- Why Should We Read and Study Davies?
- Literature & Analysis
- “When I Drive Down Highways”
- from “Songs of the Parking Lot Attendant”
- “How Much?”
- Analysis of Davies’ Poems
- Questions and Considerations for Reflection
- Strategies for Teachers
- Further Reading
Poet Lynn Davies was born in Moncton, NB in 1954, lived during her school years in Newcastle and again in Moncton, and, after travel and post-secondary education outside the province, now resides in Fredericton. Trained as a journalist and displaying an early proclivity to nature writing, she freelanced for travel and outdoor magazines until she began writing poetry in earnest in the early 1990s. Her first collection of poems, The Bridge That Carries the Road (1999), was short-listed for the Governor-General’s and the Gerald Lampert awards, each prestigious. Since that time, she has published two more volumes of poetry, Where Sound Pools (2005) and how the gods pour tea (2013). A meticulous observer with an ambitious imaginative reach, she pushes her work into places that readers find both exciting and fresh.
For a much more detailed biography of Davies, see her New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.
- We read Lynn Davies for many of the same reasons we read poets Rose Després (see The Acadian Renaissance) and Brian Bartlett: that is, to witness the arc of highly dextrous and unusual imaginations. As readers, we are taken on wild rides through exciting flights of the imagination. We hold on, we marvel, and we leave with invigorated sight. Davies is especially intriguing because she often puts that action of the imagination (the movement from the familiar to the fantastic) under the spotlight so we can see the workshop of the poetic imagination (enter “the dark behind [the poet’s] eyes” [“When I Drive Down Highways”]). The three poems below were chosen to illustrate that movement.
“When I Drive Down Highways”
When I drive down highways by ditches flowing in milkweed
bright with goldenrod, I hold words to my ears
hear them over the wind whistling past glass and steel
and in the dark behind my eyes I spread boughs,
lie down to wait for the light sound emanates
before it settles into syllable, rises into word
like a trout climbing air for flies. I search
those signs by the side of the road claiming rivers,
naming towns, spreading promises of food cooked fast,
beds made, full tanks of gas, and I wrap green
exits round my shoulders, hold east under my tongue,
see letters part to flick of fin pulling away.
from “Songs of the Parking Lot Attendant”
Almost everything I know
comes from what’s left
behind. What I hear
as they walk or drive
in and out. I am the hour
hand of their days.
Some people yak
like a whipper-snipper.
Others dismiss the day,
a card hand tossed out quickly.
Unlike the storytellers, so generous
with anecdote and embellishment,
comrade Time always on their side.
The singers, the whistlers.
Even the volume of their car radios
as they drive away
stays with me.
Each voice, a piece of fabric
in the quilt that covers me at night.
Some tongues wistful as silk
between Emma and the weather
I lost sleep this summer
The man to his dog,
when my time comes give away my pants
and burn the rest of me
Awake under a quilt crazy with scraps
of old ties – tired of chasing
garbage can lids – jeans,
my best breakfast
is a whistle dog
with gravy on the fries
My hand travels the cottons, the cross-stitching,
tries to calm an ocean. Finds
the odd sequin. Trails of bubbles.
The soft corduroy pieces.
I like november clover
because it hangs on
In my parking lot
the lines and right-angled corners
painted white and straight
are a kind of cutlery tray,
all utensils given a place.
Tidier than tying your fly-bitten,
tail-flicking horse to a hitching post.
When my lot’s empty
I practice walking those lines. I might
need the extra balance some day.
I’ve heard the guy who walks
lonely down the railway tracks sing
I walk the line
because you’re mine.
Sounds like he’s going somewhere.
I walk my lines at night
and backwards. Try it. Up on your toes,
then lower your heel and hope it finds
the line too. Now your other foot nudges
the back of your wide-awake heel. Sometimes
I’ve imagined the poise
of a third leg and foot. Trust yourself
in the dark on a faded line. A siren
or a cell phone is enough to push you off
and open every old wound
in your body. There are so many ways
to fall, the pavement unforgiving.
