A Review of Carol Ann Davis’ The Nail in the Tree
March 20, 2020 § 1 Comment
By Lindsey Anthony-Bacchione
On December 14, 2012, a group of five and six year olds might have come to my desk with clipboards and pencils and surveys. They would have asked me questions such as do I prefer ice cream or cookies? Baseball or soccer? At the time I was working as an assistant to a Head of School at an independent school in Manhattan. The year prior to this position, I worked as the school’s receptionist behind a wall of glass doors. My office was catty corner to my boss’s office at the start of the hallway on the same floor as the classrooms that held the five and six-year-olds. I don’t remember if December 14th was a day when students from one of the classes learning about polls included me in their survey. I don’t remember if it was a day when my boss’s own grandson who attended the school, stopped by my desk to ask if he could just say hello to his grandmother. I don’t remember if it was a day when I stepped into a classroom to observe learning in action and to make notes and take photographs for a school newsletter. But I do remember having a break in responding to my emails and opening a news website and seeing the first headlines and images to come out of Newtown, Connecticut. I do remember texting a friend to see if her sister, an administrative assistant at a school in Connecticut, worked at Sandy Hook Elementary. She did not. I do remember my boss standing at my desk and me uttering the words, “There’s been a shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut” and her eyebrows lifting. I do remember the heaviness of horror and grief that fell over my school, my community, and the nation as we learned the details of that day. I remember watching President Obama cry on national television. The images that shook loose from the Sandy Hook massacre are etched into my bones, deepened over time with the advent of becoming a preschool teacher, a mother, a US American who has also been touched directly by the effects of gun violence on my family.
In Carol Ann Davis’s forthcoming collection The Nail In The Tree: Essays on Art, Violence, and Childhood she writes into the surreal of being an artist and a mother raising two boys in Newtown, Connecticut in the shadow of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary. She writes about the ethics of image, “how a narrative sometimes detaches the image from its surroundings.” She writes this in response to a fight her two boys are having with neighborhood children inside her home, wasting one of the last warm days to play outside before winter tucks children away for months. She also writes this in response to a poem of Paul Celan and a painting by Arshile Gorky. She writes in response to art, violence, and childhood. She writes not to make connections with the abstract expressionist painters she admires, but to leave “loose threads” in her essays, daring not to pull tight in favor of a tidy narrative.
Davis’s strength lies not only in her poetic prose but what she chooses to shine a light on, including the works of the artists and writers and poets she chooses to dissect. It is what Davis notices that gives this collection of essays its other-worldliness and yet universality. In a gift shop in her town, she observes, “I have watched a full basket of silver mantra bracelets dwindle over five years. All the ones that have sayings such as ‘choose love’ or ‘you are home’ are gone. Two identical ones remain, and both say everything happens for a reason.” With the use of art theory and her own experiences that capture something close to her reality, it is how she argues “image and meaning need not connect” that is most effective, this absence of reason. That in fact, to impose one on the other—image and meaning—would deny the truth of this surreal existence where children are killed in their classrooms and her boys will go through their educational journey sandwiched between a haunting of missing children.
When writing “On The Relationship of Art to the Body” through the framework of artists such as Pablo Picasso and French feminist writer Hélène Cixous, Davis attempts to articulate the limitations she feels as both artist and mother in trying to separate her existence and experiences from her children’s and the impossibility of this effort. In quoting Cixous and then responding, she writes, “There is an outside of me. These six words describe the paradox of love. In the moment of knowing that one’s own happiness is tied to another, that one’s own well-being is no longer the most important thing, a door should open to an inside. Instead, one realizes that there is an outside of me, something I can’t protect. Something likely to suffer or even die. This is the terrifying and somewhat unthinkable truth: we are not outside ourselves but rather stuck inside, watching parts that are outside-of-us walk around, jump too high, cross the street without looking, enter their classroom.”
The Nail in the Tree is a collection of essays that reads like a folding of art theory into memoir, a churning of thought and emotion grounded in the terrifying reality of modern day parenthood and the violence of childhood. It is Davis’s conviction that, like the surrealists, to try to create art without acknowledgment of these truths would be “fundamentally dishonest.” In an examination of Eva Hesse’s Chain Polymers, she quotes the late artist, “It is my main concern to go beyond what I know and what I can know.” Carol Ann Davis’s essays live in this space in between, a creation of necessary loose threads. Much like Arshile Gorky’s painting The Artist and His Mother, The Nail in the Tree leaves “the seams showing.” Davis equates this deliberate “unmaking” of art as imperative to honoring the full trauma of one’s experience. In terms of Gorky, she explains how “’meaningful’ connections would have sealed away whole parts of his (and his mother’s) experience in a sort of non-existence.” If “broken parts shine truest,” as Davis suggests, The Nail in the Tree is more than a collection of essays but a linguistic portrait of what it is to be an artist and a mother in the United States, a blueprint for how to keep creating in defiance of fear, grief, and meaning.
Lindsey Anthony-Bacchione is a MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her most recent prose essay can be found in About Place Journal: Roots & Resistance issue.