I accepted this book as a review copy when it first came out, just over three years ago now. I put on the shelf with all the best intentions, and then forgot it. When I rediscovered it there, lost among assorted volumes of nonfiction, I felt ashamed by my negligence. Surely I could have read it earlier, if not when I first received it, at the very least during the trial of Alex Jones for the outrageous conspiracy theories that hurt so many people and ushered in a whole new form of denial, or a few months later when the tenth anniversary of the Sandy Hook school shooting was marked last December. But The US seems an endless supplier of senseless and tragic school shootings so it’s no surprise that, when I finally did take the time to read The Nail in the Tree: Essays on Art, Violence, and Childhood, I happened to finish it on the one year anniversary of Uvalde.
Poet and essayist Carol Ann Davis was newly relocated to Newtown, Connecticut, with her husband and two young sons when the Sandy Hook shooting occurred. They lived close to the site but, due to zoning, the boys attended another school. Willem was in fourth grade at the time, Luke in kindergarten. They were safe, but not untouched. “And this is what it is not to suffer that day,” she tells herself when recalling the shooting, “This is the not-suffering, happy ending story.” But, of course, it’s not that simple. The trauma sends lasting ripples throughout the community in way that leaves no one unaffected:
Sacerdos, from the French and earlier from Latin, literally meaning “offerer of sacrifices.” The children who live here, perhaps it’s strange to say, now glow. They do, they glow. No one can approach unmoved, and the children, understanding their role, shoulder, take on, burden themselves with us. Their skin nearly translucent, they walk around like that, glowing. They offer themselves like bits of mirror, and we accept.
The adults, by virtue of wider perspective, suddenly become acutely aware of the fragility of childhood. For those who still have to send their children back to school, trust them to the school bus each morning, there is the conflicted desire to both protect and prepare. Older siblings want to look out for their younger brothers and sisters. No one wants to trigger memories that may or may not even exist.
It is within the altered dynamic of the six years that follow the tragedy, that Davis endeavours to articulate and make sense of what it means to raise children in the aftermath of violence. In a series of essays that make their way slowly but not strictly chronologically away from the pivotal event, she turns to poetry and art to understand how artistic practice might be a productive way of integrating trauma into life moving forward—for herself and for her sons.
This is not a typical grief memoir, nor does it delve into the specifics of the shooting or the political fallout. The event itself rests as a horror too large to think about directly—it sits, unspoken, in all aspects of community life, especially at the bus stop, in the schools and on the playing field. Yet Davis seeks answers at her desk, beneath the hummingbird feeder, at art galleries and museums and, ultimately swimming in the open ocean, the one desperately longed-for release her newly adopted, landlocked hometown denies her. Along the way, among others, she turns to the work of Hélène Cixous and poet Miklós Radnóti and, for an extended period, she follows the lead of (and argues with) Rumi. She engages with the art of Eva Hesse to better understand the poetic process, and when, four years after the fact she has to fully explain to Luke, now that he is old enough to know, the extent of what happened at Sandy Hook, she draws on Paul Celan and Armenian born artist Arshile Gorky to help her untangle the enormity of her own grief.
Davis’s writing is poetic, pulling images, quotes and refrains through her essays, like threads to link or unravel her thoughts as needed. And she is an astute observer of art who is able to find in a number of artists, their techniques and philosophies about their practice, clues to appreciating how she is growing and, more importantly, how the boys are not only coping, but finding their own ways to thrive. More than once the boys are dragged through exhibitions, like one of Picasso’s sculptures in New York, or shown a show catalogue, like that of American abstract painter Agnes Martin. Davis hopes that Luke, who is a budding draftsman will find some connection in Martin’s geometrically precise but somewhat dissonant canvases (he does not). The message in the artist’s work and her method, however, is less for the child than his mother:
I’m suddenly afraid: I am not ready to admit to myself, as Martin has, that the purpose of art may be to unlock an inner happiness in the viewer. I am doubtful such a happiness is inherent, and unsure whether it is larger than forces with which I’ve engaged in my own work (such as grief and difficulty). I am uncertain I can place the function of art, art-making, its practice, in the category of making-happy, given all I’ve seen and felt in the last five years, all my children have endured in the service of gaining a working understanding of the world into which they’ve been thrown. Of course, any difficulty can be a subset of happiness, Martin’s work virtually shouts at me. Don’t be so narrow-minded.
Throughout these original, thoughtful essays, it becomes clear that the search for meaningful expression—even happiness—after trauma is Davis’s personal journey, one within which her children are her motivation and measure of progress, but not her exactly creative companions. One cannot grieve for anyone else as much a parent might wish shield their child from their own inevitable process. With luck and their parents’ support, Willem and Luke will hopefully have the resources to come, in time, to their own mature understandings of the event that they escaped only by chance. Sadly, with school shootings such a regular occurrence in the US, shadows of the horror that erupted at Sandy Hook on December 14, 2012 may be hard for any of the Newtown residents to fully move beyond.
The Nail in the Tree: Essays on Art, Violence, and Childhood by Carol Ann Davis is published by Tupelo Press.