- Jon Davis
LETTER TO HUGO FROM SANTA FE
Updated: Feb 13
By Jon Davis
Sunrise here slaps my tender cheek.
One moment, I’m dreaming of hard rain,
my long dead younger brother, next,
wham! the room is battered by brazen light.
I want the trees to slumber on,
to dream in shade a while longer.
I want clouds to lug their cargo
of rain into the valleys. In fact, I’m full
of wants, but the callow sun reminds me
there is no hiding place, nothing
I can keep and hold. The cars
on Agua Fria grumble, the motorcycles
shriek—a pandemic of complaints!
A plethora of competing wants!
My neighbors want it fast and loud;
I want this hawk to perch where I can see
the intricate regalia of stripe and scallop,
tail-feathers stiff, soft underwing, cold eye,
beak stropping now against the bones
of finches. Dick, I’ve never forgotten how,
when the sunset smeared that tiny classroom
window red, you rose and dragged your failing
body just to look. We were halfway to a rousing
dismissal of a student poem, but first
you had to see the sunset. Spring semester,
1982. You’d be gone by late October.
The whole class followed you to see.
When you sat back down, you sighed once,
glanced at the page as if appraising
a plate of squirming earthworms,
then raised your moon-face to pronounce:
“This poem could win a prize.”
And we all shuddered, suddenly ashamed.
The sunrise in Santa Fe is like that,
wanting to fill every arroyo with light,
touch every chair and table with its genius,
glint off every piece of chrome. Who could blame
that hawk for wanting just one moment, furtive,
in the juniper, to slide its bloody beak
like a scalpel down that poor house finch’s back,
to dip and stir the gristle and meat,
to spread its wings and shield it from our sight.
In shadow, Dick, the poet’s one true friend.
CRITIQUE OF THE POEM YOU DIDN’T WRITE
AND REFUSED TO SEND ME
By Jon Davis
The title, for starters, gives away
the drama of the poem. Consider
calling it “The Forgotten” or
“The Misplaced” or “The Elisions.”
Cut the first four lines. We know
what Venice looks like—
the stone buildings, the canals,
the gondolas drifting the ferry-roughened
water. We don’t need to know
you flew to Venice, that you took
the water taxi, that you were quarreling
with your husband. Jump to the feel
of the water spraying lightly
over you, the boat rocking,
the other travelers, the young
woman cradling her shivering poodle,
whispering, “bravo ragazzo” over and over,
the man who set a crystal vase
on the seat beside him, one hand
steadying it, and sang softly
to himself in Italian. Forget
that you intended to write
about the metaphor of submergence
as it relates to the psychological principal
of denial (the water as the history
of your marriage, the canals
ineluctable reminders of each
painful episode and the way they marble
your daily life). The use of “ineluctable,”
should, of course, have alerted you
to the problematic nature of this
thinking. Stick to physical
description, which may reveal
a deeper truth, say in the rows
of brightly-colored pastries
or that bookstore window filled
with socialist books under a pink sign
that said in English “Summer Reeding.”
Or that art gallery that you walked miles to visit,
but had to skip when you couldn’t
find a bridge to cross the last canal.
Consider a shorter line.
The long line, as we’ve discussed before, encourages prosaic abstraction, reflection, self
To create a music for the poem, consider mixing
in enjambed lines. Perhaps even ra-
dically enjambed lines. In lines 12-16,
you are willing the poem to mean
what you mean it to mean. Stop!
The poem is always smarter than you.
Listen to it. What does the language want?
The language is an unruly horse,
but a sleek one. It’ll get you somewhere,
but indirectly, stomping and rearing,
shivering and shining in the sun.
Use your knees, your seat, a very
light rein. Momentum is everything.
Finally, thank you for not writing this poem.
For not sending it. Had you actually written it,
your missteps might have rendered it
impossible to revise. This unwritten poem
is perhaps your finest poem. Each refusal
in its perfection is full of possibility.
I’ll have more to say, of course, when
we don’t meet to fail to discuss this poem.
Jon Davis is the author of six chapbooks and seven full-length poetry collections, including Above the Bejeweled City (Grid Books 2021) and Choose Your Own America (FLP 2022). Davis also co-translated Iraqi poet Naseer Hassan’s Dayplaces (Tebot Bach, 2017). He has received a Lannan Literary Award, the Lavan Prize, and two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships. He taught for 28 years at the Institute of American Indian Arts and founded, in 2013, the IAIA low residency MFA in Creative Writing, which he directed until his retirement in 2018. He now works as a ghostwriter, editor, book coach, and poet; see jondavispoet.com for more information.