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Issue 8: The Lily

Issue 7: Passages

Issue 6: No More Tears

Issue 5: Phoenix

Bob Sward's Writer's Friendship Series

Book Reviews

Need to Know



A quick list to poets featured in this issue:

Valarie Duff

Jim Behrle

Fred Marchant

Jacob Strautmann

Vera Kroms

Henry Israeli

Daniel Gutstein

Joyelle McSweeney

David Dodd Lee

Daniel Bosch

Michael Perrow

Luljeta Lleshanaku

Miklós Radnóti

Nikolai Baitov

Drago Stambuk

Zafer Senocak

Subterranean Magic

Ultima Thule
by Davis McCombs  

52 pages. Yale

by Adam L. Dressler

In this, his first book, Mr. McCombs displays a quiet wisdom, precise, confident voice, and accomplished technique that, together, enable his poems to effect acts of elegant transformation. Performing such magic requires a visible stage, a clear before and after, and the invisible, smooth process of transformation itself. Mr. McCombs has carefully attended to all these.

As his stage, he has chosen the Mammoth Cave National Park, a sprawling complex of caverns below the bluegrass lands of Kentucky, where the author was a park ranger while working on this book. The book is divided into three sections. The first, Ultima Thule, comprises 19 persona poems, near-sonnets (14 lines of, on average, 10 syllables each, but without any rhyme scheme) in the voice of Stephen Bishop, who, as the prologue informs us, “served as a guide at the cave from 1838 until 1857.” This historical figure, this voice from and of the past, serves as a guide for us as well — into the physical, mental, and emotional landscape of the book.

One need look no further than the book’s first poem, “Candlewriting,” to see how McCombs works his magic. For the sake of reference, I have included the entire poem:

Childhood was a mapless country, a rough
terrain of sinks and outcrops. Not once
did I suspect the earth was hollow, lost
as I was among the fields and shanties.
I remember the wind and how the sounds
it carried were my name, meant me, Stephen...
called out over the cornfield where I hid.
There was no sound when candlesmoke
met limestone — just this: seven characters
I learned to write with a taper on a stick.
What have they to do with that boy in the weeds?
Am I the letter or the hand that made them?
A word I answer to and turn from, or the flame
that holds the shadows, for a time at least, at bay?

The poem’s opening, “Childhood was a mapless country...” is much like the entryway into the series of caverns that Bishop was one of the first to explore and make sketches of. It lightly and confidently imparts to us this sense of beginning — “Childhood” inherently implies incipience, and “mapless” has the sense of “yet to be explored.” This simplicity, this economic summoning of setting and emotion, calls little attention to itself, and that is why it succeeds. It is central to the success of all the book’s poems, and they are all, in fact, quite good.

The pace of the poem is perfectly suited to its content. Throughout the beginning and middle of the poem, the majority of lines are enjambed, imparting a sense of long sorrow and calm. Only at the end do we encounter questions and stopped lines that speak of a greater sense of urgency, of current wonder and need for understanding. This accomplished technique, this marriage of meaning and form, is at work throughout the book. For example, let us examine the book’s second section, The River and Under the River, wherein, in various voices, the history of the cave is explored, and the upperworld of Kentucky and the author’s (or some undefined narrator’s) own life make their first substantial appearance.

Through this introduction of personal elements, the book’s landscape is widened and, at the same time, made more intimate. And, accordingly, the form of the poems shifts — gone are the tightly constructed near-sonnets of the first section; they have been replaced by freer forms whose lines in number range from 13 to 45, and in length from 3 syllables to 16. These poems are just as intricately wrought as those of the first section, and their revelations are just as powerful. But the voices that move through them are as varied as their topics and settings — from an explorer lost and dying in the Cave in 1925 to watermelons in the present day. And the forms change from poem to poem, like shifts in staging as the magician moves between acts. Take, for example, the ending of “Sinking Stream”:

to find the cur-
rent dwindling
in a clot of leaves --
as if it could
be held by touch
or glittering
turn of phrase.

How perfect to break the word “current” in two! The first syllable hangs like a lip of water over a rock, as its second syllable slides down below. In “dwindling/ in a clot of leaves --” the flow slows down, and the double dashes at the end round out the image wonderfully. The “glittering / turn of phrase” is self-referential, like a subtle wink to the audience from a magician mid-trick. Compare this with the last lines of “April Fifth, Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Three”: “imagined words I could not speak — like finding a piano / in the barn, this possibility wide and tense as a storm." The line length, the line break on “piano” give the sense of discovery after a search. And the motion from the image of the piano to that of the storm tacitly evokes the sound of each. This motion, this direction into images, also exists on a much larger scale throughout the book, not only within sections, but between them.

For example, from the last, quiet lines of the second section — “how to inhabit this thing of bone, gut, and blood, / this part of me that would not vanish if I vanished” — we move into the first lines of the book’s final section, The Dark Country: “It started with the clang of plates and girders...” The ending of the second section is like a quiet submersion, a soft dismissal of history, to which the third section’s beginning answers like a bold, loud announcement of new things, of the modern age and its entrance into the world of the past. It is no small coincidence that this first poem in the third section, “Dismantling the Cave Gate,” has this breakthrough as its central topic and theme.

In this last section, the forms return to the near-sonnets of the first. Here, though, the speaker is the author himself, and the return to the near-sonnets indicates the connection between the author and Stephen Bishop. And just as Bishop served as an actual and metaphysical guide, so too does McCombs. And in these poems, the best of the book, the revelations are even stronger, clearer, and ultimately, more intimate than those of the prior sections. Themes of stagnation, loss, and identity draw on the book’s other poems, most notably on those from the first section. And ultimately, they come full circle in the book’s penultimate poem, “Stephen Bishop’s Grave,” where the poet speaks of “his shadow in my own,” a reversal of the persona poems of the first section:

It took four summers here for me to realize
the cave looped back under the Old Guide
Cemetery, that what was mortal floated
in a crust of brittle sandstone or leaked
into the darkest rivers and was caving still.
I went that drizzling night to stand
where the paper-trail he left had vanished:
woodsmoke, mist, a mossed-over name.
I knew enough by then to know that he,
of all people, would prefer the company of rain
to my own, but I went anyway, thinking
of my pale inventions, and stood a long time,
vigilant for his shadow in my own,
his voice as it differed from the wind.

It would have been easy, and beautiful in its own right, for McCombs to have ended the book here. But one more poem, “Cave Mummies,” follows, and it serves the purpose of summation more hauntingly. For in this last poem, the poet speaks of the importance of the Caves, of the past, to not only guides such as himself and Bishop, or even to Cave visitors, but to humanity in general, and does so without a trace of sentimentality. Take, for example, the book’s last lines: “what artifact will tell the future / of a longing wild and inarticulate, / of a dark place loved and gotten in the blood?” This poem gains as much from its form and content as it does from its placement.

Due in part to its careful construction, Ultima Thule may be viewed as a singule transformation, as a unified journey from a long-dead guide in the Mammoth Cave National Park to a chilling question of our own identity and its connection with past and future. McComb’s gentle voice, through transformation and revelation, has quietly led us to such a place, like a lantern through darkness. And as with all worthwhile art, in taking this journey, we have ourselves been changed.


Reviewer's Bio Note

    Adam L. Dressler graduated from Harvard with an A.B. in Classics in 1997. Since then he has ridden the economic wave from dot come to dot gone, and has recently applied to several MFA programs in poetry.


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