Versed in school of hard knocks, poet to get posthumous homage on campus

Marie Pelletier Catherine Breese Davis

Poems by Catherine Davis will be read at 7 p.m. April 30 in the Terrace Room of Margaret Jacks Hall.

Catherine Breese Davis wrote of loss, abandonment, destitution, despair and decrepitude—and she knew what she was talking about.

She fell heir to the fate of many 20th-century poets—alcoholism, poverty, disability and mental illness. But unlike many of them, Davis (1924-2002) found compensation not in echoing chaos in her poems or through confessional ballads, but in the richness of her impeccable, mostly formal verse.

The Stanford alumna wrote lines of "flawless iambics, perfect line breaks, coffin-nail closure, all in the unflinching hands of a moral sniper," according to poet and Stanford alumna Suzanne Doyle, writing in the preface to After a Time, an unpublished manuscript of Davis' poems. The manuscript is likely to remain unpublished for some time to come. The reason? Copyright law.

Davis died intestate and without any known heirs. Hence, the copyright for her works is in limbo.

Nevertheless, the public will have a chance to hear her work at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 30, in the Terrace Room of Margaret Jacks Hall. Kenneth Fields, professor of English, will introduce and read the poems.

Praising Davis' "tough-minded stoicism," Fields called her "a very distinguished poet."

"There was a time she was in the 'right' reviews and the 'right' anthologies," he said. "Important poets don't wind up on everyone's radar screen, and it's important to understand that."

Born in Minneapolis, Davis is considered one of the finest poets to emerge from the circle of poets around Stanford's formidable (and controversial) poet-critic Yvor Winters. But she has virtually vanished from print in recent years. Her publishing imbroglio is embedded in her hardscrabble biography.

Davis' father abandoned the family when she was a toddler. At 16, when her mother learned that Davis was a lesbian, she drove her to the train station and never saw her daughter or spoke to her again.

Davis came to Stanford in 1950 after studying with Allen Tate at the University of Minnesota and J. V. Cunningham (another Stanford alumnus) at the University of Chicago. She held a Wallace Stegner Fellowship and studied with Winters. She published in Poetry and The Paris Review.

"We were all very good friends, and we'd all get together and drink a great deal and talk about poetry," recalled Stanford alumna Helen Pinkerton Trimpi, another poet in the Winters circle who edited After a Time with Doyle.

Recalling Davis' disability and difficulties, Pinkerton explained that much was left unsaid: "I certainly was perfectly aware—but in the culture of the time, you didn't bring it up." She compared it to the silence that surrounded even President Roosevelt's disabilities a few years earlier. "We thought she had a problem and was dealing with it wonderfully. We certainly didn't make an issue of her disability. Certainly she had no money and needed a job at all times."

Friends tried to help. Winters thought so highly of her poems that, in 1953, he appealed to poet Louise Bogan, then poetry editor at The New Yorker, to help find Davis a job, saying that she "grew up in extreme poverty and in pretty rough surroundings and has had a hard life all the way."

"She is slightly spastic, though if you saw her you would think the trouble came from polio," Winters wrote. "At any rate the entire left side is somewhat affected: left eye about worthless, left hand, arm, leg and foot, somewhat shrunken and only semi-efficient instruments.

"She is extremely small, but is rather pretty, and if she could afford good clothes would be very pretty. When you first meet her she is likely to be tense and shy, but when she relaxes she is very good company."

She didn't get the job. But she did spend some time working in New York—hence her poems "They are not bees," "To a little editor" and "Beat." From "In New York":

What can I do here? I could learn to lie;

Mouth Freud and Zen; rub shoulders at the "Y" …

All this, in second Rome, I'd learn to do;

Hate secretly and climb; get money; quit,

An absolutely stoic hypocrite.

This, but not more. New York is something new:

The toadies like the toads they toady to.

With "unbelievable persistence," according to Pinkerton, Davis received her bachelor's degree from George Washington University in 1961, at the age of 37—no mean achievement at a time "nontraditional students" were pretty much nonexistent. She enrolled in the University of Iowa's famed creative writing program, where she met the poet Donald Justice, who became a lifelong champion of her work.

