R. J. Davey’s “Panthalassa” is an excellent read for both new and veteran readers of poetry, as the author’s direct and authentic poetic voice makes it easily enjoyable for either. Davey’s writing has an unaffected quality that makes his first published collection here stand out among books by freshman authors. And it makes “Panthalassa” easy for me to recommend.
There are 15 poems comprising this short volume, and some of the poems are themselves brief. They feel … unencumbered. There isn’t a trace of pretense or pedanticism about Davey’s work. There are occasional classical or biblical references, but none that weigh the poems down, and none that are self-indulgent. There is almost no archaic language, either. (I will say that I had to Google the book’s title – “Panthalassa” is the name for the primordial sea encircling the prehistoric “super-continent” of Pangea.)
Nor does Davey imitate other poets, either consciously or unconsciously. This isn’t a prospective new author trying to impress an editor. This is Davey talking. And he employs a simple, direct voice to share his thoughts. He uses unassuming language, however ambitious the targets his muse has set for him may be.
That makes these poems accessible to anyone. It was refreshing for me to sit down with a short book of new poetry that I could easily understand, and that I could share with just about anyone I knew. A dear friend of mine, for example, recently commented to me on a drive through the Virginia mountains that she felt that the poetry she read was often frustratingly oblique: “If they want to say something, I’d rather they just say it.” I think that this would be a great collection to lend to her.
Davey’s poems have an unusual conversational tone – it gives them the uncommon resemblance of a thoughtful discussion with a friend. An ironic example, I suppose, would be the poem, “Cigarettes,” which depicts exactly such an exchange between friends:
“we drank and conversed,
“musing upon the eternal:
“attempting to bring some meaning
“to this life …”
The result is an unexpected kind of trust. The poems feel “true.” Their directness gives them a sense of honesty.
Maybe my reaction here is because I am positioned to identify personally with the author; I suspect we are at similar stages in life, and I believe we have similar outlooks. (Davey is a friend, and has long been a quite valued colleague of mine.) Or maybe it is because Davey’s easy, ingenuous style better invites eisegesis. Either way, I’m impressed indeed by any poem that seems to perfectly describe something that I myself have felt.
But don’t misunderstand – despite his poetry’s informal qualities, Davey can employ poetic devices to great effect. The two examples that spring to mind are my two favorites in the collection: “In Her Eyes” and “A Love Like Cocaine.” Each piece explores a single simile throughout. The poetic comparison drawn by “In Her Eyes,” a particularly painful piece, is inventive and downright haunting. (I think I love these two poems because I identify with the speaker for each.)
I suggest that “Panthalassa’s” poems should be read aloud by the author himself – the way their conversational quality would be best appreciated. I hope Davey will consider an online platform like SoundCloud or YouTube, so that I we hear these in his own voice. I would like to listen specifically for the “beat poetry” quality that I think they have. And I think I would enjoy hearing them at a small reading at a bar – they just have that sense about them.
I have an electronic copy of “Panthalassa,” but intend to print it out. I’d like to have it handy along with a few other poetry books by colleagues of mine, so that I can browse through a physical copy, the old-fashioned way. These are the kind of poems that I enjoy talking over with friends, much in the manner I remember from the long-ago, pre-internet days when I was an undergraduate, and reading poetry in the dorms and downtown bars.
I hope you enjoy these as much as I did.