I sweep my lot when it’s empty.
Where puddles collect, pebbles drift.
If I lie down, my horizons
multiply in blades of grass
and the edge of a highrise.
It’s a big floor I sweep, the swish
lulling as a drink before bed. Dust storms
and wrappers. Bottles, the odd condom.
I am a local wind
on the surface.
An astrolabe could lie below, well-
preserved, lost on a long carry.
Or deeper, a marsh-soaked mother
holding her child. Or maybe
I take money on top of the biggest
undiscovered oil well on the continent.
Waiting to seep through a crack
on a day my eyes water from the sun
glinting off the rows of parked metal and glass.
How quickly the wild grasses could take over
this lot. Once, while sweeping, I found a book,
Field Guide To The Butterflies.
Waiting for sleep, I repeat my favourite line:
the great bird-winged butterflies of the Old World
the great bird-winged butterflies of the Old World
I listen for other winds too. Breath
in a bottle, in a body, round a blade of grass.
The 18-wheelers pulling
their winds behind them. How the weather settles
when the motor dies.
Voice is breeze in a labyrinth.
I hear you too, frog
loud and clear
in my parking lot
I can still hear the bike’s chain rattle
as I bounced off the road, down a ditch,
up into a path, through a field. Ready
for that grand lineage of shortcuts,
the multiplication tables. 80 sets
of 12 mosquitoes sucking a moose
dry in a nearby bog. Maybe 12 x 4
frogs watching, the sums braiding
deltas and beginnings to a 12-year-old
girl putting her bike away for the night.
The Grade 1 teacher said circle the largest.
I stared at the numbers, wondered which
of them weighed the most. Took out
my ruler to measure each figure’s height,
a 2 often larger than an 8. When my mother
found a way to explain the inner lives
of numbers, 3 became owls and 9,
the number of days to walk to Quebec.
Years later, in geometry, lines stretched
south or northwest, and points on a line
could be the epicentre of blue. And I thought
algebra an elegant word, but when x turned
5 or y dissolved into 7, the woman who stole
children still buffed her nails in the light
of a lamp with a fringe. What spooked me
were the figures that precede 0, the negatives.
My moose haunted by the cows he never had,
the hundred or so moose horns he’d love
to trample but could never find. What was God
thinking? That abundance was deceiving,
that even innocent 3 needs a shadow?
I still count the white lines in a road by 2’s
when I’m driving away from the ocean.
Still count on the side of my skull, through
my fingertips, my hair, my skin stretched
over my drum of a head 48 plus tap tap
tap tap tap equals 53. My son wonders
if equations can be composed for anything,
like velcro that doesn't work or the folded
wings of a hummingbird. I wonder too. He’s
coming at it from the other end, the world
sharp in his hands. Pencil drawings erased
when they don’t add up. A skateboard, frost
shards, a snake that swallowed a crocodile.
Analysis of Davies’ Poems
The three poems above are alike in how they expand from the familiar (a highway, a parking lot, a numbering system) to the fantastic – and also alike in how Davies uses that expansion to signal the workings of the poetic imagination. As such, the poems display and instruct, their instruction a key aspect of her work. That teaching is never didactic, but always clear to those who look.
A way to understand what Davies is doing is to think about the differences between associative and dissociative thinking. We equate associative thinking with logic: idea or image A connects to idea or image B by logical convention. For example, “infancy, childhood, youth, and adulthood” form a sequential association. We understand their order in evolutionary terms, one state leading to another. Somewhat differently, but still logically, the terms “red and passion” or “size and strength” are metaphorically linked. To combine them, even by inference, is logical, for they are “naturally” associated in our complex system of signs (words) and meanings. To learn a language, which we do to communicate, is to learn this elaborate sign system, which is culture. And for cultures to work smoothly, there has to be consensus about what is logical: which side of the road to drive on, what is minimum wage, where to go for milk and bread, how money is denominated, etc.
