How to Kiss Upside Down

A review of Leah Noble Davidson’s Poetic Scientifica

“A professor told me not to use that letter / as the subject of a poem. // I don’t remember her name.” This complete poem, entitled “I,” is a snide argument for the insistent confessionalism that goes on in much of Poetic Scientifica, a confessionalism that is unwavering and brimming with warped comedy. Out this year from University of Hell Press, Leah Noble Davidson’s first book is a bold declaration on the capacities of humor and raw storytelling as means for emotional resilience.

The book’s aesthetic seems to ask the reader to approach as if it were a musty science text discovered by chance in a library basement. The vintage geometric cover design, mathematical ‘figures,’ and directly stated hypothesis on the introductory page display the tenderness Davidson seems to feel for the old world, and for the world of concrete, explainable phenomena. This is striking in that much of the emotional work of the poems is to use colloquial diction to make order out of a lifetime of senseless violence and neglect undergone by the speaker. At many points, the poems even seem to cry out against any sort of rationalism that they might otherwise stumble across, which fortifies Davidson’s daring and contrarian voice. Outside of these connections, visual signals toward a laboratory tone seem to be abandoned in the poetry itself—you won’t find specialized diction or scientific subject matter here. There are, however, subtler attempts to evoke science through experiments with form.

Following a playful introduction title—”Nobody Reads the Introduction”—Davidson lists her “Assumptions” and “Hypothesis” outright. The hypothesis, as with a real research endeavor, more or less maps the experiment’s intentions and potential outcome: “It is possible to give a poem deeper meaning by abstractly defining the dialect of the words of which it is composed.” This is quite a manhandling gesture on the part of the poet—informing the reader up front of the rules the poems will operate on, and insisting that “abstractly defining the dialect” (indeed an abstract, or rather oblique goal in itself) will result in “deeper meaning.” If the question “deeper than what?” comes to mind, you are not alone. The straightforward cockiness of this gesture, though, is appealing in its exuberance.

One of the stand-out qualities of Poetic Scientifica is the formal relationship between the table of contents and the poems themselves. The contents read as a complete meta-poem, meaning each poem’s one-word title unfolds into a larger piece. Because of this, it’s not rare to come across a poem with a title like “the” or “so.” Each line of this meta-poem, then, is section of the book. There are no numbers or other delineations marking them, save a few blank pages in a row to let us know that we are coming upon another line of the ruling poem written out in the titles of the upcoming pieces. Here is an example (these are titles of poems, in the order they appear): “I” “can” “not” “hate” “you” “for” “being” “the” “bathtub.” This phenomenon is quite a successful one. It gives an adventurous, puzzle-like quality to the poems’ delivery, the meta-poem arriving in a disorienting, fragmentary manner as one turns the page to arrive at its next word. There is also an element of craft—both in the technical and folk senses—that makes the book feel like a well-thought and personalized project made with the reader in mind.

This pleasurable delivery is one thing that balances some of the less approachable qualities that the poems often possess—the accumulation of unclear imagery begins to exclude the reader in places, as if in some cases figurative language is functioning as more inside joke than transmission between the poet and the world. One such example, from “story”: “. . . we fuck like / optometrists drink . . .” Surely Davidson knows what she means to convey here, but moments like these lack the sensual jolt that figurative language can deliver when it has the clarity or voice to really land. That, or there is something in the way that optometrists drink that only those-in-the-know are aware of.

Throughout this type of confusion, though, is the consistency and strength of Davidson’s voice. Her speaker, who seems to remain steady throughout the text, is someone who thrives on a diet of unhinged humor and strangeness presented as matter-of-fact. In an environment of unrelenting tragedy, these tactics act as volatile medicine against the interpersonal crimes of life. Sexual violence and its repercussions are recurring subject matter, and Davidson navigates them with bravery and nuance. Notions of gender and sexuality are often expressed in the idiomatic and playful tones widespread among 21st century feminist artists, bringing us great moments like this one in “the”: “The day you left, I called in / sick to work and masturbated / all day in silence.” Another remarkable use of voice occurs in “and,” which tells a conversational aside with the type of sparseness that achieves an equilibrium of innocence and absurdist despair: “ads for real teenage girls and / one was for a book on / How to Kiss / UPSIDE DOWN and / it was only a dollar and / I never wanted a dollar so bad / in my whole life.” Davidson’s voice here and elsewhere—the real magic of her work—is not a fainthearted one, much to the benefit of Poetic Scientifica.

Poetic Scientifica
by Leah Noble Davidson
University of Hell Press
May 2013
120 pages. $11.99
Publisher’s Page

This review appears in our Fall 2013 issue (Vol. 60.1)