Olena Kalytiak Davis — in memory, in The New Yorker — and what a poem is

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

I'm absolutely certain that Olena Kalytiak Davis would not have loved the idea of me sometimes looking for the ephemera of her when I visited Alaska this past summer.

But I did. I searched. Couldn't help it.

I'd met her at Bread Loaf. She'd haunted us all. Reading in the moted light about a wedding dress. Sitting on a stoop in the early morning, the smoke of a cigarette swirling. The things people say and the things she said, and the delicate and fierce in her, and later, riding a train from DC with a fellow National Endowment for the Arts juror, the talk between him and me was almost all Olena. Where she was. What she was doing. How much better mystery is, than fame.

She lives in Alaska. She's a single mom and an attorney. She has a new book out, a third, "The Poem She Didn't Write and Other Poems." And also: Dan Chiasson just gave her two amazing pages in this week's issue of The New Yorker.

I gasped when I saw it. Hadn't found her in Alaska. Found her here, in the dark, after a many-hour work day, when I needed a little actual poetry.

From the last paragraph in this exquisite bit of appreciation, lessons on poetry, thoughts on Davis:

The medium of poetry isn't language, really; it's human loneliness, a loneliness that poets, having received it themselves from earlier poets, transfer to their readers. Like bees in a honeycomb, writers and readers experience isolation and solitude communally and collaboratively.... Writing a poem, you create that vivid otherness; reading one, you re-create it in your own person. These two lonely souls, writer and reader, are bound to one another. They can be miles or centuries apart, but in Davis's book the passage between them sees some heavy traffic.


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