Metaphor as Mystical Transformation– Guest Poetry Blog # 9 – Introducing the Latest Contributor, American poet Todd Davis – Part One of Two

American poet, Todd Davis. Image courtesy of Todd Davis

Transfiguration of the Beekeeper’s Daughter

Because the bees flew toward light the color of honey,
she couldn’t see them but heard their hum, deep thrum
of the colony come out of the hive, comb dripping
with loss and the smoke her father used to subdue,
to pacify the fear that might spur an attack.

It wasn’t until her brother began to cry that she noticed
her hair was moving, undulating like water easing
from a rapids, alive with an energy she recognized
as the gentle buzzing of hundreds and hundreds of bees.
They swelled along the strands of her hair, remaking

the small world that floated in front of her eyes,
as even more bees curled around her face.
She’d seen the woman at the fair who made a beard
of bees for the crowd of farmers and their families.
She read about the love and patience the woman told

the newsman was necessary as their legs and translucent
wings crept and fluttered across the tender flesh
under her chin, fanning cheekbones, slipping over
the helix of the outer ear. Like earrings cut
into the loveliest shapes, with colors of burnished

gold and copper, the bees poured over the girl’s scalp,
some finding their way down the collarbone, onto arms
and breasts, abdomens pulsing in time to the electricity
along the hind legs that captured the pollen for the journey
back to the hive. She found it impossible to hold still

unless she thought of that bearded-bee woman,
the affection that transfixes the body
while even more bees conceal the feet and shins,
the knees and thighs, until a girl vanishes,
and in her place a winged seraph flies.

Todd Davis from Winterkill, Michigan State University Press, 2016


To say I am pleased to introduce, as Part One, my next guest blogger, # 9, in my new series of guest blog posts, is an understatement. Not that I am more pleased than I was in the previous eight introductions but so gratified that a request I made to Todd to become a guest blogger for Recovering Words, after a panel at AWP, the annual writers’ conference, in Seattle, became a reality four days later. In Part Two of his post Todd will feature American poet Anne Haven McDonnell.

When Todd said yes on Saturday he said his busy writing project schedule meant he could do it most likely in the Fall. I said great. Well, turns out he had a free day yesterday and pronto: two marvelous blog posts in my in-box.

I have been wracking my brain as to when I first came across Todd and his poetry. All I can remember is using his poems in my poetry-as-prayer retreats which began in earnest in 2009. I think the American writer and anthologist Peggy Rosenthal might have introduced me through Image Journal (tag-lined A Journal of Art, Faith & Mystery) and its annual writers get together called the Glen Workshop.

Especially, if you are a Canadian reader of the Recovering Words blog, you might want to know who Todd is? Well, as a start, he has written seven full-length poetry collections including the most recent, Coffin Honey, in 2022, has had more than 400 poems published in noted American journals and magazines and he edited or co-edited a number of anthologies including, in my mind, the must-read Making Poems – Forty Poems with Commentary by the Poets, published in 2011. Also, he teaches creative writing, American literature, and environmental studies at Pennsylvania State University’s Altoona College.

Todd sent me his first post with two poems attached at the bottom of it. I have taken the liberty of bringing the first one to the top, above. This extraordinary poem: The Transfiguration of the Beekeeper’s Daughter.  While “transfiguration” is defined in an online dictionary as: a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state, it also as a specific Christian theological reference to when Jesus Christ was transformed in front of his diciples into a radiant and shining figure.

With it deep Christian association the use of  “transfiguration”  takes this poem for many readers into a place of numinous mystery. A profound spiritual transformation. Something, certainly for me, of the “other world” rooted in “this world” enters in! This duality present in so many of Todd’s poems.

Todd’s poems are so rooted in the present, the grit of the here and now yet so often seem to reach for God, the numinous. Or at least ask if God, if the numinous, is there? And the poem holds, too, for me a sense of something numinous but also  ominous, this girl turned transformed beautifully, but by bees, that danger. And something of that overwhelming beauty with something of a edge to it, that I think the numinous holds as well. This girl covered in bees, transformed into a seraph, but who could be horribly transformed, also, if she panicked and they stung her. And I think here also of Rilke’s Angel in the First Duino Elegy. No, Hallmark cuddly angel! How scary that angel is! The speaker says if they called out to an angel and one appeared: I’d be consumed/in his more potent being. And here, such an echo for this girl covered in that moment by many more potent beings!

“As Peggy asks in a review of Todd’s  2013 book of poems In The Kingdom of the Ditch: “Does nature speak to Davis of God? He’s not sure. At the start of “Transfiguration [ another poem using Transfiguration in the title] (one of my favorites in the book), the answer seems to be yes:

“When I walk among the beech saplings that rise from the roots/of the mother-tree, each turns in a cord of light and I imagine/this is what we mean to say when we speak the word God.”

But then there’s the ambiguity—or what I hear as an ambiguity— inWhen the Body Is Absent”: The light that lifts the day has fallen on beebrush, and the ghost/of God, which smells so much like these pale flowers bees cross over,/ is everywhere in the air.”

God as Ghost or not, I have delighted in using Todd’s poems for devotional and prayer purposes! Especially his poem Evensong that ends this way;

To the west, sun/
lowers itself down the ladder/
of the sky, as heavy clouds break//

to reveal burnished red of ash/
leaves, a fox’s tail disappearing
into the undergrowth. At this hour,

                                what isn’t prayer.

And, now, Todd’s own words and how utterly appropriate that they focus on metaphor and its importance in poetry and life. His is such, for me, a fresh and engaging take on metaphor. And says why metaphor matters in a bigger way than simply as part of poetic craft! As he says in his post:

 Simply ask the dead stars of which our world and our bodies are composed if metaphor is real, if our linguistic leaps in metaphor aren’t merely a mirror to the larger processes of life.