We know from reading poetry, however, that poets often contest these “natural” associations and logics, using dissociative thinking to attempt to destabilize or expand our ways of perceiving. Lynn Davies is one such poet. Her poems display a form of dissociative thinking that expands the range of known things, whether numbers, signs, or common experiences. She pushes beyond the logical to explore what is underneath, hidden, or behind the familiar – and to explore what is not immediate or obvious. Her work, as a result, is playful, subversive, fresh, and unusual. She goes to places with language that we do not expect. Her poem “When I Drive Down Highways” provides an example of this defiance of expectation, a defiance that builds from dissociation.
As if to challenge directly the linearity of associative thinking, she chooses as the subject of her poem one of the most linear of all tasks, driving, which is inherently rule-bound, straight-ahead, and bordered by material and legalistic constraints (yellow lines, guardrails, and speed traps). Is any activity more linear? Does any activity force linearity upon us more aggressively (hands at ten-to-two, eyes straight ahead, mind and ears alert to surroundings, the Motor Vehicle Act, blood-alcohol limits)? Yet, at the same time, is any activity more rife with delinquency, with the human refusal to be defined by lines and rules? Davies brings a knowledge of that contradiction to the poem, inviting us to overhear what constitutes her own brand of delinquency, which is to make poems while hidebound to the high order of the driving orthodoxy.
She “hold[s] words to [her] ears,” “wait[s] for the light sound emanates / before it settles into syllable,” and “search[es] / … signs by the side of the road” for what those might say of “rivers,” “towns,” “food cooked fast,” hotels, and gas stations. But she doesn’t only read the strange alphabet that zooms by. She also inhabits what she traverses, taking herself out of the orthodoxy of driving to “wrap green / exits round [her] shoulders” and “hold east under [her] tongue.” Driving, she reminds us, is a site of turbulent contradiction; it is familiar and normalized only to those people who have not thought about it. To read her poem is to be instructed otherwise: to be shaken from the orthodoxy of the familiar to the actuality of the experience, which is normative only in how it breaks from the stable and logical.
The sections from “Songs of the Parking Lot Attendant” showcase a similar attentiveness. In this highly original poem, the speaker is a witness to the world, that speaker “a local wind / on the surface.” In that guise, the speaker is a projection of the poet, for each is placed by circumstance to listen and see with acuity. The implied comparison, certainly an odd one, bears examination. How is a poet like a parking lot attendant? For starters, each is associated with a defined space. The parking lot is thus both a literal place (the attendant’s actual ground) and a figurative place (the poet’s small corner of earth). Both worlds are spatial.
As well, those spaces are lookouts. Poet and parking lot attendant overhear, and, as such, are readers of scraps, snippets of conversation, and other flotsam (“Almost everything I know / comes from what’s left / behind”). Poet and parking lot attendant are therefore points of intersection: they are crossroads, but also guardians and filters. They sweep and in sweeping preserve, lest “the wild grasses could take over / [their] lot.” Their similar roles in that regard reassure, for, in listening, each hears us. Davies makes that clear at the end, ensuring that her speaker/poet “hear[s us] too, frog / loud and clear / in my parking lot / at dusk.”
So what are we to make of this unusual poem? Is it as allegorical as it seems, a poem where one thing (a parking lot attendant) stands for another (a poet)? The short answer is “Yes.” The poem describes an artistic disposition that is often the poet’s: the disposition to see and listen actively. But, of course, that disposition need not be confined to the poet (that is where the longer answer comes in). Parking lot attendants, bus drivers, hairdressers, and electricians are just as likely to possess an artistic disposition. Those who do must navigate their own lines: straight, right-angled, and confining. Each will walk the straight lines for balance, meaning each walks between literal and figurative worlds, the worlds of logic and the imagination. That is why the advice of the poem is inclusive: “Trust yourself / in the dark on a faded line.” So, yes, the poem describes a certain kind of disposition or openness to the world, but that openness is dependent on individuals, not roles.
