Review: The Great Ledge: Poems by Peter Davison Print E-mail

peter_davison(San Diego Union-Tribune November 10, 1989)

The Moment of Love

At 60, Peter Davison has added another achievement to his eight previous volumes of poetry, the first of which won him the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1964. A lyricist like his beloved Robert Frost, he has been praised consistently for his cadenced lines, his deep images and his didactic, elegiac tone.

These powers again serve a poetry of personal illumination in The Great Ledge. Davison's topics are many, but a number of poems revisit the loss of his wife in 1981. He navigates the sorrow with a clear-eyed memory.

"Equinox 1980" recalls a last outing when "we two/ paddled a noiseless boat/ before a wakefall across/ a bay smooth as a mirror."

Memory awakens Davison, not to pine helplessly for the past but to declare the simple, pinnacled moment of their love.

"In all the days of our marriage / we had never seen / so unruffled a morning." Similarly "The Face in the Field" connects her memory to a favorite haunt—a field where his parents' ashes were once scattered and where he and his wife spent much meditative time together.

Here, though, he calls out more aggressively to the foliage: "They were happy enough to speak to me before, / whatever it is that leaves and trees will speak of, / but how can they now so wholly have possessed / the country that she took the time to die in?"

Once called out by the poet, her image is pulled back to the evolving landscape, "ultimately" to "flowers." Few of Davison's poems wallow.

Most objectify their portraits, shaped less by the poet's needliness and more by his detachment.

Sonorous lines and images of nature are his trademark. An example is the title poem.

The Great Ledge, "nearly a hundred vertical feet of granite" that "needs nothing," is like the omniscient poet himself, watching the eternal verities impassively, without judgment.

Though dead, the ledge bears witness to the life and age of the North American continent itself. The thickly textured poem moves through seven stanzas, covering natural and human events, concomitant forms that Davison stresses are equally subservient to the rock.

"The Great Ledge looked on as the glacier failed / and left each hilltop scoured by retreat, / its melting trickling in to heal its wounds."

The poem achieves a sort of supplication to inanimate power that suggests once we compare the abiding world to the ledge of granite, the granite shares a life with whatever it watches. Davison's images imply similar hardness and distance.

But the best of these poems rise magically; they resemble exposed boulders in a shallow stream, not weighty but buoyant, almost hovering over the playful waters. The poem sequence "Literary Portraits" sketches certain author profiles from those Davison has known as a senior editor, with his own imprint, at Houghton-Mifflin.

Working with writers as both cheerleader and judge, he must balance the conceit of their intent with the success of their rendition. Thus in "Autobiographer" we hear why the axe must fall.

"He chose his life / to sit well on the page, a shapely story / told well enough to publish, not to read." Other portraits feature different literary guises: the penniless author, exacting tribute from the last book and borrowing money against the next; the canoneers, who sculpt our college curriculum but "hardly illuminate our understanding."

Alter ego or true confession, these pithy monologs reveal Davison's acumen as critic and poet.

Luckily for him, his poetic craft has quieted the critic's nag.

Which, as writers know, always takes some doing.