 TODD’S OWN INTRODUCTION, HIS PART ONE OF TWO BLOG POSTS – Metaphor as Mystical Transformation

Like many children, I loved to look at clouds as they trekked across the sky, to let my vision grow fuzzy and imagine what the cloud might become, how it might change from simply a cloud into an elephant or a bear, some exotic animal long banished from my factory town in northern Indiana.

As much as I liked watching such transformations, I was enthralled by the stars on a July night even more. The long history of light traveling toward us, the patterns of those stars, the names different human cultures gave them and how they were used to help those who wandered away from home to find a way back.

I don’t remember exactly when I experienced metaphor for the first time—it was likely when a grandparent said my sister was “fetching as a bowl of buttered beans” or that I was “frisky as a colt”—but I know my love for metaphor stretches back into childhood and has similar roots as my adoration of those clouds and stars and all the ways we can perceive, changing meaning with a nod.

I suppose I was first drawn to poetry for the music in a line, for the fragmented narratives, for frames that offered different perspectives. I also was drawn to poetry because of metaphor—the comparison of one thing to another, a mystical, miraculous conversion.

Metaphor seems so basic, so rudimentary, something even a grade school student can grasp. But like a Buddhist koan, metaphor is not facile as it reveals mysteries and possibilities through its powerful rhetorical movement: a transmogrification that occurs before our very eyes, or better said, behind our eyes, in the recesses of imagination, associations leaping forth, welling up and transporting us into the midst of change and transformation.

Humans are myth-making, shape-shifting creatures. Perhaps our penchant for these acts has to do with the sacred, miraculous ways we come into being. Two humans joining in an intimate moment of desire, braiding bodies, genetic codes merging to create the spark of life. And more so the reality of the mortal nature of that spark of life, its guttering flame, its briefness.

How about the fact that every seven years every cell in the body is remade? Or that other living organisms make up the body we think of as our own? What living metaphors are in process upon our skin, in the microbial life of our gut? What appears stable, perhaps unchanging, is, in fact, always changing, always becoming something else, combining, joining together, transmuting.

And there is always the eternal question of some transformation, some blessed metaphor as our lives end? Is there a soul? Is there an eternal home, a heaven? Physics helps a little (or for some not at all) by telling us there is no more or less energy in the universe since its beginning. Energy always transforming itself, metamorphosing, changing itself into something else. Simply ask the dead stars of which our world and our bodies are composed if metaphor is real, if our linguistic leaps in metaphor aren’t merely a mirror to the larger processes of life.

I suppose I pledge my allegiance to metaphor because metaphor is not allegory, not a simple one-to-one correlation, not a reductive symbol. Metaphor is what we use when we cannot say the thing plainly, when we want to gesture toward mystery, toward the ineffable.

I’m particularly drawn to poems of transformation that create a kind of interspecies dialogue, a form of intimate relationship that allows a leap across the chasm of different kinds of sentience, different kinds of emotional lives. Now there’s a mystery! How we communicate with other species, like a dog or a raven or a deer who walks up to us in the woods, curious, head bobbing from side to side, but trusting.

And although this act of empathy—imagining the world from another’s perspective, trying to peer out from their skull—may not offer an entirely accurate understanding, I think it’s one of the invaluable and thrilling aspects of the poetic arts.

In doing this kind of work, we are making new myths or reimagining old myths, creating possible ways to move through the world. After all, don’t myths offer a roadmap of sorts, a provisional system for understanding and exploration?

And so with that said, here is one more poem of mine from my 2019 book: Native Species.

A Senior Citizen at the Good Shepherd and Water of Life Assisted Living Center Asks Her Son for a Sky Burial

She reads about it in a National Geographic that she takes home in her purse from the doctor’s office. With glasses perched atop her head like a tufted titmouse, she presses her face to the pages, nearly touching the glossy veneer with her nose, trying to peek under the fingernails that curve at the end of the dead hand and the Buddhist monk who ceremonially dismembers the body with an ax. She gasps at the wingspan of the vulture that pecks at fingers and forearm, trying to judge if it can lift the appendage and still get off the ground. The next morning over coffee she shows her son the magazine, tells him that’s what she wants: to be eaten and dispersed by birds, last will and testament of her skin. She’s no Buddhist, having played the organ and taught Sunday School in the Tipton United Methodist Church, but she still isn’t exactly sure what happens to the soul when the body fails. She likes to believe it migrates into the lives of other creatures, becomes a fox or frog, an ant in a colony serving a queen, a red salamander entering a pond before it freezes. Her best friend Sally thinks it floats up towards Christ, a little lower than the stratosphere, where its light sifts through the clouds, that yellowy cast they saw on the senior bus tour to Cape Cod when they walked the beach without shoes. To her, it makes more sense to be eaten in the treetops, meat rent by beaks and flown over the mountains where her dead husband hunted. Who wants to be roasted in an oven, or, worse yet, put in a box to molder? Her son tries to explain that if she goes missing, folks will start looking. She tells him to say she’s gone to visit relatives in West Virginia. He’ll need a sturdy rope to throw over a tall bough, a sailor’s knot around her ankles. The branch will serve as a cantilever to haul her towards the sky. She says it’s fine to leave her in one piece. She wouldn’t insist that he use an ax like the monk. She asks him to visit in January, to check on her bones, the last strands of tendon that will bind her skeleton like a wind chime.

Todd Davis from Native Species , Michigan State University Press, 2019

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