature’s better angels—sound on wings—
gave rise to my first earnest words of beauty.
Over coffee today, I pray for their return,
asking once more for feather and song:
Replace these empty skies with beaks and eyes;
send note-filled breasts to wreath-shaped nests,
press color and music again against these clouds.

In addition to his poems celebrating his wife and grandmother, Davis also shows a feminist sensibility in “Elementary Football Girls, 1987.” After aptly describing a game of flag football in which girls eagerly play “stopped only by hesitance, by fear / of becoming too much like men,” the poem ends with an image that captures disappointment:

We shouted I’m open! I’m open! to a backfield boy
in a loose-fitting sweatshirt, only to watch his throw
wobble past our pigtails and bounce from the chest
of a Scott or a Joey or a what’s-his-name from Zolfo.
Our extended hands fell like pots or baskets left
empty except for the dirty low-five of next-time promises.

Davis is the author of four prior books of poetry and has been nominated multiple times for the Pushcart Prize. He holds an MFA from the University of Tampa and teaches English and Literature in SW Florida.

All in all, Davis has given his readers a treasure to relish with the poems in The Places That Hold. These are fine, fine poems—honest and perceptive, fully ringing with compassion and an astute awareness—that should resonate with readers. That poetry is meant to be read slowly and savored is a truism for poetry lovers, so it is no surprise that these are poems which can and should be appreciated over time.

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