Dismal Rock by Davis McCombs
In the end notes of his second book, Dismal Rock, Davis McCombs gives credit for the form of his opening sequence, titled “Tobacco Mosaic,” to a sequence written by Les Murray. But I’d say there’s another influence at play in the sound of those poems. His use of jargon and local description reminds me a lot of Seamus Heaney’s early poems. There are similarities in the images as well–dowsing rods and farmland show up again and again. Not that this should be taken as a bad thing–there are worse people to be compared to. In fact, it’s one of the things I like most about McCombs’s book.
Like his first book, Ultima Thule, much of Dismal Rock takes place in rural Kentucky, where McCombs was born and raised. This is especially the case in the opening sequence, as well as in many of the poems that make up the second half of the book. And Kentucky comes alive in these sections. From “The Last Wolf in Edmonson County”:
Autumn lit the wicks of the leaves; the river, foaming,
garbled, recovered its voice. I did not climb
the flash-lit, switchback trail to the rockhouse.
I did not stand before the petroglyphs again
nor rake at the midden ash below them with a stick.
And there are echoes of his last book in “Salts Cave Revisited”:
I was following
Bill Cutliff, Tom and John
Lee, their bootprints
and a whiff of acetylene
far ahead, and I went searching,
as they did, for the jolt
that might come once
in a life or not at all
I can’t say that I’m enthralled with every poem in the book, but then again, I rarely am, and there’s way more to like than not. McCombs’s lines are tight, and his images are taut and lively. Get both of his books.
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