(North Adams, MA: Tupelo Press, 2020)
“How young were my boys when I moved them to a town, actually not even a town but a hamlet situated inside a town that would, within months, become the site of the largest primary school shooting in the country’s history?” The Nail in the Tree by Carol Ann Davis is a meditative collection of personal essays about raising two sons in Newtown, Connecticut after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Each essay hatches and unravels like a cocoon, creating a network of necessary loose threads that refuse to follow a tidy narrative. Davis interlaces her experiences as a parent and artist to cultivate a garden of ruin and retrieval, loss and growth. It’s within these pages she explores what it means to raise children in an America defined by mass shootings, to love what death can touch.
In The Nail in the Tree, Carol Ann Davis ruminates on private and public loss, the complexities of childhood and parenting, and the connection between art and personal experience. Davis weaves together strands of her sorrow and gratitude, assembling a linguistic patchwork with “the seams showing.” As she hovers in the space between childhood-adulthood and parenthood-artisthood, she handles her fear of loss with worn and tender hands. She molds her “wandering, ambient pain” into a shape she can translate, sit with, and better understand. Davis ventures into the dark chambers of grief and allows herself to be led by her own entanglements and unknowing.
Unknowns hang like budding fruit; they flicker and swell, longing to be held. Widespread violence, especially violence against children, has forced our country to reimagine what’s possible. Living in fear of mass shootings has become an unacceptable norm. Alongside Davis, I wonder: Why do these horrible things happen? Is it possible, in the wake of unspeakable heartbreak and tragedy, to resurrect our hope, our capacity for joy? How do we express the ineffable? These questions are, of course, subjective. There is no one answer, no one way of healing, no one way to grieve.
Grief burrows in our bodies and nests in our marrow. It’s shapeless and void of color, yet contains all shapes and hues. It wounds us, leaving signs of struggle and survival. Davis traces the map of her scars, drifting from blurred boundary to faded hill. She reaches within her wounds to reshape her grief as a way to heal, to rediscover some sense of wholeness. She writes, “When a loose thread needs pulling — though pulling it means, in some ways, untangling the present moment from before, in ways that admit the enormity of grief — that’s when I write.” Writing and moving through the world with wonder, gratitude, and surrender are ways in which Davis collaborates with her grief.
“Happening upon us here,” she writes, “you might wonder if one can witness such suffering and not suffer oneself.” Suffering is multiple and often shifts its shape. It’s both individuated and transient, and perhaps something different altogether simultaneously. Davis examines her posture in relation to the suffering of others, how bearing witness can also be a form of suffering. For her son Willem, who attended another school in Newtown, his witnessing led him to a haunting realization: “I was in the music room. If it had happened at Hawley I would be right there, the first classroom in the building. It would be me.” Horrified and infuriated, Davis laments the surreal reality in which we live, a world where children could be killed in their classrooms.
Invoking Hélène Cixous, she writes, “There is an outside of me, something I can’t protect. Something likely to suffer or even die.” This awareness is described as a foreignness, a secret country that dwells within her body; it’s a wakeful fear that can’t be quieted or consoled. Davis writes, “Wholeness itself seems to have left me. To be led you must surrender, and it’s a lesson we learn anew each day here.” Drawing on her and her town’s experience of collective grief and resilience, she takes readers gently by the hand as she cuts a new path through the thickets of the unknown. She writes through her longing for wholeness, for the wholeness of her children and neighbors. Facing the fact she must surrender to the unknown, she writes: “The known slips out of its clothes, out of the house, out of the body, down the street and into the air…I can’t follow, or search for anything certain. I can only be led.”
In the year after, Davis calls a path into being and allows herself to be led, to surrender her fear. “This being-led,” she writes, “has something of the surrender of sleep combined with an awareness of self, a self-wakefulness…I have to relearn each time this part: don’t ask where to or you aren’t worthy anymore of the grand gesture the practice offers you.” She allows herself to be led as if in dreams: through windows and doorways, across “the many-mouthed universe,” into memory, and finally, to her writing desk. There’s an unveiling that takes place within these pages: writing, whatever it may become, begins with a willingness to be led.
With each essay, Davis leads us through the winding, shadowy groves of healing. The healing process is expansive and painful, to say the least, and becoming whole again — or perhaps becoming a different shape of wholeness altogether — requires a tilt toward surrender. Like many parents, Davis grapples with a world of inescapable unknowns about her children: “I know it’s the time for young deer to lose sight of their mothers. I know the hummingbirds are in their last few weeks before a mysterious fate awaits them, not so different from mine, or my boys’.” With each act of surrender, she unearths her “gradually-growing-wholeness,” from the seemingly mundane task of putting her children on the school bus to sitting at her desk to write.
Language conjures worlds, memories, and stories, but it also has its limitations. Davis recognizes this, saying she writes “toward precision, but never at it.” In an attempt to cope with the world’s “answerless silences,” she seeks wisdom and guidance from artists, writers, and philosophers like Hélène Cixous, Miklós Radnóti, Eva Hesse, Guillaume Apollinaire, Romain Rolland, and others. It’s through their work and her own writing practice that she’s able to study her ruptures and begin to mend them: “Who, what hunter, tracks down guiltless doves, I think before I can stop myself. Start again as if you had wings, Miklós reminds me.” Her personal experiences permeate boundaries and leak into her art, stretching past the margins of what can be easily understood or expressed. She enters this in-between space and explores beyond what’s held in her muscle memory. It’s here where she moves toward feeling “without perceptible limits.”
Davis recontextualizes her parenthood in relation to fellow artists-makers-thinkers and their work, articulating her limitations as she tries to separate her trauma from her children’s. She asserts “image and meaning need not connect” as a way to refuse the idea that “everything happens for a reason.” Like Guillaume Apollinaire and the Surrealist concept of the “abortive image,” Davis reveals within the architecture of grief a certain kind of truth that refuses resolution and is thus represented as “unfinished work.” This refusal of resolution is a testament to those who have suffered “sudden and irreversible trauma.”
These essays are a vehicle in which Davis’s unmaking can travel a non-linear distance through language. Davis unravels images in her memory so the “seams of unmeaning show through.” Her memory is “full of loose thread” and refuses total cohesion in an effort to resist violence. This gesture of deliberate unmaking offers an opening through which she can write with and past herself. She says, “Shapes can represent what they are, but can never totally cohere.” We draw connections based on preconceived notions, but we can’t fully depend on these connections without interrogation. Because “broken parts shine truest,” Davis’s work stretches until it rips, revealing a tangled assemblage of stitches. This purposeful exposure makes a surreal reality sacred; it’s how Davis communicates and honors the ineffable.
The Nail in the Tree illuminates and sanctifies private and public loss. With restlessness and unrelenting honesty, Carol Ann Davis’s essays attempt to say the unsayable and offer her voice to a collective grief. These essays are conjuring, a prayer. They are her way of practicing what her children have taught her: “loving and continuing to love the tree and the nail, the ruin of the current moment and its beauty.” Davis’s sense of hope is a salve, like honey on a wound. She draws out her grief from damaged tissue, seeking balance on the filial line between ruin and growth, searching and being led. Inspired by her loved ones, neighbors, and artist-guides, Carol Ann Davis masterfully, and mercifully, leads us through the darkness into the light. She guides us into a world where, above all, “Love is circumference.”
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Sarah Alcaide-Escue, is a poet, multidisciplinary artist, and editor. Her poetry, book reviews, and artwork have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Entropy Magazine, The Lit Pub, Bear Review, Channel Magazine, and Mud Season Review. Her chapbook Bruised Gospel is forthcoming from The Lune. You can visit her website at www.sarahescue.com.