Reviewed by S. T. Brant
Tupelo Press 153 pp.
I was born and grew up in Las Vegas. I still live there. On October 1, 2017, a man from the thirty-second floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel blasted over a thousand rounds into the crowd across the street at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival. Sixty people were killed; 487 injured, the deadliest mass shooting in US history. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting took place less than six months after the Las Vegas shooting. Peace, after traumas like these, can be rebuilt but never restored, having suffered a sea change; the illusion of its originality is a rose on each plot of the dead. So many years am I from that moment…how long the grass has grown on their graves…what is the grass, I hear echo in my head, thinking of them, thinking of Whitman: “A child said, What is the grass?…How could I answer the child?…I do not know what it is any more than he.” But to know is not always necessary. Carol Ann Davis emphasizes question over answer, as does Whitman in this poem that serves as her book’s epigraph. Much can be achieved in the struggle to know even when it doesn’t end in perfect understanding: confrontation is the key that reveals our way forward.
Carol Ann Davis’s collection of essays The Nail in the Tree: Essays on Art, Violence, and Childhood introduces her oldest son, Willem (in ninth grade at the time), walking out of his high school as part of the National School Walkout organized after yet another mass shooting—the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018—foregrounding the thread between these essays: Sandy Hook. Each essay bears a subtitle that locates itself in relation to the Sandy Hook shooting (“Two Years After,” “Two Years Before,” etc.). In Davis’s movements through time, she shows that trauma need not remain an oppressive, paralytic force. The necessity of finding ways to continue on proves one of the primary cylinders of our life’s engine, propelling us into new searches—and in searching comes meaning. Pain can either act as a dead end or a guide, and for Davis, writing “begins with a willingness to be led,” as does healing.
On the opening page of the preface, Davis reveals something of the psychic landscape of this present generation, the generation in school at the time of Sandy Hook. A landscape weeded with mass shootings. “You might wonder if one can witness such suffering and not suffer oneself,” an ironic inquiry, as Davis knows very well that while there may be degrees of separation between one’s trauma and the instigation, trauma devours the gulf. Even if we are separated from such trauma, one horrible, inescapable aspect of this book is the relatability of its subject—not only its specific subject of Sandy Hook, but its general focus on mass shootings in America; many people in the United States are able to recall their own experiences with mass shootings and can work through them with Davis’s book as a companion.
The Nail in the Tree is all about separation—both temporally and experientially—presenting the essays in discontinuous sequence. This fragmentary style helps Davis showcase the mutations of trauma as it relates to a single event: Sandy Hook, overtly, but most importantly, how Sandy Hook has impacted the psychology of her sons and herself as a mother. The essays that precede Sandy Hook are no less concerned with Davis wondering how she can keep her children safe in the world, and they are no less afflicted by a sense of hurt, though they precede the flood. Rather, the pre-Sandy-Hook essays demonstrate how a traumatic experience dislocates itself from its moment and disfigures memories, impacting recollections, such that we can no longer think back to a time before. Because everything is intruded on by an irrepressible occupant.
Davis also reveals the way that we, adults, visit our traumas not only on the past but on our children. In a probing discussion with her son Willem, who was at school the day of the shooting (Hawley Elementary, just a mile and a half away), Willem answers her questions about his feelings, his thoughts, how he is, saying, “I’m not traumatized. Why are you trying to make me feel something I don’t feel?” How can anyone justify their own trauma when someone who may have been more directly involved is less affected? Davis knows this is unanswerable, and that no answer satisfies; no justification is worth venturing. Pain is pain, and it will hurt, but hurting in the same way as another doesn’t simplify our pain or therapy. She makes us ache in these essays and lets the quiet moments explode within our hearts. Why are you trying to make me feel something I don’t feel?
Carol Ann Davis’s true medium is poetry, having published two collections with Tupelo Press, Psalm and Atlas Hour in 2007 and 2011, respectively. Her poetic disposition comes through clearly in her prose, marking her writing with a lyricism heavy with poetic figurations, conceptual and evocative, such as when Davis introduces Helene Cixous’s analysis of doors as a metaphor for the “keeper of inside/outside” of first visions. The objective of Cixous’s ‘first vision’ is initiatory. Similar to trauma’s initiation into art, these ‘first visions’ are guides that invite you through the doorway, should you choose to follow and discover what’s beyond the threshold. Of course, many decline. You can be invited and guided, but you are responsible for taking the steps. To act, then, is to proceed into the unknown of a vision, trusting art to guide us toward the purpose of the vision we’ve pursued: art shines clarity through the murk of life. But if we do not act, these doors are walls, and we stand before life defeated.
At a Picasso exhibit, Davis reflects on Picasso’s “material, poetic language, our own foreignness, the curiosity of the love of another. Each supplies a certain amount of pressure to open the door, but how much pressure to apply? What is the difference between noting the door’s opening and blowing through wall oneself…?” There is no answer, only interpretation, which can be a labyrinth, but keeping hold on the thread, art can guide us out. Hear Picasso’s guidance: “Apply all pressure! Open us wider!” A more prosaic essay would tilt toward a fusillade of questions that, cumulatively, would be nothing more than a moralizing tract proselytizing instead of provoking through artistic examination; and an essay of declaratives would be boilerplate. Instead, Davis challenges the reader, giving example to the suffering through a self-revealing jeremiad, whereby all the shocked gather round the monument of destruction on Cavalry, Marys in multitude, wondering at the state of the world that put our children on a cross and for what. “The children who live here [Newtown, where Sandy Hook happened]…now glow. They do, they glow…No one can approach unmoved, and the children, understanding their role, shoulder, take on, burden themselves with us…They offer themselves…and we accept.”
Davis also weaves metaphors with the trope of thread, and it stands for many things all at once: the journey, in following the thread to find where it’s anchored; and the surrender to the inevitability of the thread unraveling from somewhere. Ultimately, the thread is a metaphor for a quest through the labyrinth of grief. “When a loose thread needs pulling—though pulling it means…[admitting] the enormity of grief…What of the afterlife ties itself to the other end? What song will I hear whose voice might never sing in my presence?” The reckoning of the author with unspeakable grief is a pilgrimage. When on a search for meaning, how much of that experience must you be able to articulate in order to make sense of it? A book is a mystical quest in the same way: Can you exorcise ineffable demons if, by the end, they remain beyond a coherent realm? Or is it enough to do battle with them, as Jacob did? Davis wonders as much when a new school year arrives with memories of the tragedy: “Every new school year brings iconography…What garment stitched from these tiny moments clothes those in the afterlife—too happy, or worried about us, or disappointed, to visit?” Merely warding off the victory of the angel won Jacob the blessing. At the end of the book, are we blessed?
What is trauma? What is time? Who are we?
How could any of us answer these questions, not knowing ourselves or our world any better than the children? We learn this from Davis—who we are is in flux, we are always in search. It is only after traumatic events that we question ourselves and our world because trauma and tragedy disturb our foundations. Looking back, those foundations were never something stable on which to fix our answers about who we are; they were always illusory. Not only to think through and process trauma and to re-establish peace after trauma’s ripples calm, but to know ourselves continuously—this is Davis’s goal. She inspires us to move past what hurts us, but not easily, not before facing it down.
S.T. Brant is a teacher from Las Vegas. They have publications in or coming from Door is a Jar, Santa Clara Review, New South, Rejection Letters, Quail Bell, Dodging the Rain, La Piccioletta Barca, Cathexis Northwest Press, and a few others. With ACM, they also reviewed Longing for an Absent God by Nick Ripatrazone. You can find them on Twitter @terriblebinth or Instagram @Shanelemagne.