In Memoriam: Poet and UMass-Boston Faculty Helene Davis (1948-2018)


All of us at Alice James Books are saddened to hear of the passing of poet Helene Davis.

A fierce, elegant and witty voice fell to silence this past summer. Poet Helene Davis died July 3rd, 2018 succumbing to longtime illness and stroke. 

The author of Nightblind (Pourboire Press 1976) and Chemo-Poet and Other Poems (Alice James Books, 1989, Cambridge, MA), Helene’s poems and commentary appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Black Warrior Review (winning Black Warrior’s 1977 Literary Competition), Southern Poetry Review, Ploughshares, The Blacksmith Anthology 11, among other prestigious publications. 

On the back cover of Chemo-Poet and Other Poems, author Lee Grove summarizes Davis’s work:

What wicked funny poems these are. They stab, yet also make you smile. Cold beds, lovers short on courage, the Big C — few can avoid head-on collisions with these beasts, as Helene Davis surely knows. Yet her ruefulness is nearly always charged with wit; and her graceful poems deliver swift, neat punches. She has seen the Gorgon, been fed to the dragons — and emerged intact, “put together with safety pins” and grinning. She sings a mean, sweet blues.

(From Dracula Meets a Chemo-Poet ©1989 Helene Davis)

Dracula comes through my window, hungry as usual, Fine, I
say, hungry too, hungry for the kiss, the bite, everlasting life.
He shows up in his rented suit and fine white shirt. He is
wearing his company manners. "Would you be so kind," he
says. "Yes." And I picture his wings protecting me in the dark
skies. Dracula drinks my blood and vomits six hours later. In
three weeks he loses all his hair.  

Author and poet Gardner McFall wrote about Davis in American Book Review: What is admirable about Davis’s poems is that true as she is to her experience (she is alternately angry, ashamed, sad, frightened), she never succumbs to self-pity. Her sense of humor, heart, and, of course, the poems themselves keep her afloat.

Helene Davis was born in Washington, DC and grew up in Providence, Rhode Island. Her parents were first-generation Americans with long roots in Poland and Austria. Their struggles finding their place in America, and Davis’ own struggle with childhood illness informed her work with insight and compassion. She received her B.A. in Art from Boston University, and her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Massachusetts. Helene Davis’s career in poetry and teaching took her to Kentucky and Massachusetts where she was poet-in-residence, and she taught for many years at UMass-Boston.  She received prestigious grants that fueled her writing including from the National Endowment of the Arts in Washington, DC and the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities.

Davis was driven to write poetry, expressing that the impossible intimacy of a poem, although not understandable in the usual way at first, was her only true way of communicating her experience—from torture to wonderment and whimsy—which became bearable only in the Underworld of a poem.

Davis was an avid reader, especially of poetry, mystery and horror as well as a music lover including gospel, blues, and jazz; she created and sewed eclectic small sofa pillows, and enjoyed cooking. Davis adored her feline companions creating many stories of their exploits that echoed the mythologies of Egyptian priestesses and their magical guardians. 

She is survived by her brother, Ari (Donald A.) Davis, Ph.D., of Fairfield, Iowa and her life-long friends, Paul and Barbara Gray of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Obituary written by Natasha Peterson


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