Unterrified. Olena Kalytiak Davis and the Growing Sky Green


Olena Kalytiak Davis, photograph by Gerard Malanga

by Nicholas Rombes

What I said at the end last time, about how my friend K. never showed up at the bar, wasn’t exactly true. He did show up, disheveled and unshaven, his black hair long and a little greasy and almost curling, his eyes hollow and out-of-the past like one of those haunting Civil War photos of men in their tents between battles, hungry-looking, wane, lean, close to death. I spotted him from across the room and waved him over. There were more people now, and even he—in this place of misfits—seemed out of place and drew looks of malice. He sat down across from me and placed his wind-burned hands face down on the table, as if trying to hold down some terrible fact. We ordered drinks, and talked, and ordered more drinks. K. spoke in blunt, fragmented sentences, like the old days, when we spent so much time together in nature that we practically forgot how to talk.

At some point he said, of the Dana Levin book that had been laying there between us, “I can match that.”

From his weathered and faded backpack he pulled out a small package wrapped in brown paper. The wrapping was covered in smeared black X’s, like something you would see on the inside wall of a prison cell. He set it on the table, and gently pushed it across the surface to me, between the beers. I knew immediately that it was a book, and I took the wrapper off carefully.

Shattered Sonnets, Love Cards and Other Off and Back Handed Importunities, by Olena Kalytiak Davis (who lives in Alaska where she also practices law) was published in 2003 by Bloomsbury/Tin House. This was a book that I had once owned, and then lent to someone who moved away, taking the book with her. I remembered it in fragments, and opening now to the first poem, “dear reader, flannelled and tulled,” I suddenly remembered why I had loved Olena Kalytiak Davis:

            Reader unmov’d and Reader unshaken, Reader unseduc’d
            and unterrified, through the long-loud and the sweet-still
            I creep toward you. Toward you, I thistle and I climb.

That repetition, in the middle of the line—toward you. Toward you—and the secret recognition that something is coming (“Something is running across the field,” in Dana Levin’s words) is enough to knock your world off its axis. Things spin differently in the space of Levin and Davis, and I could see that K. had become illuminated by the light of Davis’s words, and that they had gotten the better of him.

“Here,” he said, taking the book and leafing through its pages, “look at this.” He handed it back, pointing to these lines.

            Hence sordid bullshit, leave me the fuck alone,
            with my milton and my dickinson
            with my browning and my keats
            with my quillless pen and my yeats—nothing
            rhymes anymore, yet it is possible to master
            to make it neat, when allaroundyou is the disaster
            of soul on soul gone bad, rotten or rotting
            from the edges on in.

I wondered what he meant; why these lines? The near-rhyme of Keats and Yeats (“nothing rhymes anymore”). Somehow I feel that’s it’s important to say right here and now that, at some point during the evening, as we passed the book back and forth, a slip of paper fell out and onto the table. It appeared to be old, from a ledger book recording time worked. Affixed to the reverse was a piece of paper with two birds.

The back of the slip of paper from Shattered Sonnets, Love Cards and Other Off and Back Handed Importunities 

Then K. began speaking quietly, leaning forward.

“I can only say this once; they are listening probably already. Don’t worry. It’s not that sinister or dangerous, at least not yet. To look at me you’d think, what a mess; what’s happened to him, my old friend? But deep inside I’m the same person you’ve known from way back. This poet—this person—named Olena Kalytiak Davis, her words set me down some dark path. I don’t even read poetry; you know that. We struggled in that class in college. Do you remember? On the metaphysical poets?”

I smiled. “Of course. The class was a trap. None of us wanted to admit how shocked we were by the poems. We pretended not to care because caring seemed out of order.”

“Except for one poet.  We were proud to quote him around the campus. It separated us from the others, somehow. The girls looked at us differently when we spoke in his words. Do you remember his name?”

“Andrew Marvell. I will never forget.”

“Do you remember the poem we quoted from all the time, ‘The Garden’?”

“Parts of it,” I said. “Not really.” A gust of wind blew the back door of the bar open, and a hurry of dry leaves swirled in. Drunk people batted them away and fake-screamed like they were in a horror film. K. opened shattered sonnets to another page where, in the margins, he had hand-written, in careful black-blue ink the color of a horsefly, the following stanza from Marvel’s “The Garden”:

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less, 
Withdraws into its happiness: 
The mind, that ocean where each kind 
Does straight its own resemblance find; 
Yet it creates, transcending these, 
Far other worlds, and other seas; 
Annihilating all that’s made 
To a green thought in a green shade. 

Annihilating all that’s made / to a green thought in a green shade.

It seemed remarkable and terrifying that these lines could have been composed in the seventeenth century, as if the twentieth century had some sort of magnetic backwards pull on Marvell, coaxing words out of him that more aptly described our mid-century total war horrors. I could see now why my friend had fallen into the language of Olena Kalytiak Davis, and why he considered her a metaphysical poet:

            The soul that selves. The starfish.
            The soul that faiths. Yet remains
            Faithless. The soul that prefers
            to decline. Dirndled and kirtled, the queen’s
            soul: the longspun, the finespun,
            the dizzy soul, spun
            finer and finer still. The still-
            born soul

It’s there, some form of dark magic, in the near repetition of words: “finespun / spun finer” and “finer still / still-born.” As if language is an infection that cannot be killed by securing individual words to lines and patterns and nailing them to meter, where they will only dislodge themselves. Dirndl and kirtle are both words referring to dresses and in Davis’s poem they seem to be in orbit around each other. I realized now that that’s where my friend was stuck—somewhere in between Davis’s orbiting words. (Davis has said, in an interview, that “I can easily live without poetry, but I absolutely cannot [cannot!] live without fiction,” which I think is key to reading her more confessional poems.)

K. began to tell me what had happened to him. The light inside the bar had taken on some forbidding sepia, the colors washed-out in a grayness that reminded me again of Civil War photos, the blank, open skies above the bodies. I could tell that my friend’s mind had become snagged on something many years ago, and that he was still trying to unhook it. Perhaps he thought that by telling me his story—fragmented as it was—he could somehow work his mind free from whatever had snagged it. On the other side of the room, a fight broke out, and a young man who looked like he was majoring in economics took a terrible hit to the face and even from our distance we could see the blood.

“My refuge, during that terrible time,” K. began in one practically breathless unspooling narrative, as if I knew exactly what and when he was talking about, “was in the Crystal Grottoes in Boonsboro, Maryland. I had come in with a bunch of tourists on a sweltering August afternoon, and simply stayed. For two nights I slept on the floor of what they called the Blanket Room. Of this underground cave, basically. The tour guide—his face as rough as burlap—took pity on me. For he needed pity too, I understood. The era was crushing us all. Sleeping in the grotto, in the unchanging 54 degrees beneath the millions-year-old stalactites, I could feel the earth vibrate, like a soft machine. My problems, what were they compared to this? The terrible Bicentennial year would be over soon. But for now, I needed to go further south, to confront the thing that was only beginning to take dark shape in my mind. I had read once somewhere that all the European powers of the time knew full-well in the years leading up to it that what we call World War I was coming. It was in the air. That’s how it was with what, even today, I can only describe as the  dark shape. I stayed mostly to back roads, and slept. Then I was in Keedysville, and met a woman there named Patsy, who worked as janitor at the Mount Vernon Evangelical and Reformed Church with its beautiful stone front and schizophrenic addition on back, and who took me in and let me stay for a few nights in the cool church basement, where there was a drinking fountain whose refrigeration unit kept kicking on and then shutting off with such stunning frequency that for several weeks I cadenced myself to its rhythms. Her hair was red, Patsy’s, and falling out and I seemed to be forever pulling it out in long strands from my clothing. Patsy had moles of all sizes, but only on the left side of her body, I realized later. She had quite a set-up in the church basement, a regular little apartment with a tiny kitchen and a lavender couch and a television that caught only one channel and a refrigerator and a Sears Kenmore sewing machine and an ironing board piled with purple choir robes and small bottles of liquor in the cupboard behind the cereal boxes. I told her about how I was being followed by dangerous people, and that I had to keep moving. For one moment, as we lay near the radiator in the cool basement, the violent red sun blazing in the sky like a furious warning outside the church, her face was suddenly stricken with a look of grief. I held her closer, our bodies sweating against each other, her red hair shedding all over me. These people, I told her, they might come for her too, if I stayed too long.

They’re not the sort of people you fuck around with, I told her.

Dangerous people, she whispered, I like that.

You don’t understand, I said, but the truth was—and somehow Patsy knew this—I didn’t understand either. These people and what they were capable of, even though I had seen it with my own eyes, I still couldn’t comprehend the enormity of evil that made possible the sorts of acts they committed. Before I left the next night, as Patsy lay sleeping, I wrote her by candlelight a long note, a confession of sorts, that was—God forgive me—full of lies and misdirection. I did this because I knew that they—these people—would eventually find their way into that church basement and apart from their pillaging they would search for clues about me, and where I had fled, and would dream about into how many pieces my body could be divided once they found me.”

The front of the slip of paper from Shattered Sonnets, Love Cards and Other Off and Back Handed Importunities 

(Only later did I notice that “Patsy” was one of the names on the “Daily Record of Time” slip that had fallen out of shattered sonnets.)

By this time things in the bar felt like they were on the verge of disaster, and it was out of cowardice that I offered no response to the story K. had just told me. For some reason, I felt as if a switch had been thrown somewhere, and everything had become charged with danger. In fact, this could have been the closed set of a horror film where—inexplicably—all the actors have suddenly been exchanged for real psychopaths. My friend seemed to sense this too, and he slid the Olena Kalytiak Davis book across the table to me, opened to page 25. Did I even need to read the opening stanza to “in one of my lives–” to know that the word green (“a green thought in a green shade”) would appear there, as some alarm, some last-ditch signal to warn me that what I felt in the bar that night was just the edges of an evil whose scope was far greater than I could possibly imagine?

            This one—If I must Be—
            Exact, all others hid their edges. A Tide
            Passed over the long black grass, the sky Grew
            Green and bigger, I drank red potions in Satiating
            Portions. But—having Nothing—
            To compare it to—I Saw
            Felt, tasted Nothing.

About the Author:

Nicholas Rombes is the author of Cinema in the Digital Age, A Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1972-1984, and Ramones, part of the 33 1/3 series published by Continuum. He is a professor and chair of the English Department at the University of Detroit Mercy. His work has appeared in The Oxford AmericanThe Believer, The Rumpus, Exquisite Corpse, Wigleaf, and other places.