Below Zero

  • Review
By – August 7, 2023

In her fourth col­lec­tion of poet­ry, Car­ol V. Davis focus­es on her fas­ci­na­tion with Rus­sia — a coun­try she loves and in which she has lived for extend­ed peri­ods of time. Her last stint was in 2018, when she resided in Siberia and taught at Bury­a­tia State Uni­ver­si­ty in Ulan-Ude. 

Davis’s poems about Siberia are often about the weath­er, which she describes with pre­ci­sion and won­der. It becomes a metaphor for the extremes we endure to test our own lim­its. In the poem Below Zero, the Tem­per­a­ture Falling,” the poet writes about the strug­gle to sur­vive in such a frigid climate:

Start­ing two days ago, I was warned of the approach­ing cold:

-25°C today, tomor­row ‑31°C, ‑40°C Saturday.

I can­not imag­ine such tem­per­a­tures, how oth­ers live here,

go about their days work­ing, walk­ing to the store.

Davis also writes beau­ti­ful­ly about the bonds she makes with her col­leagues and oth­er peo­ple she meets. She clear­ly wants to under­stand what makes them tick — their pol­i­tics, work, rela­tion­ships, beliefs, and super­sti­tions. In the poem In Siberia, I Watch My Host,” the poet gazes at his host as he pours him­self a glass of beer, dips a fin­ger into it, and taps it on the table top. She then learns he does it for the house spir­its, to either appease or nour­ish them. 

A descen­dant of Jews who fled the pogroms of Rus­sia, Davis weaves many Jew­ish themes into her poems. In Licorice Fern,” she writes about count­ing as a way to grab hold of the fleet­ing nat­ur­al uni­verse, at which point her thoughts take a leap:

Count­ing is habit form­ing, such cer­tain­ty like the counting

of days of the Omer, the prepa­ra­tion and anticipation

of free­dom: sev­en weeks, forty-nine days between the redemption

from slav­ery and receiv­ing of the Torah. There is too much 

to remem­ber: why must we be respon­si­ble for all the ills?

More than any­thing, this is a col­lec­tion about trav­el­ing — trav­el­ing as a way to learn about one’s back­ground, to appre­ci­ate the place we call home, and trav­el­ing as a path toward rev­e­la­tion, not unlike the act of writ­ing itself. In Dri­ving on Hwy. 31,” the poet comes across an aban­doned church in a small town and won­ders, Can a per­son ever find salvation?”

For Davis, sal­va­tion lies in the process of dis­cov­ery — of wan­der­ing and won­der­ing about her life and the lives of the peo­ple around her. In doing so, she dis­cov­ers the pains and joys of being human.

Stew­art Flor­sheim’s poet­ry has been wide­ly pub­lished in mag­a­zines and antholo­gies. He was the edi­tor of Ghosts of the Holo­caust, an anthol­o­gy of poet­ry by chil­dren of Holo­caust sur­vivors (Wayne State Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1989). He wrote the poet­ry chap­book, The Girl Eat­ing Oys­ters (2River, 2004). In 2005, Stew­art won the Blue Light Book Award for The Short Fall From Grace (Blue Light Press, 2006). His col­lec­tion, A Split Sec­ond of Light, was pub­lished by Blue Light Press in 2011 and received an Hon­or­able Men­tion in the San Fran­cis­co Book Fes­ti­val, hon­or­ing the best books pub­lished in the Spring of 2011. Stew­art’s new col­lec­tion, Amus­ing the Angels, won the Blue Light Book Award in 2022.

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