Poem of the Week | May 31, 2021

This week’s Poem of the Week is “If from layers am I cut (death song)” by Carol Ann Davis!

Carol Ann Davis’ most recent book is The Nail in the Tree: Essays on Art, Violence, and Childhood (Tupelo Press, 2020); her previous poetry collections are Psalm (2007) and Atlas Hour (2011) both from Tupelo. An NEA Fellow in Poetry and a finalist for the National Magazine Award in Essays & Criticism, her work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Image, Poetry, The Atlantic, and on the website of the PBS Newshour. She is Professor of English at Fairfield University, where she directs the Low-Residency MFA Program. She lives in Newtown, CT, with her husband and two sons.


If from layers am I cut (death song)

if from layers am I cut           if I’m laid out to be felt with the hand
or the blade         if from such layers my own voice

smalls itself to nothing

and from such a song is the melody blended         by footfall and rainfall
if layer upon layer I’m         the under- and slim-base

the natural dross of carbon and silicate

made to blanket crust of shallow canyon       or gulley       if eons from now
my jawbone’s uncovered by         some student’s fine brush

and feeling its touch now         before all beginning

if from that layer       which is coming to me from the future
I lay out myself to be felt         by today’s hand or blade

if from that which will one day come

I can infer the layer that is now         and from this melody blend
myself to footfall and rainfall       if most by sleepwise

am I so visited to see

above my naked jaw shines           the same sun and rises stars
from same deep blue-black         as my carbon my silicate

what from my own voice would follow me         into the bloom of the present

my teeth in my head         one day to rattle free
one day provide percussion       to accompany the heartbeat

of another’s pale song

someone’s lovely skin drawn
tight as a marble         over the drum of god


Author’s Note

I looked back to see when I wrote this poem last year and it was August 2020—during a time we were all sheltering in place during COVID, especially here in the northeast U.S. I also looked at when this form developed, and it was about a year before that. The form relies on a repetition of couplets disrupted by a single line, and breaks between the phrases; it’s a form that allows the poem to daydream and wander, and for this period, I was grateful I had it. It feels like it came just in time, really, to accompany me through a year where I walked every day, where I looked to the natural world—even to something as seemingly grim as the way in which the natural world welcomes the body to decompose, as I imagine here my own discovery as jawbone—to settle me or return me to myself. Perhaps during the pandemic I found the cosmic shuttling between the living world and the dead to be part of what I wanted to fully experience, in some sort of wild sympathy with all the vulnerability the virus inflicted on humans. At any rate, the poem engages with my own vulnerability through the conditional repetition of “if,” inviting me to imagine my body as the subject of some future archeological discovery, then calling on the body to feel the future blade and the brush in the present moment. It’s a cosmic shuttling of the kind a disease like COVID, mixed with the time I had, and language, and the new form, gave me permission to do. I was grateful for my walk, the elements, and the form that would momentarily hold anything I could stand to examine, even for an instant. A poem is, for me, a place to open, a place to see, to be visited, in the momentary. This poem is a momentary visit from August 2020. Reading it now reminds me anew how harrowing an experience any living is.