John Paul Davis
Crown Prince of Rabbits
great weather for MEDIA
Reviewer: Francine Witte
Think tornado. Think of the wind spinning and swirling around you, everyday objects plastered to the inner walls of the funnel. Look, there’s a chair! Look, there’s a tree! Items you have seen a thousand times, but now, are lifted out of their usual setting taking on an almost holy importance. This is the feeling I had reading John Paul Davis’s brilliant first collection of poetry, Crown Prince of Rabbits.
The arrangement of the poems in the manuscript allows for a variety of themes. Rather than creating separate sections—in fact, there are no separate sections—Davis lets the themes of self-portraits, divorce, beards, exits, and odes to everyday objects swirl freely throughout the book. You think Davis has said everything he could possibly say about beards, for example, but as you continue, you visit other themes and suddenly, there is another poem about beards, with an equally compelling take on the subject.
One of my favorite themes is that of everyday objects such as Ipods, shirts, RC Cola, even passwords. Nothing is too small to escape Davis’s careful examination. What’s deceptive here at first is that he seems to be jovially honoring the ordinary, but as you read the poem you realize how much more is going on. For example, “The Shirt” begins simply enough:
It explodes out of a pile when I sort the dirty laundry,
just like mine, but too too small and momentarily
I’m disoriented, thinking mine had shrunk…
Oh, but the plot thickens. Turns out the shirt isn’t his after all…
…when really, it’s yours, forgotten
in the rush to get you back home
to a place that’s no longer mine…
And we see how the speaker is affected by the shirt owner’s absence:
What could I do? I pressed my tears into it,
not for regret, but simply because I miss you…
is a hardness we break ourselves against
and I, broken so many times, knew your
first breaking was coming but did it have to be now,
couldn’t it wait, did it have to be so soon?
Throughout the collection, Davis continues this technique of exploding simple objects such as water, baby monitors, and even guitar solos. Moments so tiny, yet Davis finds the profound in each one.
Another recurring theme is that of exits. I recognized the title “Exit, pursued by a bear,” as one of Shakespeare’s most famous stage directions. However, as I continue through the tornado, I come to another exit, that of a Minotaur, and my favorite, “Exit, Pursued by John Davis.”
There’s John Davis the buccaneer
& John Davis the 1952 Olympic gold medalist…
And so on, listing all the various John Davises; once again, a seemingly simple undertaking, until the poet wants to know what he would say to all the John Davises pursuing him.
What do I say to all my namesakes?
I’m used to being the only John Davis
most people know.
We actually never find out what this John Davis would say to that other John Davis, as the poem ends with him stepping up to the microphone and clearing his throat.
The marriage and divorce of the speaker runs throughout as a theme. Early on, the poems give the impression that the marriage simply ran its course, as marriages can. In “Self-Portrait as a Husband” we are told that “there was a marriage / Her name means light / & then one day we were unmarried.”
Later, we learn there was much more to it. In another exit poem, “Exit, Pursued by Words,” we are given more information:
For little things, I could ride
it out, let her say stupid
The words chase him as he attempts to leave a moving car to escape the abuse. A terrifying moment, but one that enlightens the reader and offers closure.
A particularly inventive poem is “PowerPoint Slides for Al Gore after Learning He Is Separated from Tipper, His Wife of Forty Years.” Divided into 20 sections, the series is ostensibly a slide show depicting Gore’s journey through the highlights of his career: Slide 1: “The Invention of the Internet,” Slide 2: “Photographs of Natural Disasters,” and so on through his separation, but as with the other poems, the subject turns back to the speaker, as in Slide 6: “A Love Story”:
For a month before I moved out, we made public
appearances: her parents’ house, potlucks, the local
coffee shop. We went on dates. Silence began
to feel like a third person. One afternoon
in the library I excused myself to the bathroom
to cry. The entire planet pressed against my eyelids.
Everyone was so surprised. Us, of all people. We were
who the other couples admired & wished they were.
Today, on the news I keep hearing the phrase forty years
in voices of amazement, over & over.
A prose poem, “(What Brennan, Age Three, Couldn’t Say) & Then What He Did Say” supposes an adult-like voice for the speaker’s child:
the last time we said goodbye you buckled me into my car seat & I say stay, Daddy but your mind was lost in the fog of the future, where you had to be next, how you’ll pay for things, so I grabbed your heavy head & all the words inside it that blur the world & pulled it in for a hug against my furious heart repeating today and you’d say my voice was a bright bird calling you back to the true importance of things.
But really all the young child can articulate is:
Stay. Stay. Stay.
Poignant moments like this abound in this collection. Each poem reflects skilled craftsmanship and fully experienced emotion. And as is the case when you survive any tornado, once you’re lifted and set back down, you may start to value the elegant simplicity of your own life, swirling around you.