In its final inclusivity – the blurring of the line between artist and parking lot attendant – the poem invites each of us to listen and see more actively: to keep scraps of conversation, to make notes of the world turning, to index and search the vast archive we collect for a meaning greater than the sum of the evidence we compile. The price we will pay – also implicit in the poem – is a kind of aloofness, even loneliness, but that price is the price of service: “I hear you too.” As the most insistent of the narratives that surround us says, perhaps that is the price of being human.
“Songs of the Parking Lot Attendant” is a magnificent poem, wise and generous in conception and rendering. Like all fully realized poems, it is a world onto itself.
Making the effort to understand the first two poems makes understanding “How Much?” a lot easier. In this poem, memory triggers contemplation: the poet arcs back to her own childhood of innocence. She recalls, specifically, the excitement of learning the numbering system – learning numbering as shorthand and shortcut, as a series of codes (addition, subtraction, division, etc.) that make the world more manageable and predictable. Who does not remember those days of triumph, the feeling of mastery when, one after another, the codes are deciphered and brought under one’s control? First addition and subtraction, then fractions, then the dark zones of algebra and negative numbers.
The son in the poem experiences this awe, too, wondering “if equations can be composed for anything.” He is “coming at it from the other end,” like his mother once did, “the world / sharp in his hands.” Mother and poet, however, know better. She does not trust the reductive system of numbers. She knows that the world is not straight and sharp but infinitely curved and dull. She knows that nothing is predictable and nothing can be managed, that numbers don’t make anything safer.
The achievement of the poem is in how it invites readers to test that conclusion: to move from presence (“80 sets / of 12 mosquitos” and “12 x 4 / frogs watching”) to absence (“the moose haunted by the cows he never had, / the hundred or so moose horns he’d love / to trample but could never find”). If that is too abstract, consider the argument of the poem in another way (the poem, after all, invites that). Consider not only the inadequacy but also the ludicrousness of the number associated with the Holocaust. Six million Jews killed by the Nazis. 6,000,000. A big number, but completely unsatisfactory and carelessly reductive. That should be immediately apparent, for that number does not account for the fact that “the woman who stole / children still buffed her nails in the light / of a lamp with a fringe.” In other words, a vast narrative exists beyond all numbers and beyond the capacity of numbers to tell even a partial story. What does the number 6,000,000 tell us about the infinite complexity of every one of the Jewish lives lost? It tells us nothing. In fact, it is ethically dangerous in its suggestion of amplification. It begs the notion that volume and mass, rather than intention and act, define the terrible Nazi crime. In that regard, one Jewish life lost to bigotry is too much – and equivalent to six million.
The son, again young and feeling empowered by the shorthand of the numbering system, is “coming at it from the other end, the world / sharp in his hands.” The adult poet, however, knows better. With that in mind, what is the meaning of the final images of the poem: “A skateboard, frost / shards, a snake that swallowed a crocodile”? [Hint: think safety.]
► A preponderance of writers in the Current & Contemporary Voices module have been travellers. Moreover, the younger the writer the greater the likelihood that she/he has travelled the globe – and that she/he has a different kind of anchorage than earlier New Brunswick writers had. What are we observing here? Is travel simply a habit of late Gen Xers and Millennials, or does the New Brunswick locale figure in the rise in travel (perhaps restlessness) among the province’s contemporary writers? As a follow-up, what happens when writers from a particular place wander far afield? Does that movement dilute their sense of place or embellish it?
► In this curriculum we have encountered the poet-as-seer notion a number of times; that is, we have encountered the idea of the artistic temperament as a thing onto itself, a thing that stands outside, that observes, and that offers renewed sight. In a few instances (Robert Gibbs, Raymond Fraser, Anne Compton, Lynn Davies), that notion of the poet-as-seer has been depicted as burdensome to the writer. To pursue this further, compare Davies’ “Songs of the Parking Lot Attendant” with Roberts Gibbs’ poem “Who Asked Me to Be a Reader of Entrails?” (see Modernism and the Fredericton Ferment). Both poems are (perhaps surprisingly) playful in their rendering of the demands of bearing witness. What accounts for that playfulness? And where does it fit in the New Brunswick milieu? To aid in considering the second question, it might be helpful to consider the lack of a tradition of the public intellectual in New Brunswick. In our province, the most authoritative voices have tended to be those associated with industry – and those political voices that have done the bidding of industry. Those voices have instructed us about what is in our best interest. In that environment, writers and artists have provided another consciousness, a consciousness not always welcome to artists or society.
