The New Compass: A Critical Review

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Dick Davis


The past's quaint versions of the past delight
Our tolerance with gauche anachronisms:
Ovid is fin amor plus archaisms,
Swooning Lucretia's stays are laced too tight,
Great Alexander is a Christian knight.
We patronize their pretty solecisms,
And even envy the distorting prisms
That bathed their pasts in such familiar light.

We're too aware to do that now, we say,
Too conscience-stricken, too sophisticated:
Although we know our empathies betray
Our own impedimenta half-translated,
And someone will be tickled pink one day
To come across the pasts that we've created.

Turgeniev and Friends

Trained by a brutal father, they became
The divas Malibran and Viardot;
The techniques they had mastered blow by blow
Divided Paris with their florid fame.
Meanwhile, in Oryel, a young mother beat
Her whimpering child to make a man of him;
In time he would become a synonym
For all that's empathetic and discreet.

He fell in love with Viardot, whose spouse
Was understanding, and seemed not to mind;
They lived à trois, three mutually kind,
Concerned companions in a single house.
They must have traded stories, but who knows
If their compulsions ever came to blows?

Pit Stop in the Old West

The restaurant's full, and I'm a stranger here,
But they accommodate me in a corner.
No wine-list. H'm. I order local beer.
The air-conditioning's out. It's like a sauna.

The so-so food's generic U.S.-Thai,
The décor "Hollywood meets Old Siam"-
Call it the gastronomic King and I.
Am I still glad I stopped here? Yes I am.

A mainly student eatery it seems:
Their voices' brief collisions and collusions
Recount the cynicism of their dreams;
"But she's so full of shit!" "You mean illusions".

The waitresses are Thai; slim and aloof,
Their slight hauteur's more touching than annoying–
Self-parody perhaps, but vivid proof
That kitsch can comfort us and not be cloying.

"Did you enjoy your meal, sir?" "It was swell"
(We're in the Fifties, yes?) The place is thriving.
I tip them far too much. I wish them well:
Replete, content, I can continue driving.


Stirred by the charm and beauty of your voice
I lost for moments at a time your meaning:
My mind reached back some thirty years to where
A small stream pulsed between Italian rocks.
High somewhere in the Apennines I saw
Clear water bubbling from an unseen source:
Light glinted on it like a minor blessing,
An inexhaustible sweet iridescence–
Redundant beauty spilling endlessly,
That in another form I drink from now.


In a neglected glade
The hazel sapling's shade
Quickens with early spring:
New tendrils clutch and cling–
A honeysuckle twines
Its tentative thin vines
Reaching now in, now out,
Above, below, about,
Till intricate, strong strands
Clasp like a myriad hands.
Love's leaves and limbs conspire
As if unsaid desire
Could intimately tether
Their substances together
And none could separate
Their growths' complicit state.
Bright in the summer sun
Two tangled lives are one.


A few things that recall you to me, Edgar:

A stately 80's Buick; hearing a car
Referred to by a coaxing soubriquet-
"Now come on Captain, don't you let me down".
French spoken in a conscious southern accent;
An idiom calqued and made ridiculous
("Eh, mettons ce spectacle sur le chemin").
"Silly," dismissive in its deep contempt,
"Oh he's a silly; an amiable silly,
But still a silly". The words I first
Encountered in your captious conversations,
"Tad", "discombobulated", "cattywampus".
The usage that you gave me once for "totaled"–
"Oh cruel fair, thy glance hath totaled me".

Most recently, in Cleveland's art museum,
The French Medieval Tapestries brought back
Your unabashed reaction to their beauty,
And how, for once, you'd stood there almost speechless,
Examining Time's Triumph inch by inch,
Enraptured by its richness, by the young man
Proud in his paradisal place, until
You saw what his averted gaze avoided-
The old man, beaten, bent double by fate's blows,
Driven from youth's charmed, evanescent circle:
And how you'd wanted to be sure I'd seen him.

Under $6 a bottle

Shun Chardonnay - the bottle might be pretty,
But its bouquet's distinctly eau-de-kitty

Be wary of Bordeaux, which Brits call "claret"–
Imagine a metallic-tasting carrot

Watch out for anything that fizzes–Asti
Spumante is spectacularly nasty

Avoid Shiraz–there's nothing subtly Persian
About the blatant blousy Aussie version

Don't risk the Riesling – not, that is, unless you
Know alcoholic Kool-Aid won't distress you

Choose nothing then, put all your icky picks back,
And cross the aisle to buy a Miller six-pack.


The weirdest entry in our lexicon,
The word whose referent we never know-
A river valley from a Book of Hours
Somewhere in southern Europe long ago.

Or once, to someone walking by the Loire,
A trick of sunlight on a summer's day
Revealed the Virgin in rococo clouds:
The peasants in the fields knelt down to pray.

Getting Away

Once, when I was a child of seven or eight,
I turned a corner on a wooded path
And saw a fox a few feet from my face.
We stood stock still and took each other in:
Instinctively, I looked down at his paws;
He stared at me a moment, then he turned
And loped away downhill, between the trees,
Unhurried, but inexorably gone.

His paws had all been there, I'd counted them,
And so he couldn't be that fox, the fox
Some serious grown-up had described for me,
The one whose inadvertent paw had stepped
On steel that sprang shut, snap (the man had snapped
His fingers) just like this: he gripped my arm,
Then asked how brave I was. Could I have done
What that fox did? He'd gnawed the fur and flesh
Down to the bone, imagine how that hurt,
Then cracked the bone, chewed through the lot, and so
Escaped, leaving the keeper only this:
And here he'd slipped a paw into my hand,
Soft, small, and lifeless, with no blood on it.

There was another story I was told
Around that time, which in my mind belonged
With that hallucinatory, bad moment.
The village churchyard had an ancient grave
Whose slab had moved, so that a gap had opened
Through which the darkness showed. One moonless night
A group of scallywags had dared each other
To run and put a hand beneath the slab.
One had agreed, and, as the others waited
Crouched down beside the churchyard wall, they'd heard
A terror-stricken scream, and run off home.
The next day their companion was discovered:
When he had turned to join his friends, a branch
Had snagged his jersey's sleeve, as if a hand
Reached out to hold him, and his heart had stopped.

The fox then or the boy: which would I be?

Davis, Dick. "Poems." The New Compass: A Critical Review 4 (December 2004) []

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Michael John DiSanto and Sarah Emsley