Madison Davis on her debut book, Disasters

Madison Davis on her debut book, Disasters

Disaster has long been an obsession for Oakland poet Madison Davis, whose debut book of that name is out this week from Bay Area press Timeless Infinite Light.

“I think it came of my own experience of loss and grief,” she said by phone. “I’ve lost a lot of people; I deal with my brother’s death in the book, but there are other family members that I’ve lost over the years, and there’s this tendency for me to go back to the details again and again and try to piece together exactly what happened, or how it could have been avoided. When you run out of those details … I started to look at other people’s details,” she said; the search for those details “felt familiar.”

Davis immersed herself in research, devoting five years to the book’s writing. To keep it manageable, she decided to focus only on disasters caused by human or technological error that resulted in mass casualties. The disasters are presented in detail, with emotional distance.

“I think that was a way of not overstepping, for me, and it’s something that I feel generally unresolved about, but also fascinated by,” she said, “because these disasters all have this mass audience, in one way or another, but then quickly get sort of absorbed by popular consciousness, as if flukes, incidents that could never happen again, and I feel resistant to that.”

In the afterword, she writes: “They are documented because there is little else one can do with one’s hands in the moment of witness. They are documented because the rest of us need to know for sure that we are not among the dead and that something will be done to keep the disaster at a distance. The images keep us separate and safe, and yet I found myself moving closer because the moment before the division of futures can be a place of comfort if you can keep yourself there.”

Examined together like this, these incidents compound, and observations transcend the details of each disaster; disaster itself becomes a phenomenon by which we might understand, and even predict, our own behaviors.

In “Hillsborough Stadium Disaster: April 15, 1989,” she writes: “What have I done to gain knowledge of the disaster? A logic that makes my body retreat. I call disaster that which does not have the ultimate for a limit: it bears the ultimate away in the disaster. // We call disaster that which does not have us as a limit: / it bears us away in the disaster.”

Davis moved from New York to the Bay Area in 2011 to attend Mills College, where she received her master’s degree in fine arts. Joining her for the reading are poets Wendy Trevino (“Brazilian Is Not a Race”) and Fisayo Adeyeye (“Cradles”), with a special performance by Out of Pocket.


Disaster by Madison Davis: Book release 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 26. Free. Aggregate Space, 801 W. Grand Ave., Oakland.

This article originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo by Leisa Jennings

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Chinaka Hodge (“Dated Emcees”), YBCA Chief of Programs and Pedagogy Marc Bamuthi-Joseph, and Tongo Eisen-Martin (Someone’s Dead Already) perform their poetry (7 p.m. Saturday, Electric Motorsport, 2400 Mandela Parkway, Oakland, free).

Saturday Night Special presents an “Animal”-themed open mike, with featured readings by MK Chavez (“Animal”) and Alexandra Kostoulas (7 p.m. Saturday, Nick’s Lounge, 3218 Adeline St., Berkeley, free).