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Iambics in Limbo

By Cynthia Haven

In her preface to an unpublished collection of poems, Suzanne Doyle, MA ’78, characterizes the work of Catherine Davis (1924-2002) as “flawless iambics, perfect line breaks, coffin-nail closure, all in the unflinching hands of a moral sniper.”

Admirers believe Davis, ’51, whose work will be featured in a campus reading April 30, is an unrecognized star in the galaxy of poets taught by the legendary Yvor Winters. The reason her collected work remains unpublished is embedded in her biography.

Davis’s father abandoned the family when she was a toddler. At 16, her mother learned that Catherine was a lesbian, drove her to the train station and never spoke to her again. She came to Stanford in 1950 after studying with J. V. Cunningham, PhD ’45. Winters, in a letter he wrote to help Davis find editorial work, commented that she “has had a hard life all the way. She is slightly spastic, though if you saw her you would think the trouble came from polio. At any rate the entire left side is somewhat affected: left eye about worthless, left hand, arm, leg and foot, somewhat shrunken . . . ”

It’s hardly surprising, then, that Davis wrote of “physical, emotional, and moral destitution,” according to Helen Pinkerton, ’48, MA ’50, who edited Davis’s poems with Doyle.

Davis died impoverished and without a will. Publishers have shied from the project because they fear an heir might turn up and sue for copyright violation. “If Catherine had a family who cared, they were not in evidence in the 33 years that I knew her,” says Marie Pelletier, Davis’s longtime companion. “There was not one member of her family who gave a fig about her writing.”

Davis, of all people, might have understood the imbroglio:

After a time, all losses are
the same;
And we go stripped at last
the way we came.

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