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Hayes Davis’ LET OUR EYES LINGER: A Family of Poems about American Families

Hayes Davis’ first book, Let Our Eyes Linger  is a beautiful family of poems. These poems speak of fathers, sons, wives, mothers, and grandmothers. They speak of friends and colleagues. They even speak of escaping slaves. Let Our Eyes Linger, from Poetry Mutual Press, deserves the attention of a slow read. I have savored these poems because of their craft and their beauty. You can purchase Let Our Eyes Linger here.

I must make one admission in the interest of full disclosure. Hayes Davis, and his wife Teri Cross Davis, are dear friends of mine. Now, on to the poems.

The beauty of Let Our Eyes Linger begins before you open it. The cover, a painting by the poet’s father, Earl E. Davis, Jr. and photographed by Mignonette Dooley, offers the reader a crowd of faces, almost masks. There are kind and loving faces, there are haunting faces, faces looking down, faces looking right at you. From there, the book divides into four sections. Each section takes on a variety of voices– all family in one interesting way or another.

The book opens with “Two Years Later,” a poem telling the story of a six year-old boy being dropped off by his mother at the separated father’s home. We see inside the mother’s sadness, we learn of the boy’s persistent stutter. We learn what sorrow can face– and what it cannot. The poem, like many in this collection, written in three-line stanzas, holds narrative detail and emotional energy.

Saturday means drop-off, the ripped
scab of face-to-face, festering resentments:
the slept-with, best-friend neighbor…

We see the strains of family alongside the persistence of family.

In the collection’s second poem, “Etiquette,” we see the speaker, an eight year-old boy, at his grandmother’s house, trying not to stutter. He compares himself to his cousins.

…They don’t know

that can is a word I sometimes can’t say,
like “hello” when I answer the phone, “goodnight”
when my dad leaves my room, my name

when people ask it…

We hear, in the voice of the speaker-author himself, a kind of quiet sadness, a resignation in the face of sorrows one cannot change. In this, the poet connects this reader to every family I have known. There is so much that we desire from family, yet so much we cannot expect.

We also learn of a son’s need for praise from his father. Every son alive can feel this. In “Route 1 North, Philadelphia to Highland Park,” we read:

…He is all praise,
and when the therapist asks, ten years later,
what you miss– how you imagined him
feeding you… 

Let Our Eyes Linger speaks of the family every good teacher tries to create– especially in a high school English  classroom. In “American Literature,” the poet is teacher. He wonders and connects with his Black student’s reticence and this bond is powerful. The poem begins with the silence of white students, during a discussion of Harlem Renaissance poetry. This is a world I too know as a teacher of American Literature. The poet wonders, in beautifully controlled language, if he should:

…try to allay their fear
of screaming indictment, stern reminder:
what some of their ancestors did to some of mine.

The class discussion continues when

the black student reads “I Too Sing America”
and I know he hears himself in the poem.
I catch his eye as he walks slowly
toward the door and our gaze
says far more than we could if we spoke.

An observation about race continues in “Capitol Hill, SE,” a poem in which the poet considers his clothing while he walks in a Washington, D.C. neighborhood. He considers how he is treated when dressed “in sneakers, baggy jeans, Iverson jersey, parka,” compared to when he is dressed “in khakis, a sweater, a top coat.” We are asked, in a deeper way here: who is family? Who is not family?

Section Three of Let Our Eyes Linger is a series of seven poems in the voice of Jim, the escaping slave in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. As an American Literature teacher, Hayes Davis has explored this character in depth. He knows him, appreciates his conflicts, and takes up his voice easily. As an American Literature teacher myself, I am moved by these poems. We hear Jim speak and we hear him wonder and worry about the river, the people, the country, the family– which might love him and might enslave him forever.

In “The ‘King’ and ‘Duke’ Join the Raft,” we hear Jim worry:

Tried to tell that boy we
doing fine by ourselves,
need to leave well enough alone.

This ‘Duke’ remind me
of Tom Sawyer and his tricks.
This ‘King’ could be Huck

in 30 years…

The first six poems in this section place Jim in actual Huck Finn moments. In the section’s final poem, Jim observes a class discussion of the novel. This poem is pure genius. In sections, we hear Jim’s truncated observations:

Teacher ask his students
If I really had a family.

He ask his students
If I cared for that boy.

In section two of this poem, we hear Jim’s heart and fear:

Some nights I stand his watch because he say he tired.

and later:

Some days I just need him to help me stay free.
Some days I just want to make sure he stay safe.

This series of poems is a risk, as all persona poems are risks. But Hayes Davis succeeds in showing us a believable Jim, one who deserves to be heard. The most important risk of this section is Davis’ insistence that Jim is a much a son in the American family as Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer. This is an American family I believe in.

In the final section, we hear poems of parents whose love for their children matches their worry. We see parents in real time, exhausted and impatient. This is family “for real” as my students would say. We hear of a family’s pet dog’s death and the sadness that can ensue. The poem, “Saturday, 9:30am” lists a series of typical frustrating family moments. Then it closes with these gentle lines:

I nurse the last quarter-mug of coffee,
Gird myself, ascend to the beautiful chaos.

Let Our Eyes Linger invites us to look around our own lives and see who is family and who is not. It invites us to consider expanding that circle. In this rich book, family is more than husband and wife, together or separated. It’s more than son and daughter, young and anxious. Family is student and teacher, escaping slave and American icon. If we linger over these poems, perhaps they will expand our own sense of family, our own country of relations.

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