Review of Todd Davis’s Winterkill

Todd Davis’s book of poetry Winterkill, published by Michigan State University Press, to be released in January 2016, is packed with all the beauty and ponderings of rural life as witnessed through the ripened mind of a middle-aged scholar. His book is divided into four sections, each containing an assortment of poems ranging from imagery associated with the early impressionists to the experience of giving his father an enema. Davis’s control of form accentuates his astounding gift for imagery. The author himself, is a professor at Altoona College, part of Pennsylvania State University; where he teaches creative writing, American literature, and environmental studies.

The poems in this book are centered around the themes of life and death, presented through the author’s vast understanding of nature. Most of his content focuses on wildlife, hunting, and family life as his father’s life comes to a close. He blends his belief in God into his understanding of nature, and it forms a strong senses of spirituality that is clearly visible in his poetry.

Section Two of Davis’s book contains only one long poem entitled “Salvelinus fontinalis”, the scientific nomenclature for brook trout. In this poem, he ponders on his love of fishing and the transition of energy between a once living thing to a still living thing. This is really the central concept around this collection of poetry, the relationship between life and death and all that comes in between. His personalized spirituality shines through in this poem in his descriptions of the detrimental impact of the man-made mines that have forced the fish and crustaceans further down the mountain than they originally would be. He pulls his childhood religion and his experiences in academia together to explain how God is in the cells of fish and, by extension, every living thing. “The news of the universe I’m interested in is written on the sides of these fish.”

Going along with the theme of life in relation to death, Davis pulls his experience of aging into the mix. His poem “How Our Children Know They’ll Go to Heaven” incorporates the concept of suffering with the innocence of a child picking berries. He incorporates children into the imagery of a few of his other poems. He paints them in a picture of observation and, through their eyes and hands, describes the natural context that they are in. Thus adding a contrast between the wonder and innocence of a child to the wonder and understanding of adults watching children experience something new.

Davis’s extensive knowledge and understanding of nature comes through in his imagery. He describes the calls of birds and the scales of fish in such a way that they become art. In “Self Portrait with Fish and Water” he describes the coloring of pumpkinseed sunfish as “tangerine stippling that stony blue… an aquatic canvas as if painted by the artist who cut away his own ear out of love…”. His subtle allusions to early impressionism pull in a beautiful vividness that caries itself through the rest of the book.

Davis’s writing style and free verse make his poetry easy to digest and his imagery and spirituality make the book fascinating and pleasant to ponder. He incorporates his life and experience of nature into an effective blend of sensory imagery and funny quips that lend a philosophical humor to his writing. He somehow even manages to make the slaughter of a chicken goofy and beautiful despite its gruesome nature. Winterkill is a solid pieced together collection of poetry; I recommend it to anyone.