Book Review: Poppy Seeds by Allison Davis
The Kent State University Press
Reviewed by Erica Spriggs
Allison Davis, author of Poppy Seeds, won the Wick Poetry Chapbook Competition. She was a finalist of the 2013 Jewish Currents Dora and Alexander Raynes Poetry Prize. She received her MFA from Ohio State University and holds degrees from The University of Cincinnati and The Vilnius Yiddish Institute Summer Program.
Poppy Seeds gives the reader a sense of home: what becomes of a man after he has been gone at sea, what becomes of a woman when her husband returns, sea-logged, “Fluent in tongues of water.” The reader is allowed to see from each perspective what it means to go and come back, how difficult it is to adjust when your spouse “[knives] countries in the blanks between your fingers.”
Both speakers, husband and wife, have changed, become enmeshed with sea, with salt, either directly or indirectly, because he brought it home with him, and she made a place in her mind for him to exist, creating a version of him wholly imaginary, one he cannot embody or know. Nothing epitomizes their relationship better than the following poem:
His teeth were continental, darkly
split by ocean. On his merchant marine
ID, his lips are closed. His English, broken,
breaking against the margins of the sea.
His mouth—dormant with unused muscles—grew
fluent in tongues of water. The waves
broke open, erupting in all
their language, sometimes swearing in Dutch,
sweet-talking in German. Sometimes they still spoke Greek
and he remembered when water was water.
The crew sang Heave ho! My lads,
heave ho! Damn the submarine!
until the sea rotted the bows
of their lips. The doctors restitched each
like binding an atlas.
Back home, he swayed like a sailor—the traffic lights,
held at a distance in his eyes,
buoyed beneath their wires
above the snowy Pennsylvania streets.
What can a man do
once he talks his way back
to a wilderness? He grew strange to himself
at kitchen tables. One morning
he heard his wife whisper
his bastard English
into a pot of boiling water. He watched her drift away
while she spoke starboard to the spices. (9)
“Gust Martin” showcases how the male speaker’s worldview has shifted, clogged with his life at sea, so that everything his wife does is a reminder of what he left behind, so much so that he can no longer reach her. Even though she is steps away, in the same room, she is drifting. Indeed, she address the spices rather than her husband. He feels her English belongs to someone else, the wife he knew. Language, is a prominent feature of the poem, connected to identity and home. He and his wife no longer speak to each other; their language is no longer a fluid they both share.
Davis uses extended metaphor to characterize not only the poem, but also the male speaker. In “Gust Martin,” each stanza expresses some element of water and the impact it has on the speaker’s identity. He cannot experience his world without experiencing it through a sailor’s nautical eye, which, in a sense, causes him to occupy two worlds, further cementing the feeling of disconnection. He does not know where he belongs: “. . . He grew strange to himself / at kitchen tables.” Consequently, they feel alienated from each other and the home they occupy. She ignores him. He projects his beloved sea onto her. His time away has made for them a vastness that neither can traverse. They are at a distance. They are of the sea but not in the sea, together. Once the ocean is crossed, the female speaker realizes “it crossed me.”
Each speaker is dealing with a sense of displacement, something lost, replaced with sea, which is best expressed in the following poem:
THE MERCHANT MARINE’S WIFE
New Castle, Pennsylvania
You wake up before the children and boarders
and stand in the kitchen doorway in your nightgown.
Beams of sunlight crack at the corners
and break across the floor. Your blood
goes blackstrap, circles gleam yellow-violet
beneath your eyes. At the counter you curve
a paring knife around an orange, your thumb flared
against the blade, the fruit’s weight rolling
seasick in your palm. Better coteries and the linoleum walk
of your feet. You lift the window. Hydrangeas crowd against
the screen of aluminum mesh. Blackbirds snap like oil
hitting a pan: a heated argument
you heard once then forgot, a young bride
moving across the empty architecture
of an ocean. Where others had pulse
you had rough twigs
to protect your silence. No one knows this,
and for that, you’ve been lucky.
Your husband comes and goes
across the waters, his blood
turned tide. What a match, you two,
to start a stove with. What a quiet morning,
an orange the only witness to the language
you share with flowers. Immaculate atlas,
how did you get here—so far from everything—
for a man who picks at your bones
while your breasts swell up with sea? (10)
The female speaker is swelling with thoughts of him, but those thoughts are dominated by the sea, reinforcing what has been replaced in her mind: the image of him for the image of the sea. Conversely, her breasts could be swelling because she is heaving, crying, her tears salty. The image of him picking at her bones suggests that he has taken something form her, an essential part of her body, her strength, her muscles and flesh. Additionally, it could also represent consumption, that he has devoured her. The potential for a multitude of interpretations is indicative of Davis’s skill—why she is a poet worth reading. Each poem gives close attention to the male and female’s perspective, how the body has a language, an attachment to the meaning it makes when it “[moves] across the empty architecture of an ocean,” as if the sea knows how their maps become unaligned. Davis’s exemplary use of extended metaphor and narrative makes Poppy Seeds an essential part of every library.