Nicelle Davis is poet, collaborator, teacher, and performance artist residing in California who “…uses uses video, poetry, performance and publication to discuss topics ranging from artistic collaboration, feminist identity, poverty and power, and the environment.” (nicelledavis.net). She is the author of four previous books of poetry, and her poetry/film collaborations with Cheryl Gross have been shown around the world.
The Language of Fractions is a collection of poems and mixed media. Some poems span several pages, others are only a few lines long. In-between are wonderful drawings of maps and dangerous things, as well as photographs. Not for the faint-of-heart or for those possessing queasy stomachs, Davis’s poems are vivid and corporeal, reaching beyond the given image to something larger.
The collection starts with the section labeled “O: A Love Affair.” In the first poem, “Belly Poem #1: I Have Something You’ll Like,” we are shown a belly button, removed by a scarification artist and kept in a velvet box, because the woman who was born with it “wanted her mother removed.”
It was hard to rein in my imagination at this point—our navels are of course our original connection to our mothers, the first scar of separation, aloneness. But also, “navel gazing” is the common dismissal of so much of women’s autobiographical writing, that the idea that someone would cut out their navel, that it could be shown to the world in all its gory realism, is am image that haunted me as I read Davis’ writing.
In the poem, “Belly Poem #2: How an Affair with Part of an Unknown Woman Begins” Davis returns to the girl with the cut out navel. It’s visceral, enigmatic, yet turns in section V with the line: “My editor tells me, this isn’t a book about nothing. You’re trying to convince yourself love exists.”
Again, the reader is tasked with allowing the meaning to rise off the page, to look into the empty spaces of what is not said as much as what is.
Chapter 3/8: Bone Letters (one side of a correspondence) consists of small poems written to different bones: maxilla, clavicle, humerus, and so on. Even when I find the meaning obscure, the longing is clear. My favorite of these was “dear tympanic” which refers to the ear drum:
i wrote to the whole of you once, but without reply. i have been meticulous. i have gathered the dust of every room you ever occupied. i have cooked your living dead parts into a batter. i have constructed a cake in the shape of a beach house. i lit it on fire. i told you to blow it out. i sang years onto you. all this i for you. i’m begging, try to hear the thing listening.
This section reminds me of Jeanette Winterson’s novel, “Written on the Body,” in which the protagonist finds a love-poem in a book of anatomy.
For me, the book turned on the section entitled “Course Contents,” which is described as “a collage poem made from images and texts taken from a two-volume binder set of a 1960’s charm school teacher.” It consists of photographs of assemblage art with footnoted comments by Davis. This chapter is an intriguing commentary on beauty and likability standards that I quite enjoyed. The mixed media was intriguing but also clarifying—I could see frustration, paralysis, yearning, and love more easily.
In section 1:The Map Game, several poems are in conversation with children—all identified by their ages: 10, 8 and 6. We have “The Map Game Rule Book” followed by poems on the various obstacles. And here the collection turns yet again, this time, to the reflections of a mother, and her family of origin.
In all, “The Language of Fractions” is an unforgettable book of poetry that challenges the reader to work a bit harder to uncover the meaning. It’s a wonderful antidote to the banal and insipid articles on the bliss of mothering we are all inundated with every time we open our computers. It is a declaration of woman as artist, refusing to remain unseen.
The Language of Fractions by Nicelle Davis
Moon Tide Press, 2023, $16.95.[paper] ISBN: 9781957799131
Lara Lillibridge (she/they) is the author of The Truth About Unringing Phones: Essays
on Yearning (forthcoming 3/5/24 with Unsolicited Press); Mama, Mama, Only Mama: An
Irreverent Guide for the Newly Single Parent, and Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian
Home, both with Skyhorse Publishing. Lara is the Interviews Editor for Hippocampus
Magazine and Creative Nonfiction Co-editor for HeartWood Literary Magazine. She
holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from West Virginia Wesleyan College.