She lived a fairly migratory existence, from paycheck to paycheck, teaching, doing office work, fine-press printing—including two editions of her own poems. She had at least one breakdown. She developed Alzheimer's disease in the late 1990s and died of complications in 2002.

It's hardly surprising, then, that Davis wrote of "physical, emotional and moral destitution," according to Pinkerton.

The poems themselves became rarities, rediscovered occasionally by those in touch with one of the "Wintersians," such as the UCLA poet Edgar Bowers. As a student, Doyle told Bowers she liked the sharp wit and cynical epigrams of Dorothy Parker.

Bowers snorted his disdain: "The cynicism of a schoolgirl! You should read Catherine Davis."

Within the hour, Doyle had photocopied Davis' poems from the library. "More than 30 years later," she wrote, "I still have those yellowed, dog-eared copies, dotted with marginalia—a crude map of the thematic and metrical obsessions of a lifetime. Partners and houses fell by the way, but I never lost Davis's poems." Nor did she forget the voice, which "all too human, all too familiar—mourns that the heart cannot be schooled as strictly as stanzas."

But cynical is not quite the word for the woman who wrote "And since what comes will also go, / I put most hope in most distrust." It is the voice of hard experience.

In later years, according to Fields, "She came to regret her stoicism—the consequences of hardening yourself against the world." He said her mature poems are haunted by "the sense that she's regretting that she's disqualified herself from the experience of trust with another human being. What's wonderful is the drama that sets up in her later poems." From "for tender stalkes":

Now the heart stops and stops forever.

We cannot keep the things we keep.

And so, willful, we quickly sever,

Ourselves from what we love, toward sleep.

These poems also lead her into metaphysical terrain, where her wordplay, conceits and contradictions bring to mind a much earlier tradition—for example, John Donne's "Holy Sonnets"—in their speculation about "This fearful loving that begot / The dread of being uncreated" (from "for tender stalkes"):

Our bodies are the graves and churches

Where being near unbeing dwells;

Love meets here what it likes, dislikes,

Bends down, of two minds, strokes and strikes,

Finds in the good for which it searches

The dark it gathers and dispels.

Pinkerton and Doyle said the publishers they have approached are jittery that an heir may suddenly appear and sue for copyright violation if they publish.

Marie Pelletier, Davis' longtime companion and the person who single-handedly saved much of Davis' work from extinction, was crisply matter-of-fact in an e-mail requesting information about next-of-kin: "Here's the deal, I am the person, there is no one else.

"If Catherine had family who cared, they were not in evidence in the 33 years that I knew her. There was not one member of her family who gave a fig about her writing. The last time she talked to her sister was before I met her."

The lost sister, who Pelletier recalls was named Charlotte, may be the one who makes a brief appearance in a short poem titled simply "C.D.M.":

And what of you? You also shall not say

What time and time's remorselessness betray.

How can you think your silence is complete?

The heart fails, but the pitiless years repeat

The sure, unspeakable malice of the dead:

The grief you came to was the past you fled.

"There was no will because there was no money. There was no probate. There was nothing, she was poor, a ward of the state," wrote Pelletier. "She had, apart from her work, nothing of value. My friend and I were allowed by the company that managed her building into her apartment to take out what we wanted and what we left they were going to clear out."

Pelletier continued: "I can tell you that when she was about to be evicted from her apartment because she wasn't paying her rent, by then she was sick, mentally and physically, the management company called me as did the Social Services Department of the state of Rhode Island. I was listed as the contact person, and when Catherine went into the nursing home, their management was very happy to have me as their contact. And when she died I received her cremated remains. Now I know that this means zip in relation to copyright but nonetheless up until now, I was it."

Pelletier added: "I suppose the improbable could happen and some relative could show up but that would assume that they read poetry. And if there were such a relative, however close that relation has to be in the eyes of the law, who was genuinely interested in her and her work, well heck let them have the rights. No one is going to make money from this."

Davis, of all people, would have understood the imbroglio: "After a time, all losses are the same; / And we go stripped at last the way we came."