Strategy 1: Associative and Dissociative Thinking (“When I Drive Down Highways”)
See analysis above for a description of how Davies uses dissociation “to attempt to destabilize or expand our ways of perceiving.” Teaching strategies related to associative and dissociative thinking are presented below.
- Challenge students to guess when the poem was written: 80 years ago? 50? 10? Is there anything about the style of the poem, rather than its content, that tipped them off to its contemporariness? Poet Tony Hoagland argues that dissociative poetry has become recently fashionable because “it is a poetry equal to the speed and disruptions of culture. It responds to the postmodern situation with a joyful crookedness” (“Fear of Narrative”). Do students prefer this kind of dissociative poetry, so celebrated in their own age, or do they prefer the more associative/narrative poetry of the past? Can they articulate the reasons for their preference?
- Associative and dissociative thinking has been studied in the field of sports to determine the performance effects of intense task focus versus allowing the mind to flow freely. In this realm, there are some studies that suggest that dissociative thinking can actually improve endurance. For the purposes of a writing or representing activity, ask students to imaginatively leap into the mind of an endurance athlete: what might that athlete be thinking two hours into a run or swim? What images, thoughts, and fears would accost the mind? Direct attention to the way Davies inhabits and transforms her surroundings as a model for this kind of dissociative thinking.
- Have students sketch an image from the poem that they find particularly compelling. For example, they might be attracted to a fin parting letters. When they finish their sketch, challenge them to recreate and transform it in some way. Ask them to avoid the expected; having the fin part water rather than letters would be uninventive. Instead, they should aim for something that could not be found on a Google image search. Perhaps the letters can react to the fin aggressively, or the fin could become another object. After the first attempt, have students repeat the exercise, reimagining their transformed sketch in new ways. With practice, does the mind become more dexterous at making these creative leaps?
- Introduce students to the website PicLits. On this site, students are prompted to write digitally on pictures, which they can then share with others. Most of the projects display associative thinking, as users select words directly and logically related to the picture from a drag and drop menu. Instead, challenge students to use the “freestyle” setting to create text that does not simply describe their chosen image, but that destabilizes or expands how people might typically view such a scene. If the image is of a beautiful landscape, for instance, students might imagine the taste of the air, what the mountain feels like being stared at, or what might be hidden behind trees. If students are struggling, advise them to start by telling a lie about the image. “The mountain sleeps when the sun is up” or “there were no trees here yesterday.”
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Articulate their own processes and strategies in exploring, interpreting, and reflecting on sophisticated texts and tasks
- Writing and Representing: Make effective choices of language and techniques to enhance the impact of imaginative writing and other ways of representing
Strategy 2: False Mastery (“How Much?”)
In an open discussion with students, further explore the notion that we embrace reductive ways of knowing in order to make our world manageable and less terrifying. First, discuss what topics absorbed the students as children: what were they proud of knowing or the most confident in? For example, could they rattle off scientific names and facts about dinosaurs? Did they memorize planets and stars and galaxies? How many of them were attracted by knowledge that classified the world so they could name things and sort them into categories? Explain to them next that some psychologists believe that this type of knowledge is satisfying because it gives people a sense of control over things that are vast and impossible to know. We can’t visit other galaxies, but if we can accumulate trivia about them we feel in some way that we understand them. Likewise, we can count and enter numbers into equations, but this ability to manipulate quantification does not grant control over what the data represent in human terms.
