Geffrey Davis, Night Angler, BOA Editions, 2019
Reviewed by Nicholas Molbert
You need not move past the title of Geffrey Davis's second collection, the James Laughlin Award-winning Night Angler, to get a sense of its concerns. Angling is a craft of tenderness and violence, and Davis straddles both in his explorations of fatherhood, son-hood, loss, familial and romantic love, and race.
Anglers will tell you theirs is a craft of the mind. You must know the behaviors of tides, likely spots for fish, the correct bait for the situation, and you must keep your past experience close. At its core, fishing is a triangulation of angler, bait, and fish. We see a similar triangulation as Davis triangulates himself (as both father and son) in relation to his father and his son.
One of the collection's central images is hands. This should be no surprise. Anglers use their hands constantly in many capacities. Hands that delicately knot fishing line so thin as to be nearly invisible to the human eye are the same hands that wrench barbed hooks out of the trout's mouth. Davis shows us the hands' variousness, as in "Hymn or Hum," itself a gathering of poet, father, and son:
the first time I buried him
in a fist-sized hole
beside the stairs
I don't even notice he's
been banished until he returns
with a piece of something important
to me carried in his hands:
guitar strings fly rods my
son's voice in a fit
We land on shaky ground in the first couplet after crossing the threshold of the epigraph, "for my father." It is possible that the speaker is burying the father (probably the father's ashes). Another reading is possible. The speaker, in a fit of rage reminiscent of the father, punches a hole in the wall in an attempt to bury those aspects of his personality inside the wall. Both readings at the same time are possible as well. The latter half of the excerpt is less ambiguous, but crucial to understanding a thread of this poem: repeated attempts to bury unsavory aspects of the father when fathering his own son. Yet, time after time, reminders (physical or personality-related) flare up at unexpected times. The speaker attempts a burial at the poem's beginning and forgets the burial toward the end. Not only does the ghost of the father rear its head unexpectedly, the father bears haunting gifts: reminders of the fine lines between safety and danger.
I read the first couplet's shakiness and the speaker's fickle memory as an argument not to read solely for semantics. This plays out in line breaks such as, "son's voice in a fit / of surprise." That is, the speaker registers the tone in his son's voice as anger (throwing a "fit") based on fatherly instinct but realizes the surprise shortly after. This capriciousness—or volatility—reveals the variables at play when tasked with nurturing a life.
The poet reminds us there is joy, but rarely without subterranean danger. For me, there is joy in the poem's sonics. The near rhyme of "hymn" and "hum." The first line's "him," a homophone, completing another triangulation: one gathering the promise of "hymn" with the foreboding of "hum" and "him." Even if you do not resonate with the poem, you cannot deny the master classes offered on the word and line level, the range of subtle effects the juxtaposition of small words produces.
Readers might feel unmoored by the fickleness described above, but it is vital to one of Davis's successes: volatility harnessed into anxious undercurrents. The first of three poems titled "The Night Angler" is one example:
... In time I will lead my own boy
into the precision of this contraction
inside the throat this animal alarum in the dark.
When my first cast conjures nothing—
no monster trout panicking the line—
I slide further into the river's cold, send more
barbed asking through deep shadow. I labor long
to lure a sudden swallow—: the wilderness of hunger
pulsing on the other end of these hands.
This landscape is treacherous, but it is a place the speaker will someday bring his son. The diction reflects the double-ness of this dangerous but necessary reality. The fishing hole is an "animal alarum in the dark," the fishing rod is a wand that "conjures nothing," casting is metaphorized as "barbed asking," the water is a "wilderness of hunger."
"The Night Angler" is not angling as leisurely escape. This is an angler attuned to its violent undercurrents. The fisherman who describes his line as "panicking" would not celebrate a catch. This is an angler who wades into murky water knowing that to catch a fish means sustenance for his family, but sustenance comes at a price.
Furthermore, the poem's punctuation embodies anxiety. We hurry across white space, proceed with caution through em-dashes, hit the dead-stop of periods. Most interesting, though, is the em-dash colon combination. It is a pause and an invitation forward. Much like how angling keeps us in the moment—anticipating a bite has a way of pausing reality—and accelerates time when we feel the pull of a bite. Much like how fatherhood drags on when you wake every few hours and feels accelerated when your child is suddenly grown up. To more imaginative readers, this punctuation looks suspiciously like a fishing rod. For others, it is a stand-in for a handgun, especially given the content of "Self Portrait as a Dead Black Boy." This multivalence alone is a testament to the many urgent issues treated by Davis's portraiture of a family.
Time and time again, Night Angler radiates what I think of as an "almost-ness." Davis effectively captures situations where we feel as if we could be moments away from witnessing (or dare I say be a part of) tenderness or affliction. These poems do the hard work of singing hopeful in the face of tragedy and fixing our eyes on the complexities of situations that are often smoothed out when treated by less attention and awe-gathering poets.