The Least of These
Todd Davis
Michigan State University Press, 2009
Reviewed by Emily Hendren

Todd Davis appeals to the senses and takes his reader on a spiritual and self-reflective walk through nature in The Least of These.The book in three parts, with separate introductory and closing poems, discusses themes of balance, love of nature, cyclicality, and spirituality and does so with powerfully beautiful language and rhythm. 


Although a collection of poems, the book provides the setting of a storyteller and the oral traditions of the past. The narrators throughout tell tales about the moon and stars; of kingdoms; and God’s going into caves, and it talks of bras; and beets and beans; and black-shelled beetles, managing to stitch together the celestial and far-away with the dirt and grass of backyard gardens.

What binds the stories together is balance. Davis masters both tangible and abstract balance between good and evil, water and land, certainty and doubt, nature and man, and life and death. It is this pulling of strings, the craftsmanship of opposites, that maintains the intrigue and propels the vision and story of the book. As the words work together within each poem to bolster each other's shoulders, the poems lean against one another to steady the foundation, the bricks of book's walls.

Many poems throughout the book—"The Fish in the Cage," "Vernal," and "Keeping Secrets"—sing anthems of balance; however, one that champions tension and storytelling is "The River." Stanzas framed around husband and wife, father and son, and nature and man stream down the pages, but never rush to let out the poem’s secrets and end; Davis reveals images and details moment by moment, allowing the weight of each line space to breathe and sink. Similarly, Davis tackles discussions of war in his poem "Migration," one of three poems that references the Iraqi war. The absurd pairing of I.E.Ds and landmines with the narrator’s boys and Home Depot parallels the trope of the absurdity of war itself; the games of little boys become the plagues of men.

Appreciation of Nature

Furthering his theme of balance, Davis tracks a path of appreciation of nature across most pages of the book. In "And the Dead Shall Be Raised Incorruptible," Davis describes the beauty of an often feared or avoided darkness by saying, "It's in the darkness when your feet knock dew from leaves of grass"; the darkness becomes a safe place in which the image of a peaceful wanderer in the early morning treads across the page and floods into the reader’s imagination. Poems like "Entering the Meadow above Three Springs Run," "The Saints of April," "The Kingdom of God Is like This," and "Tree of Heaven" exalt in the majesty of nature and draw on its beauty and power to instill gratitude and awe in the reader. In "A Memory of Heaven" and "The Face of Jesus," animals of the woods are given names and written the way parents call their children. Forest animals are compared to Jesus in "The Face of Jesus," and the work suggests that Jesus’ many faces appear in the corners and overlooked shadows of the woods, in the spirits and on the faces of wild animals—a reminder that the guile of the fox and the happiness of the weasel exists in us all.

Along with his constant nod to goldenrod, dew, the owl, and the doe, Davis shares his overwhelming appreciation for love and the connected nature of family. "The Secrets of Baking Soda" begins as a chant of monotony, a tilt of the hat to the often dullness of cyclicality and boredom of life’s chores, but it ends as a love song to the narrator's wife. The simple tasks of hanging curtains and removing stains gain intrigue and lust and take what was unimportant and make it ripe. In "For My Father’s Death, Before It Happens," the narrator hopes for a chance to communicate with his father beyond the grave to know that "this isn't the end, / that love, as we've always known, / draws us back to the very ground / of our making." The narrator’s tenderness and desire to speak with his father’s resting soul expresses that the nature and value of family transcends boundaries of life and death.

In another approach to appreciating the earth, nature is given permission to be sexual. In "Invasive," the narrator describes berries as "bloated" and "swollen with rain." In "Puberty" the reader is a bystander to a father’s watching his boy grow up, and in "Craving," the reader witnesses the hunger a male senses for a doe's "red vulva beckoning." The too-often taboo subject of menstruation and the subject of the female body without being subjected arrive at the foreground of poems with a maturity and mystery that defy any sense of poor taste or disgust. As Mother Nature nurtures the hemlock and cornflowers, the mothers and wives and farm women of the pages nurture each other and enrich the lives of those around them in the book.

