Sundress Reads: A Review of Dear Vulcan

Laura Davenport follows up her 2016 chapbook Little Hates (Dancing Girl Press) with a new collection, Dear Vulcan (LSU Press, 2020). Dear Vulcan is a masterclass in patience, simmering with steady heat, passion, and rage but never boiling over.

Davenport tackles a variety of topics in the pages of this collection—there are poems about childhood and family with vivid and invigorating southern imagery as well as somber and stinging elegies and remembrances for late friends—but Dear Vulcan truly shines in its vignette-like scenes of young women navigating relationships and interactions with unsavory men.

The collection’s opening poem, “The Lisbon Typist,” sets the scene for these poems, introducing a woman whose “self is not her self—not hers” and a man, Your lover [who] wants to be another, / different sort of man. He writes to you from other lives— / doctor, sailor, theologian.”

Aside from stunning, crushing language, Davenport offers here the parallelism of a woman who lacks a self and a man who tries on as many selves as he pleases, an all-too-common power dynamic and one that resonates throughout the rest of the collection.

Take, for instance, “Damsel, 1990,” where the speaker, a young girl, plays the damsel in distress for the neighborhood boys as they play-fight with sticks to “rescue” her. This poem offers a simple story, young boys embarking on a heroic quest in their own backyard and, viewed through a particular lens, that might be all you see. But Davenport pulls the camera back, pans over, and shows us a young girl being socialized into a subjugated role from an early age. This idea and the imagery associated with it are revisited later in the collection, in the poem “Notes from My Other Life.” Here the speaker reads an old poem about the siege of a village and finds herself laboring through the tired masculinity of the piece—its emphasis on violence, the objectification of the few women present. Already, we are imagining the boys playing knight in their backyard, the girl they’ve delegated as their prize.

The speaker describes the poem as a lecture, long and slow. “It’s hopeless,” she writes, “but then / the second author intervenes, / the girl who owned this book / forgotten semesters ago.” As the speaker reads these marginal notes, she feels a kinship with this other girl (who, according to the title, may have been an earlier version of herself). In these notes, the speaker finds that the girl, too, found these poems at best a slog and at worst blatantly misogynistic. The girl is simultaneously another reader, bearing the through the lecture of the poem along with the speaker, as well as a co-author, her notes expanding the poem, critiquing it and casting a light on its faults. Annotations and additions expand the story of the poem, showing the speaker a different perspective, just as Davenport offers us a different perspective in “Damsel, 1990.”

The subject matter of these two pieces adds to this effect, too. When we imagine children playing knight, we imagine young boys and, of course, they are the knights. And when we imagine knights themselves, we imagine men. As either a result or a cause of these imaginings, the written accounts of these events center a masculine perspective and push women to the side.

Davenport reclaims those narratives, not by inserting women into the story as knights and pretending there was never a masculine center to our stories, but by shining a spotlight directly onto that very centering, asking us to recognize it in ourselves and challenge it.

This is a highlight of Davenport’s style—her patience and masterful pacing.

These poems confront sexual assault, harassment, objectification, and a mountain of other obstacles women face every day and any of these events in isolation is just cause for anger, for boiling rage, but Davenport’s poems are calm and thorough in a way that invites us into these scenes and into the anger. Rather than handing us her anger and asking us to look at it, Davenport walks us to a place where we discover our own anger and are compelled to reckon with it. Davenport’s style represents the difference between watching someone cry in a movie and having a movie bring you to tears.

These poems also relay a theme of interconnectedness, the events described and the people experiencing them unable to exist in a vacuum. They operate within the narratives of the poems themselves and in the act of reading the poems. These poems don’t appear to convey a single, linear narrative. In fact, it’s unclear if the speaker of these poems is one woman or several—but the events of one poem ripple into another, as seen in the parallels between “Damsel, 1990” and “Notes from My Other Life.” For readers, this ripple effect exists in the build-up of anger, discomfort, and exhaustion.

The men featured in this collection vary in the severity of their actions and comments—one man simply won’t stop talking about his old girlfriend and another mansplains dolphins to a girl on the beach, for example, while others are more threatening, their actions more reprehensible—but when read together, their behavior creates a patchwork of experiences that itself is part of a larger, social system.

When a man stops to mansplain marine mammals, this act is a small inconvenience on its own, but it comes with the context of an endless line of men mansplaining endless marine mammals to endless women. Of course, Davenport doesn’t tell you that, the speaker doesn’t visualize the men who have harassed her before this moment or the men who will likely harass after this moment, but we, as readers, draw the line forward to its various possibilities.

The weight of one man’s comments in one poem makes the comments of another man in another poem feel heavier, the building weight of these endless experiences wearing down both the speaker and the reader. In the poem “Pool Hall,” Davenport explores this, writing “If Hell exists for certain, / it’s this basement pool hall, beers / sweating on the table and men circling / under the lights.” In this poem, the men playing pool talk loudly and crudely about their sexual encounters with women and the speaker feels that part of her Hell in the pool hall is that she feels so strongly the experiences of the women mentioned in these stories.

Their pain is her pain—the way they are objectified and demeaned is the same. Perhaps that is the strongest cord plucked by these poems. While it remains unclear if the speaker of the poems is always the same woman or a variety of different women sharing myriad encounters with men—ranging from uncomfortable to dangerous—but, either way, there is the through-line of shared experience and, once again, the weight of one poem heaves itself upon the next.

Dear Vulcan is a collection that evokes far more than is simply written within its pages, a testament to Laura Davenport’s skill as a poet. Davenport conjures intense emotion reactions and has the confidence to allow those events to occur entirely off the page. This collection is a forceful offering to readers and one well worth seeking out.

Quinn Carver Johnson was born and raised on the Kansas-Oklahoma border, but now attends Hendrix College and is pursuing degrees in Creative Writing and Performances studies. Johnson’s poetry and other writings have been published in various magazines and journals including SLANT, Nebo, Right Hand Pointing, Flint Hills Review, and Route 7 Review.

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