(North Adams, MA: Tupelo Press, 2020)
One night after three am, Carol Ann Davis holds her sleeping seven-year-old boy, Luke, as he shutters and mumbles from night terrors, “My boy wakes repeating I don’t know I don’t know.” After he recognizes his mother—at his side, safe—Davis describes the boy’s actions, alluding to a larger communal trauma which seemingly paints everything she sees: Luke “says okay okay okay and falls back onto the pillow as if he has been shot.” This simile might seem misplaced, a non sequitur, but Davis and her family live in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. It’s two years after the shooting, which took place just miles from her home. Davis can’t help but interpret, very self-consciously, this seemingly benign act—her boy’s head falling to a pillow—through the reverberating trauma, and ongoing fear, which lingers over her as a mother and resident of Sandy Hook.
In The Nail in the Tree: Essays on Art, Violence, and Childhood, Davis documents her family’s life on the day of, and the years after, the shooting on December 14, 2012. Thematically, Davis’ essays often braid memoir with everything from the historical to the ekphrastic to the philosophical. Davis alludes to Whitman’s famous line as the book’s epigraph—“A child said, What is the grass?…How could I answer the child?…I do not know / what it is any more than he.” She meditates on this question explicitly and implicitly throughout the collection. In America, school shootings are, this metaphor suggests, as ubiquitous as the grass. But, like Whitman struggling to answer that child’s question, Davis, too, struggles with how to speak of what’s happened in her town, especially to her children, one of whom sat in another classroom nearly a mile from where the shootings took place.
Years later, when Davis’ oldest son, Willem—a fourth-grader during the Sandy Hook shootings and a ninth-grader during the Parkland, Florida shootings—remarks to his mother that “he really had grown up with these shootings,” Davis channels Whitman, “How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he?” By no means is Davis trying to give an “answer,” as if there were one. Her book does, however, attempt to speak—in “song as well as in protest,” she says—to the ineffable tragedy while also exploring what it means to be a mother and an artist in a traumatized community. “The essay tells me (from the Latin) to try,” Davis writes. “The poem says sing, make. What would a trying song be? A making try?”
In the opening essay, “The One I Get and Other Artifacts,” which captures the day of the shooting, Davis learns of it while she’s inside her own classroom, teaching at a university. After speaking to the department secretary, she explains how it takes “ninety seconds” for her to understand that the shooting took place at Sandy Hook, “a school closer to our house but by an accident of zoning not my children’s school.” Willem, she reminds herself, in fourth grade, is at another nearby school, Hawley. Immediately, this moment alters not only the trajectory of Davis’ life, but it creates the temporal frame of her book: time is reset, both for her family and for the larger Newtown community, to everything “after.” When Davis leaves the classroom for her office before the forty-minute drive to get Willem from school, this temporal shift is apparent to her both psychologically and semantically: she ends class early and then goes to her office to “collect my things—the things of before that will come with me to after.” However, Davis does not suggest to know or understand those parents who were unable to pick up their children from school that day. A refrain begins in this essay, which she repeats later, almost as if to remind herself that, compared to some other parents, her suffering is somehow less serious: “And this is what it is not to suffer. This is the not-suffering, happy-ending story, the one I get.”
Writing about the days, months, and years “after,” Davis’ essays navigate living in a town haunted by unspeakable grief. Reflexive and often externally-focused, the essays in the years “after” reflect on, and through, artists as various as Rumi, Larry Levis, Eva Hesse, Paul Celan, and Picasso. In “Loose Thread,” one of the more incisive and revelatory of the latter essays, Davis meditates upon Paul Celan and Arshile Gorky over the purposes, inadequacies, and ethics of imagistic representations, especially in relation to grief and trauma. Considering Celan’s surreal “flowering axe,” Davis thinks of her own, as she explains it, “dissatisfaction with the real.” Simply watching her son leave on a school bus, for instance, becomes a moment of trepidation and anxiety which she has trouble trying to describe: “We parents linger as the bus moves away.” Davis interrogates this bizarre disconnect between mundanity and terror; she thinks about “how to represent the discord one feels between the quotidian and the extraordinarily untenable, both somehow housed in the now of one’s experience.” Reflecting upon Gorky’s painting, The Artist and His Mother, which Gorky deliberately left blurred and unfinished, Davis writes “it is within the cosmology of grief that what remains may be properly represented only as unfinished work.”
The work of raising her boys, of writing, of moving forward and accepting the tragedy—that immovable “nail in the tree” her son, Willem called it—is, in many ways, always “unfinished.” Davis offers no easy closure or bromides at the end of the book. In the final long essay, written in the second person, “Of Morning Glass: Becoming a Swimmer,” she’s in the ocean with her sons near a rocky beach north of Barcelona. It’s there, far from America, in the middle of water, six years after the shooting where she feels—though fleetingly—a sense of safety and calm: “It’s the oceanic feeling, the boys safe inside it, something you’ve rarely felt for them on land.” The movement through the water, her boys swimming on their own, provides at least a momentary sense of solace, an acknowledgment that her boys, too, must go on. “And you are aware that what you once held has spilled out into the world,” Davis writes. “You meet this knowledge with your strong stroke, your steady beating heart. You let yourself be what is held and its vessel. You swim as you empty, and you empty as you swim.”
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Hugh Martin is a veteran of the Iraq War and the author of In Country (BOA Editions, 2018) and The Stick Soldiers (BOA Editions, 2013). He is the recipient of an NEA Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship. His essays, reviews, and poetry have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Gettysburg Review, The Kenyon Review, and The Sun.