On Guy Davenport

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by Eric Byrd

His poetry emerges out of dreams – of a very special kind that abide wholly within the realm of art. (Blok, on Mandelstam)

Guy Davenport's essays are more read than his stories – and so would begin a critical lament, if Davenport's use of the modes were more distinct; if his stories did not abide “wholly within the realm of art”; if his essays and reviews were less visionary, were mere journalism, Sunday summaries; if his early essays were not the soil of his late-blooming fiction. For Davenport, criticism carried the demands of storytelling, and vice-versa. Kafka, for instance, is as likely to figure in a story as to provide the subject of an essay. In his Paris Review interview Davenport said that the “The Hunter Gracchus,” his essay on Kafka's story, started out as a story, and “The Aeroplanes at Brescia,” his picture of Kafka's visit to an early exhibition of flying machines, and one of the wonders of Tatlin! (1974), started out as an essay. Of his compositions he concluded, “It's all one big happy family.” Tatlin! was Davenport's first collection of stories, and “The Aeroplanes at Brescia” the first story he'd written – aged forty-three – since some undergraduate Faulknerisms.

Davenport's critical prose is sibling to that of his onetime friend and fellow Pound disciple Hugh Kenner, whose The Pound Era Davenport hailed as a “new kind of book in which biography, history and analysis of literature are so harmoniously articulated that every page has a narrative sense.” Like The Pound Era, Davenport's early essays, collected in The Geography of the Imagination, vividly narrate influential encounters and pungently picture shocks of recognition. Degas, tracer of haunches equine and balletic, is awake all night with Muybridge's Zoopraxia, with its leaping nudes and galloping tarpans. Shelley and his guest, a literary banker, inspect a copy of Diodorus; both note the boastful inscription attributed to a pharaoh whose name a Greek source had garbled to “Ozymandias,” and they sit down to their respective sonnets.

In Davenport's stories such encounters are magically magnified, and made even stranger. Coming to Tatlin! from the essays one finds a personal and particular use of the information. This is Davenport's dreamt world, with its archaic echoes, classical pederasty, and precisely described machines (“the logos hides in technology in our time”). Davenport takes a few recoverable facts, second- and third-hand “doubtful certainties,” and makes an environment of them, a collage, concrete, habitable, and above all, seen. He says of “The Aeroplanes at Brescia”:

Kafka's account of this event is his first published writing, and as he could not in 1909 know the significance of what he has seen, I combined his newspaper article with Brod's memory of the occasion in his biography of Kafka, and with what I could discover of other people (D'Annunzio, Puccini) who were there, as well as of people who might well have been there (Wittgenstein). To realize certain details I studied the contemporary photographs of Count Primoli, read histories of aviation, built a model of Blériot's Antoinette CV25, and collected as rich a gathering of allusions to the times as I could. I presided over the story like a playful Calvinist God who knew what would happen in years to come.

Davenport goes on to say that the subjects he chose for the stories in Tatlin! “are all in a position of being, as fact, almost not there.” To animate these mysteries he sidestepped verisimilitude “from the outset,” and for guidance looked to Kafka's fantasy Amerika, to Henri Rousseau's “meticulous and pedantic mistakes,” and to Max Ernst's world, “which is always of verifiably real things that are not, however, where they are supposed to be.” Davenport's collages (and those of Pierre Michon, whose novella “The Life of Joseph Roulin,” about the Arles postman Van Gogh repeatedly painted, Davenport did much to bring to English readers) offer endlessly interesting treatments of recorded mysteries – the events whose few verifiable fragments can be meaningfully rearranged, and the lacunae opened to inspired suggestion, crossed with imaginative connections. “[The] Dogon sense that man is a forager trying to find God's complete plan for the universe instructs (I hope) every page of Tatlin!

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