Review | Dismal Rock by Davis McCombs
A reader’s first thought upon encountering Davis McCombs’s new collection is likely that “they don’t write poems like this anymore.” In a current poetic climate that seems most interested in post-modern discursions into fracture, collage, meta-textual explorations, irony and self-consciousness—a poetry that moves with an incredible speed—McCombs’s collection sticks out in the crowd like the square chaperone at the rock concert.
But sticking out in the crowd can be a very good thing.
The first observation we can make about Dismal Rock is that it is, at its base, good old-fashioned nature poetry: The speaker/poet gazes at a natural landscape, specimen, or structure and finds in it a wealth of riches and interconnected meanings to a larger world or experience. The poet discovers the whole through the particular, examining up close—and in a detail that can come only from incredible familiarity with the topic—a vast and rich beauty from a slower, “country” way of life.
Because these poems are engaged in a poetic or aesthetic we’re familiar with, one that is not “new” per se, we might wrongly dismiss them as “simple.” But McCombs’s skill, his ability to recreate whole worlds in a poem of fifteen or twenty lines—worlds with their own histories, geographies, lexicons, and characters—is complex and almost novelistic in its scope and richness.
The most compelling gestures the poet makes throughout the book are those toward cataloguing. The gaze here is concerned with listing, the richness of place names that are forgotten or on the brink, and of seeing in their clarity each barn, silo, gully, creek, bird, and tree. The descriptions in these dominant passages are gorgeous, as evinced by such renderings as these lines from “Stripping Room”
The lists and catalogs are poetic and perhaps political. In the face of environmental crises facing Americans at every turn toward a garbage can or gas pump, McCombs’s care and focus on the natural world may seem like a protest at what’s being lost. But it is first and foremost poetry, the lexicon of a local part of the country achieving chanting, hymn-like powers in “Smoke”:
The sonorousness is hypnotic, but after our first reading we notice that the poem, like the passage of time it’s recounting, revises or erases itself, always putting forth a new proposition and new technology, and all of this in only a few winding, twisting sentences.
McCombs spends the book describing, over and over and over he describes, but his power as a poet and writer moves beyond “mere description.” At the end of “Rain Dog,” another song-like chant poem, he ends with a Transcendentalist turn: “storm drains by the curb, rinsing the lost dog’s world of its map.” What this means is not completely sensible and far from easily summarized. The description of the world reveals the larger, spiritual, and mythic realms that humans will never fully grasp. The beauty here leads to wonder and unknowing—an almost visionary state.
Much of the power is in the moments where the world seems utterly mysterious and magic. A small instance remembered in “Honeysuckle” bears a connection to the cosmos and Times.
Like much of what’s great about this book, the thinking here goes in and out of particular and expansive, cosmic and local, great distances traversed in just a line break or sentence. In the poem “Tobacco Culture” an archeologist unearths the pipe “that was waiting for him there, waiting for centuries in dust / and in the scent of nicotine still clinging to the ash caked in its bowl.” The literal tobacco culture of Kentucky is connected to a time before there was any such country as America, the residue of the past still present with us if we look close enough to find it.
“The Mist Netters” recounts scientists at their annual catch and count of the bats leaving Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave. The mystery of these nocturnal animals is compellingly stated:
The bats, even when confronted, are not bats, but are parts of a larger, darker, more mysterious world, a world this book delights in attempting to know, a world that only reveals deeper mysteries the more we examine it.
The overarching metaphor is established by the collection’s title: A footnote tells us where Dismal Rock is, and that it has petroglyphs dating back “several thousand years,” but this iconic place is never confronted head-on, but lingers in the poems like a ghost, hovers in the background as a forbidding and mysterious force. The book’s meditations are imbued with this looming, gray rock in the distance—a compelling strategy and an effective way to cast a shadow (pall?) over the proceedings. The “dismalness” of the Rock also speaks to the “hardness” of nature. These aren’t decorative landscapes or well-kept gardens, but the true facts of the physical world. The eponymous rock reminds us of one of the book’s central concerns: the ancientness and sacredness of the land.
McCombs’s new collection may seem incredibly out of place in our current poetic scene. It may seem entirely old-fashioned. And maybe it is these things. But it is also a book of great seriousness and wonder, a text that praises the world and locates its timeless, historical, dark beauty. In its slower, quiet meditations, Dismal Rock translates that sense of wonder to the page and to the reader, making the poems—and their gaze—palpable, alive, real, and crucial.
Davis McCombs first book, Ultima Thule (Yale University Press, 2000) was selected by W.S. Merwin as Yale Younger Poets Award winner. He is the recipient of fellowships from the Ruth Lily Poetry Foundation, the Kentucky Arts Council, and the National Endowment for the Arts. His work has appeared in Best American Poetry 1996, The Missouri Review, and Hayden’s Ferry Review. McCombs directs the Programs in Creative Writing and Translation at the University of Arkansas.