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Every Force Evolves a Form
Guy Davenport
Twenty Essays

Published by North Point Press in 1987
A Book Review by Bob Matherne ©2002


If the title is true one can wonder what driving force evolved the form of this book: twenty essays filling a "thin volume" of English criticism of anything that moves or goes bump in the night. The title essay is a curious assemblage of literary blurbs about birds: Poe's Raven, Wordsworth's Robin, Emily's Lark, and Whitman's Thrush. The essay "Balthus" consists of a melange of one-sentence paragraphs about the famous painter. In another essay we discover that Montaigne was the first to comment in writing on the observation that the number of tree rings equals the number years of life of a tree. Guy tells us there were precursors to Montaigne that were found later, all centered on the locale of Pisa in Italy. He tells us that the woodcutter who made the observation to Montaigne "had probably learned it from a professor at the university." This statement betrays Davenport's academic bias: where did the professor first learn of the rings if not from an observant woodcutter? Knowledge, contrary to Guy's understanding, originates not from professors and books but from direct observation of nature.

I liked his essays in this volume much better than his "Geography of the Imagination" which I got bogged down in. Each essay in this book Davenport prepares like a little Italian pizza-maker: first, he twirls a subject in the air and when it lands, he deftly strews slices of mythology, chunks of fiction, sprinkles of poetry upon it, and then bakes the concoction in our brain until the smells of literature come alive and we're ready to sit down for a feast. By this time the essay has come to an end and we can hear in the other room the pepperoni being sliced in preparation for his next pizza pie.

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