Seeking out knowledge that organizes the world and gives us a sense of control over things that are essentially uncontrollable, then, is both comforting and satisfying. However, some reductive ways of knowing, such as stereotyping, are not benign. When people believe that individuals can be sorted on the basis of trivial characteristics, the result immediately reveals the limitations of reductionism: that it offers only an illusion of control, that illusion potentially damaging.
This discussion might lead to a journaling activity. Ask students to write about the reductive strategies that are most prevalent today. What do people do to make their world seem more manageable, and to make themselves feel more in control? What are the consequences of those strategies? What do they set people up to miss, to ignore, or to simplify? And what, for example, should not be simplified?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Speaking and Listening: Examine others’ ideas and synthesize what is helpful to clarify and expand on their own understanding
- Writing and Representing: Use writing and other ways of representing to explore, extend, and reflect on their experiences with and insights into challenging texts and issues
Strategy 3: Songs (“Songs of the Parking Lot Attendant”)
This poem provides excellent inspiration for a creative writing activity. Students could write the song of a nursing home attendant, the song of a plumber, the song of a psychiatrist or show dog or abandoned couch, etc. What might they overhear? What might they imagine? What might they desire?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Writing and Representing: Make effective choices of language and techniques to enhance the impact of imaginative writing and other ways of representing
Carey, Barb. “Poetry.” Rev. of Where Sound Pools, by Lynn Davies. Toronto Star 20 Nov. 2005: D6.
Compton, Anne. “Poetry, Coast to Coast.” Rev. of The Bridge That Carries the Road, by Lynn Davies. Canadian Literature 173 (Summer 2002): 133-36.
Cronin, Ray. “Clear, Accessible, Inventive, Complex.” Rev. of The Bridge That Carries the Road, by Lynn Davies. Daily Gleaner [Fredericton] 27 Nov. 1999: B7.
Davies, Lynn. The Bridge That Carries the Road. London, ON: Brick Books, 1999.
---. Where Sound Pools. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 2005.
---. how the gods pour tea. Fredericton: Icehouse Poetry (Goose Lane), 2013.
Glenn, Lorri Neilsen. Rev. of Where Sound Pools, by Lynn Davies. Atlantic Books Today 51 (Spring 2006): 28-29.
Hoagland, Tony. “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment.” Poetry Foundation 21 March 2006: n.p. 22 July 2020 <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/68489/fear-of-narrative-and-the-skittery-poem-of-our-moment>.
Lahey, Anita. Rev. of Where Sound Pools, by Lynn Davies. The Malahat Review 155 (Summer 2006): 87-89.
Leckie, Ross. “Living with Loneliness.” Rev. of The Bridge That Carries the Road, by Lynn Davies. The New Brunswick Reader 23 Oct. 1999: 21.
Lynes, Jeanette. “Lynn Davies, Traveller.” [Interview] Words Out There: Women Poets in Atlantic Canada. Ed. Jeanette Lynes. Lockport, NS: Roseway Publishing, 1999. 186-90.
Thorpe, Michael. “Women Poets En Route: Lynn Davies, Governor-General’s Award Nominee, Has An Eye for The Natural World; Heather Pyrcz, An Ear on the Darker Side.” Rev. of The Bridge That Carries the Road, by Lynn Davies. Atlantic Books Today 27 (1999): 13.
For much more detailed primary and secondary source bibliographies of Davies, see her New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.
We gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Lynn Davies for allowing us to use the poems above for this curriculum. Further use or distribution of this work, however, is a violation of Canadian copyright law and is strictly prohibited. Under no circumstance may literary material used in the curriculum be reproduced, distributed, or stored without the permission of the copyright holder.
“When I Drive Down Highways” appears in Davies’ The Bridge That Carries the Road. London, ON: Brick Books, 1999. “Songs of the Parking Lot Attendant” appears in Davies’ Where Sound Pools. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 2005. “How Much?” appears in Davies’ how the gods pour tea. Fredericton: Icehouse Poetry (Goose Lane), 2013.
All contents except for poetry and fiction copyright © Tony Tremblay, James W. Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell.