Commentary, Essays, On Failure, Poems

It is no small thing to discover fresh words for old wounds.

by Geffrey Davis

Memory, faith, form, safety, silence, truth… the things I have tried to ransom for a love story that might out sing the fears and facts otherwise threatening those I hold dear. This poem stumbles narratively and lyrically towards some chance to give one of my most troubled family faces a new name. It is no small thing to discover fresh words for old wounds. In doing so, we invite alternate, healthy ways of understanding our survival; in doing so, we intercede for the impossible connections in which we desire and deserve to be alive.


This is also the oldest piece in my first collection (a book that takes its name from this poem), the one that just won’t seem to leave me alone. In fact, the poem has been reincarnated across my entire writing life. Each time I discover a version I think will let me move on, I turn around and recognize its troubled voice asking me again to rethink how I’ve got it all wrong, how writing it down (and all its previous iterations) was never going to satisfy or realize—what? I’m failing sometimes to even know what it is that I’m praying for.


When I ignite what I believe to be this poem’s fuse, the imaginative momentum flounders at take off—no boom. Honestly, I think that’s why the current version is in sections, why it keeps doubling back for a new way to move towards something resembling light. And suddenly, I hope this poem’s failure to launch also says something about its integrity, though I can’t be sure. Lately, in my own reading, I’ve been less interested in a poem’s positive integrity—how it can confirm or prove what it has come to tell us. Instead, I find myself utterly demolished (in the best way) by a poem that strains into its negative integrity—how it hates but must finally admit the limits or uncertainty of everything it has come to tell us—no matter how deeply or dearly we pray for the next beat or note that might further unlock the human condition. When we experience that kind of poem, one where failure is in the marrow of the voice, we learn to rest inside the alert of failure, to ponder not against but according to the sighs of the ineffable.


[If you’re reading this, I’m trying my best to love you.]



I’ve lucked into many wonderful poetry mentors. Failure guides, if you will. One such figure is the poet Todd Davis. Before I even began publishing, he was the first to explicitly invite me to tune out the broader noise of public reception. He suggested instead that one should attend more to the local, body-to-body impact of putting poems into the world, to watch how our everyday communities react with our poems in their mouths. And that’s the breakdown I find myself flailing inside of the most these days, especially as I’m putting my second collection to bed (a book that, in many ways, picks up where the first one stumbled off). In the end, I wrote and rewrote “Revising the Storm” to diminish the space and silence growing between loved ones and me—and it didn’t work, not like I’ve been begging it to. For all the ways in which poetry has been responsible for the best survival(s) of my life, I can’t help but fixate on those loves that I haven’t yet figured out how to (mis)understand. And maybe that’s just a differently necessary relationship to failure, one I’m only beginning to learn about. But in the meantime, they’re still slipping away, their presences thinning, their lovely voices making it less clearly to my ever-more distant ears.


[If you’re reading this, I’m trying my best to be here.]


… breath, body, belonging, rest: I have come so far on the back of poetry. I have so much work left within this life not yet saved.


Revising the Storm, 1991

—for E


This childhood memory sneaks up on me, little Brother,
like the storm that summer afternoon. I could be thinking

of a color, a girl, and suddenly it will be there, large
and gray and waiting for accuracy. Most details I get right: how,

days earlier, the baler—perhaps in a rush, perhaps distracted
by anticipations of evening flesh—left the bales of hay too close

for the flatbed to pass between. And so the men told us to roll hay
to be muscled away from the storm, from the coming rain that

threatened every mouth on the farm—my arms eight years old, yours seven,
neither strong enough to stay ahead of the truck. But this is where my . . .

I was going to say memory fails me, but perhaps I mean something more
immediate, more violent, like pride or shame that cuts through

this remembering. Was it I who lost nerve and fled as the first
raindrops fell and lightning downed the large maple just beyond the pasture?

Or did your eyes apologize as you turned weeping for the house?
In our retelling, I always stay, though we’ve left out the part where

I cry after you’re gone, certain that catching me alone like that,
brotherless and soaked with rain, felt like vengeance—easy, human.


We have grown so thin, Brother. And, today, that thinness makes
these going clouds seem desperate in their going.

I know to blame the wind and not the clouds, which might be a metaphor
for our love, because I cannot help but feel a similar hurt wonderment—

that they go so far, that they grow so thin.


What would it mean to revise this memory? Perhaps we could return to some
first faith, some uninterrupted union. Let us turn memory’s blade

against ourselves, harness that constant crisis to improve the current
against ostate of things
between us. Let me forever be the one who watches you weep from beneath
the eaves of the farmhouse, whose young guts split with the thundered air.

I want to be forgiven now. I need you to know that I have already returned
to your side, embarrassed and ready again to face down the storm.



Geffrey Davis is the author of Revising the Storm ​(BOA Editions, 2014), winner of the A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize and a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award Finalist, and of the chapbook Begotten (URB Books, 2016), coauthored with poet F. Douglas Brown. His second full-length collection, Night Angler (BOA Editions), will appear in Spring 2019. A native of the Pacific Northwest, Davis teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing & Translation at the University of Arkansas and in The Rainier Writing Workshop, PLU’s low-residency MFA program. He also serves as poetry editor of Iron Horse Literary Review.


About the Series

“On Failure” is a series conceived by Keetje Kuipers and the editors of Poetry Northwest, featuring essays from a range of poets that investigate the practice of failure, both as poet and citizen. Each featured writer will present a work of their own that they see as a failure, and offer a chance to peek behind the curtain at their creative process. Other entries in the series can be found here.