Overpass by Steve Davenport
by Steve Davenport
One gets the sense that Steve Davenport composed much of Overpass while soaking in a bathtub, nursing a tumbler of whiskey. If this sounds like a compliment, it’s meant to be—the close intimacy, the contained debauchery, and the deep introspection in this collection compellingly establish the narrator’s personality. It’s also easy to empathize with the sorts of day-to-day frustrations, longings, and joys that Davenport documents here, as he catalogs life in The Bottom, the polluted, half-abandoned Mississippi floodplain in southern Illinois.
The collection, which is best read sequentially, transports the reader to a world of wistful black humor, small triumphs, and an almost cartographic listing of places, people, and historical events. Davenport starts with a volley of unrhymed curtal sonnets, all titled after magazines: “Entertainment Weekly,” “Good Housekeeping,” “Playboy,” “Rolling Stone,” and so forth. In them he sets a standard for both hardscrabble beauty and direct, crackling diction, such as in “Travel and Leisure,” which opens with
Let the big river arch its scaly hump
and hiss, slap banks to keep time, roll around
the crooked fingertip of Calhoun County
to hook the Illinois and flood Grafton . . .
Underneath this lyricism, however, is a biting resignation, such as when Davenport writes, in “Outdoor Life”: “Once again she becomes as clouds veiling / the fucking moon.” The “she” in this poem, and throughout the collection, is Overpass Girl, or O.G. As the poems progress, a picture of Overpass Girl develops, even though her moniker is never explained: she has breast cancer, it’s metastasizing, and the narrator can do little for her though he thinks about her often. It’s this weaving of pain, misery, and medical terms into the rural-industrial life of a man accounting for his Midwest backwater home that gives the collection much of its poignancy. In “Popular Science,” Davenport writes:
Her mouth’s blistered from chemo and she’s full
of holes as she goes where hydrocodone
grows in the acetaminophen shoals.
She laughs when I write our hearts make morphine.
She writes you’re three hours away happy in a book,
floating in a tub.
The narrator’s ability to still enjoy some aspects of life under the shadow of impending death infuses the collection with a rough-edged introspection. Sometimes these ponderings are quite direct, such as in “Journal of Speculative Philosophy”:
. . . How to live
with end time stamped on the back of your hands?
Good Book’s not a catalogue of patter,
Preacher says, for the counters and trotters.
Instead: A ride on great red wings. A how-to
for beggars and kings.
At other times this introspection is expressed in both form and language, such as in “Real Simple,” which plays, in part, off the shape and sound of the letter P, which looks like a “hobo bundle”, Davenport intertwines cancer-related jargon and alliteration with these observations, turning the poem into a pleading prayer: “letter P, aspirated, plosive note / in a portacath, post-mastectomy; / . . . post-belief, pre-belief, / poor traveler, Please.”
And sometimes the stress of contemplating death through the struggles of Overpass Girl gets released in well-placed, seemingly one-off poems of madcap delirium. In the wryly titled “The Sestina Has Been Drinking,” Davenport creates an Ashberyan mash-up of pop-culture references, hillbilly talk, and historical characters. He also has lines of direct address to the sestina (“I know this guy, Sestina, this guy’s in love with you” ). The poem thus becomes an amusing ramble through the mind of a drunken poet and a welcome relief from ruminations on Overpass Girl’s suffering. In these semitriumphant, loudmouth moments, Davenport shows a robust, crass sense of humor, such as in the poem “Diminishing Innuendo of Hog Sonnet,” whose lines include “Willy woody wiener weenie” and “Salty dog schlong skin flute.”
This style of humor is just another evidence of Davenport’s skill as a poet. His ability to turn a sonnet’s perspective slightly with the final line, while still encapsulating the thrust of the body of the poem, is impressive. Equally impressive is his knowledge and use of forms. “East St. Louis Ontological Race-Riot Toodle-oo, 1917,” for example, is a double kwansaba (a seven-line poem with seven words per line), a form created by fellow Bottom-dweller Eugene B. Redmond, the poet laureate of East St. Louis.
Davenport’s passion for wordcraft and storytelling perhaps comes through most clearly in the poem “True Confessions,” which is placed near the end of the collection. Its narrator describes how during a softball game he spends his time counting syllables:
I don’t know the batter. A dirt-leg friend
of somebody, taking somebody’s place.
The catcher’s a toad and this guy’s a tube
Of amphetamines. I’m watching, waiting.
As “True Confessions” progresses, it becomes ever clearer that the poem’s narrator is a man out of place—and eventually, he tells us, he “[leaves] the mill for books full-time.” There’s a beauty in the narrator’s unfurling of the self, in his admission that “I found / poems . . . / Every day I write my true confession. / I count syllables.” Indeed there’s a confessional beauty in the whole of Davenport’s collection; he has created a well-organized assemblage of direct, emotionally open poetry that demonstrates just how fertile the seemingly barren land of The Bottom can be.