“Coffin Honey” Emphasizes the Importance of Our Relationship with Nature

With an impressive cumulation of awards for his writing, Coffin Honey is a powerful addition to Todd Davis’ library of already distinguished titles. In Coffin Honey, his seventh book of poems, Davis presents an unapologetic view of the natural world through the connections of three seemingly separate, dramatized portraits of Rust Belt Appalachia. The first is a boy struggling with being sexually assaulted by his uncle and the revenge he craves; the second is a pregnant girl whose enlisted boyfriend leaves her facing the pressures of giving birth alone; and the final thread features a bear named Ursus who learns to navigate the forest alone after his mother’s death. These three portraits clash and merge with the natural world in a depiction of suffering and a clear portrayal of the cataclysmic pinnacle we find ourselves on in the 21st century, offering a raw look at the connection between humanity and nature.

This connection can be seen in the poem “As the Mountain Grows Dark,” which begins:

Plastic tubes worm from Granny’s nose. A shiny tank holds
oxygen to replace the heavy air in these mountains
where coal is dug and burned in stoves. From the other room,
voices on a talk show yell out who they think the baby’s father is.

Introducing Granny into the poem symbolizes old age and disease, a clear contrast to the pregnant girl, who, along with the following image of a pregnant snake, portrays life, virility, and resilience. In many ways, the girl and snake, or humanity and nature, are one. The poem continues:

…Snakes bear their brood on rocky ground,
allow their young to stalk after they’ve shed a first skin.
The girl unbuttons the top of her jeans, feels something like a kick.

The powerfully depicted images show the cohesiveness of this collection and how it hinges on building an inviolable connection between the brutal honesty of nature and the artifice of humanity. This connection is established in the very first poem, “If We Have to Go,” and flows throughout the collection, just like the waters of Appalachia:

Here in the mountains,
neither grief nor dreams
will save us: what little water
we have our parents use to green
the lawn and frack the ground.

A clear contrast is struck — life and death combined with the scientific jargon draw attention to these haunting connections. More contrasts are drawn in the poem “Taxidermy: Cathartes aura,” where Davis explores the struggles of a boy who has been sexually assaulted.

The bird’s spiraling descent
was unexpected like when
his uncle touched him
in the cellar as he shoveled
coal for winter, telling him
he couldn’t have the fried
doughnuts sprinkled
with confectioner’s sugar
if he screamed
or told his mother.

These distinct images work in conjunction with the horrors paralleled beside them in a way that calls the delicacy of humanity’s future to the forefront. Through the use of defamiliarization, Davis finds a new way to make the common and mundane as beautiful as it is haunting. Readers of his collection will be surprised with the language and images in moments such as “the colors that cause fish to rise like parentheses” and the ability when fishing to “bend the rod into a question mark.” In “Music for Film Before the Destruction of a Drone” he writes:

The drone dips overhead, tiny camera-eye
peering down, a diminished god who still longs
for intimacy.
The man who sees
only what the camera sees drinks coffee, drizzles
artificial creamer into a Styrofoam cup,
and loses his way in a dissolving white powder.

In a time where our survival is unsure and humanity’s future is in question, Coffin Honey expresses the need for humanity to become part of nature instead of juxtaposed against it. In many ways, this collection is our “escape ladder with a clear view to the horizon,” a place where “birdsong is a way to speak in secret” as it once was. Davis gives a resounding and haunting image of what the natural world, and our world, have become. He reminds us that our path is not yet set, “…and still fear trail[s] like a surveyor’s chalk line.”

Coffin Honey
By Todd Davis
Michigan State University Press
Published February 1, 2022