- For Beggars and Kings
Overpass, the second full-length collection of poetry by Steve Davenport, follows Uncontainable Noise (2006), a volume that distinguished itself by combining a latter-day Beat whiskey- and-maximalism bent with a rigorous formalism that seemed to have as its aim the perversion and extension of the iambic line past its usual outer limit of pentameter, toward the rarely explored world of twelve fighting syllables.
This time, the re-made form is the curtal sonnet, an early form of math rock invented by Gerard Manley Hopkins for no purpose such as Davenport intends. An opening section titles its poems after popular magazines such as Entertainment Weekly, Good Housekeeping, Rolling Stone, and Playboy, names which serve as starting places for Midwestern landscapes of no small wildness, beginning with the rocky bluff in which a “ghost horn comes wailing / onto the floodplain, steel-blue scissoring / of one note through Madison and St. Clair / counties, through factory cutbacks and closings, / refineries and strip clubs needing paint . . .”
The poems rise in intensity until the curtal form can no longer contain their energy, so Davenport first multiplies the form, in “Field and Stream,” the first quadruple curtal I’ve ever read, and then declares intent to murder form itself in “The Sestina Has Been Shrinking,” which begins: “Sestina, tonight’s the night I push you off the overpass.”
But—and this is a thing that can’t pass unremarked and cursed upon—the sestina’s six end words (overpass, sky, wagon, gun, ground, and blood) carry through all six full stanzas and into the final half-stanza as sestinas will. All that’s left to the poet save declaring defeat is a final return to the curtal sonnet, in “Real Adventure,” a poem that does double-duty in declaring simultaneously on a violent romantic relationship and the form itself (“curtailed, truncated, stopped, this body / of two bodies locked in a promise”), before giving the last word to the awful natural world that observes the doings of lovers and poets, as Chekhov famously did in his story “Gusev,” but in a manner rather rougher and more sharply to the point: “A bird,” the poet tells us, “shits on a car.”
The second section of Overpass is a transitional section, beginning with the magazines and curtal sonnets, but quickly, perhaps at the instigation of the “Journal of Speculative Philosophy” (“A ride on great wings. A howto / for beggars and kings”) moving into a more expansive register reminiscent of the maximalist flights familiar to readers of Uncontainable Noise, in such tours-de-force as “Diminishing Innuendo of Hog Sonnet” (“Salty dog schlong skin flute / 30-gauge needle / Come-and-Go Joe / Remedy / Inject / Hog”), “The Sestina Has Been Drinking” (a makeup song from the formerly homicidal poet, to be sure, which ends “Sestina, O Sestina, this guy’s in love with you still”), and, especially “East St. Louis Ontological Toodle-oo, 1917,” a “call-and-response kwansaba after Eugene B. Redmond, Poet Laureate of East St. Louis,” which makes great use of an anaphoric “Is” which lead to “20 dead wagons burying local history” and “Josephine Baker’s French Medal of Resistance.”
The third section begins with a cinquain which reveals the entire book to have been arranged in a mirrored structure, but before we get to the send-them-packing run of curtal magazine sonnets, the Sestina completes its triptych by considering the poets invitation to join the poet’s guns-and-whiskey debauchery parade, and it is in this poem that Davenport’s prodigious gift for sibilant indulgence is on gaudy display, “six and six and sex and sax” and “the six to sick, / bowl to ball, mind to mine, the shot to something you’d shoot / if the needle liked you. Thought tonight’s a repeating note / a stuttering hymn . . .”
Overpass ends in gratitude in “Budget Travel,” which finds the poet wanting “a bottom song getting happy / in an open field down by the river,” and “a few covered dishes / out past the temples I’ve made of rusting / abandonments. My stupid Kumbaya.” He...