empathy for cars / force of july by Davy Knittle
Horse Less Press, 2016
“Listening is a party” in Davy Knittle’s chapbook empathy for cars / force of july; the self is never in isolation or formed solely in one’s interiority. In these poems, people share space with others, often the space of the city, where it’s possible “to be various” and where there is always the pressure of a “you.” Even when the speaker is “grateful to have some self time / like it’s an anthem this summer,” the other is present in the next line, wrapped up into the new unit of us: “but just for us me.”
This closeness, this sharing of space, is what these poems put forth for consideration. They want to express the most complex emotional intricacies in relationships, but never in order to be distilled to one meaning. The lines and phrases are spontaneous, like flashes of understanding between the self and the other, often a lover: “your face is always excellent / mine gets better / between them.” They’re reminiscent of O’Hara, who is invoked in the collection’s epigraph, and the whole collection feels in line with, certainly indebted to, the first- and second-generation New York School poets (Mayer, Notley, Berrigan).
The poems are largely simple in their diction, often composed of single-syllable words (“let’s play a game—try with me”), and at home in colloquialisms and slang like “fav,” “hella,” “tweaks me out,” “chilling.” But the verbal simplicity is in tension with the weight of the relational content. There’s strength in the poems’ humor, too, in their puns, which form the speaker’s personal code. But they’re more than puzzles to be worked out—they have to do with multiplicity, with the speaker’s idea of being “split.” So inside of “constant sea” is “constancy.” Readers must be open to both, accepting that relationships are dependent upon steadfastness as well as the progression involved in a relationship’s necessary evolution (the “march to constant sea” feels allegorical, even biblical, a pilgrimage that ends in steadiness).
In the first section of the chapbook, the poems’ individual titles resemble a license plate, with three letters followed by four numbers. These titles can be read as the three letters of a person’s initials, often confirmed by the presence of an individual’s name in the poems, and then four number indicating a date: some month between the years of 1995 and 2020. In this reading, many poems take place in the past, in the space of memory. Moments formative to the speaker’s identity crop up: “our dad was gone,” “the phone rings a question … and I am six—what can I say.” But simultaneously, there is language of futurity and possibility in these poems: “you trust I’ll become a dad,” “we could go live in it.” These poems’ force is toward future, just as the motion of cars is also forward.
Formally, the two sections are united, and thematically they can be read together, though in the second section, “force of july,” desire is foregrounded. Knittle writes, “desire’s its own evidence”—it cannot be hidden. In contrast with the first section, the “you” in “force of july” seems to refer to one lover, one object of connectedness and desire: “taken over by your / mouth face hips lover’s hands”. There’s desire, too, for a feeling of home, for the ability to change circumstances or memories (“I imagine you where I didn’t do / you wrong”), and to pull the self back to calm and self-assurance after anxiety about being “split that I am.” In one stanza the speaker fears entering a bathroom until the “other dudes” are gone, urging the self, “steady, man.” There are even hints at desire for a focus beyond the monetary or consumerist: “our song made up / across the dollar—beyond its range.”
In the second section, each poem begins with the word march, which feels like a joke after the section title with its reference to the month of July. Here, the sense in which march is used is covers a much broader field of meaning than the first poem, “march beside the states,” with its allusions to Fourth of July parades and the U.S. Constitution, might suggest. March is continuous motion, onward motion. March moves toward july, july pulls on march with force. In this way it’s again the force of the future that these poems are concerned with.
Each poem in the chapbook is symmetrical, with five quatrains each, hovering at around 28 syllables per stanza. There’s almost no punctuation but dashes. Maybe it’s the dashes, or the short-line quatrains, but there’s something very reminiscent of Dickinson about these poems. It’s in their mystery, too: their concision and yet their many ways to be read. In the poem “march of grace to be various,” Knittle writes:
I’ll remember you to full sun
rooms bathe or vanish in you
melonspoons want you—gold air
you’re over your swimmer’s edge
The line breaks allow for simultaneous meaning: is “sun / rooms” as one word? Or are the first two lines to be read separately? Does the speaker bathe or vanish in the other, or does the other contain whole rooms? Dickinson-style possibility. And there is Dickinson’s shifting scale, too. The addressee, the lover, is held in sun-colored, melon-colored, gold-colored light: that’s the grace afforded them in this poem. That’s the kind of empathy this collection urges: a more beautiful way of seeing the other.
What else is attractive about these poems? Their comfort with the body as metaphor: “we park it on the lips of the day” or food as metaphor “everyone’s different / it’s just a burger for some.” This makes sense given the speaker’s desire for intimacy—sharing food is one of the most intimate of actions. And these poems are carried by beautiful sound work and Dickinson-esque rhyme work: “wall-eye/trolley,” “parachute/pair-of-pliers,” “need/hold.”
These poems want to teach us that empathy is a forward motion. It’s hope for greater intimacy, better understanding between people in the future, a little more life, the invention of a better way to remember something, a greater ability to “captain” one’s life. Force and mobility, invoked in the epigram, are not aimless here, but with a forward motion that nonetheless allows for the occasional step back into the past, if only to re-order it or gentle it. This is a hopeful collection. “it’s for the future.”
Kelsi Vanada graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with her MFA in poetry, and is now studying literary translation at Iowa. She translates from Spanish and the Scandinavian languages. Her poems and translations have appeared most recently in Prelude, New Delta Review, and Asymptote.