Reverence for Life Cycles

To draw attention to nature's constant changing and life's unending recreation, Davis draws focus on cycles and how they shape the course of life. Themes of rebirth work together with hums of migration and transition to reveal a cyclical fluidity of life and lines. The book seems to be constantly on the move—birds flying south, people traveling back east, the sun encroaching on the night. The pulsing sensation of movement contributes to Davis’ attention to cycles and balance throughout the book, and offers the reader space to breathe in between, and with, the lines that begin and break seamlessly. As with the poems "Forgive Me" and "The Secrets of Baking Soda," "A Psalm for My Children" tackles phases of life with ease and directness. The narrator begins the poem with the lines "Lord, there’s so much talk of beginning and ending / when we're stuck right here in the middle." The narrator goes on to describe the balance, or lack there of in nature, and of parenting and the uncertainty over thankfulness and the task of "having to harvest one more thing."

Family and parenting emerge often throughout The Least of These and raise questions of intention, ability, purpose, and doubt. "Some Say the Soul Makes the Living Weep" brings cycles of life and death to the foreground and questions of nature’s timing. The sadness of a young bear cub's death meets the eagerness of the narrator's young boys' "kicking game;" what might normally be a harmless boys' game gains poignancy as "the small soul of this bear / who had to leave its body" rises in the tossed-up dust.

Musicality and the Power of Language

Davis also employs the musicality of words to give rhythm to the trails and rivers of his poems. He uses beat to stress themes, characters, metaphors, and questions, and delivers an orchestral performance that succeeds at softening the often brusque topics of his poems. The piece "Aubade" appeals to the reader’s sense of sound and uses aural imagery to describe the morning sun and wind, explaining that "[T]he tree shakes notes down, everything awash in the arpeggio of watercolor, / fingers moving across the neck of the violin, viola, cello strings / dabbed yellow and green and golden brown." In "An Island Mother Speaks," Davis' use of repetition calms the otherwise brazen words of the poem; the narrator and the sea chant “the sea rages, the sea mutters, the sea whispers / half-truths in the ears of our sons while they sleep."

The poems within The Least of These stand as an example of the power of language. Davis creates a fluidity in his works in which the language and subjects parallel. He speaks of oceans and rivers and his words flow like the rain that feeds them. In "Jonah Begins to Think like a Prophet," he builds momentum throughout the poem until the narrator is literally (and metaphorically) throwing stones and words at people. The poem states: "whether they are words or stones, they will crush these people who do not believe…" The authority in the narrator’s tone of voice leaves no room for doubt.

In "Questions for the Artist," each of the short lines provides a crisp, tangible image and a question of inclusion or exclusion for the sake of art—and consequentially the question what is art? Davis knows that powerful language does not mean flowery or necessarily complex language, and "Questions for the Artist" models this perfectly. The lines "[y]ou keep taking things / out of your pictures, erasing / the superfluous—a dog / at rest, / a cake half-eaten…" and "What's so essential / about faded wallpaper, a knife and plate, / a plain saucer / holding a cup?” begin and end the poem with simple, concrete stability. The reader feels swept up and grounded simultaneously in the clarity of language and imagery.


Davis understands the humanity of poetry. He sings lyrical choruses that leave his reader feeling wonder, gratitude, and anticipation for what is to come—in the book and in his or her own life. The simplicity and breathtaking awe of nature bleeds into the pages, lighting sadness with hope and love. The closing lines of the poem Aesthetics seem to summarize the book's beautiful aim: "I'm glad we’re as plain as our fields, as beautiful / as the shapes my mother's fingers assume." Or perhaps the best summary comes from the final lines of "Field Mouse" as the narrator describes the burning body of a mouse: "Soon the soot / will become root and stalk, leaf and petal, / eventually fruit for our table, even the jam / I’ll use to paint my bread."

© Emily Hendren, 2010