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Echoes and Ashes: Adam Dressler on Davis McCombs

Reviewed: Dismal Rock by Davis McCombs. Tupelo Press, 2007. 62 pages.

Like the phantom farmers, sorters, and curers who haunt “Tobacco Mosaic,” the eighteen-poem sequence that opens his second collection, Davis McCombs, the deserving recipient of both a Yale Younger Poet award and the Dorset Prize, works with a quiet, practiced confidence. Through naturalistic imagery and down-to-earth diction, the poems in Dismal Rock radiate a nostalgic Southern charm, welcoming and guiding us along with a nearly tangible hand that is firm but never forceful. And yet, while the principal sensibility of the poems is homespun and deeply American, the America it contemplates is a far cry from baseball and grandma’s apple pie; it is a landscape layered with damage, loss, and a fear of things to come.

In several cases, particularly in “Tobacco Mosaic,” the agents of destruction are individual organisms or agents, as in “Nightshade,” where “the town on the bluff is dreaming / of an enemy soil-borne and legion, of blue mold, wildfire, brown spot, black shank, rust,” or in “Liming the Patch,” where “two men with a crusher” grind up stolen gravestones for lime. But more often than not, the agent is a faceless force, and therefore casts a longer shadow. Take, for example, the keenly titled “Gnomon,” quoted in full below:

Now deep in thistles and a snarl of broken implements,

the Cross Barn pops its bent nails into the twilight.

He parks the truck by the gate, swings each leg over,

and follows the tilting gravel strip between the silo

and the pond’s half-lit disc. A bat is crossing

the water on the boat of its reflection; it is squeaking

like a rusted hinge. Everything he knows there

has been left ajar: the slope of the barn’s battered roof,

its wedge of shadow keeping time over the fescue,

even the day around him, even the latticed gloom

of the loading chute where once he waited

for a thunderhead to pass, and felt time rumbling

like a tedder over the fields, each moment flaring up

like a match, consuming itself—all of them scattering

like grasshoppers where the tractor turned the hay.

The ruin here is already past—the implements broken, nails bent, everything left ajar—before the sparse present-tense actions of the poem—“he parks” . . . “a bat is crossing”—even begin. The impersonality of the destruction (“time,” twice named, is the most likely agent), along with its being placed in the past, deepens the poem’s sense of helplessness to an ineluctable twilight in which what few actions manage to struggle into being are rendered powerless to effect any change; the active is virtually passive.

The damage, on the other hand, is bristling with energy—“The Cross Barn pops [italics mine] its bent nails into the twilight.” Using such a muscular verb is a trademark of McCombs; elsewhere, he describes “sunlight . . . splattering on . . . mossy stones” (“Tobacco Culture”) and how a “corncrib cranked its shadow over fenceposts” (“Bat Gaddie and the Centennial Exposition”). For this poet, setting is never just a place, but an active—and often omnipotent—participant, not so much embodying or contributing to the melancholy of the poems as aggressively bringing it about with a deliberateness that borders on malice.

And yet, for all their thunderclouds and ash—two fairly common images throughout—Dismal Rock is not despairing. This is due to some degree to the ghost of meter that underlies the vast majority of its lines, which, in combination with meticulous line-breaks and rich sounds, provides a calming almost-regularity. In the following passage from “Water Tank Cosmogony,” for example, the quasi-conversational rhythms and soothing sounds nearly lull the reader into forgetting the hardships to which the lines refer:

A season decanted where a bullfrog

drummed his throat to the black gnats

strafing the watery lens—but how,

across that long drought summer

when we sold the herd, through fields

of parched, uneaten pasture, did he hear

its oval note of rain and aluminum?

The loose amphibrachs (“where” disturbs the otherwise regular pattern) of the first line yield a feeling of summer serenity that the opening trochees and final spondee—a favorite foot of McCombs’—of the second line, along with the first two dactyls (“strafing the watery”) of the third, energetically oppose. But the iamb at the end of the third line, and the many that follow it, gently relax the tension until the meter reaches its climax in the pentametric penultimate line (the only perfectly metrical one in the passage) and the nearly regular final line, whose one exception—the first, extra syllable of “aluminum”—helps to bring the lines full-circle to their initial ease. The unobtrusive but purposeful consonance and assonance, from the guttural u’s of “bullfrog / drummed” to the dry p’s of “parched . . . pasture” to the echoing o’s of “sold . . . oval note” to the final settling off-rhyme of “uneaten . . . aluminum,” add to the sense of stability.

Throughout the collection, this soothing effect is also furthered by the poems’ elegantly balanced syntactical and rhetorical structures. The sentences, the vast majority of which are long, unfold themselves in a leisurely manner, drawing on the subtle suspense of suspended clauses, prepositional (and parenthetical) phrases, appositions, adverbial interjections, and present participles to slow their motion to a drawling crawl. This often works to mimetic effect, as in the following lines from “Lique Log Eclogue,” in which an unidentified man walks home as night falls:

“He was near home now; he knew that much,

and he walked on, certain at times of the way,

at times less certain (it was little more

than a cowpath and it was almost dark),

the sloped bluffs falling to his right and left

and suddenly something: a shiver in the air,

two notes, silence—and there it was again:

Maude, he knew this time, calling his name

from the back porch steps and across

the darkness that thickened between them.

Note how the parenthetical observation and the apposition-filled interjection of “and suddenly something: a shiver in the air, / two notes, silence” add to the atmosphere of dimness and doubt even as the repetitions (“he knew . . . he knew”; “certain at times” . . . “at times less certain” . . . “this time”; “dark” . . . “darkness”) temporarily imbue the lines with a feeling of stability that the emotion, in turn, undermines. By repeating “he knows,” for example, the poet ironically reminds us of all that lies beyond the protagonist’s ken.

Repetition, by its very nature, is a connection between the present and past, and it is therefore no surprise that a book in which the preterite is so pervasive should employ it. But in Dismal Rock, repetition is so ubiquitous that it serves not so much as embellishment or encore as motor and motif, driving the poems onward while drawing them together. But at the same time, McCombs deftly varies the kind of repetition just enough to prevent it from being too . . . repetitive. Sometimes he builds it, over the course of a poem, to a final crescendo, as in “Lexicon”:

The people are talking about budworms; they are talking

about aphids and thrips. Under the bluff at Dismal Rock,

there where the spillway foams and simmers,

they are fishing and talking about pounds and allotments;

they are saying white burley, lugs and cutters.

Old men are whittling sticks with their pocketknives

and they are saying Paris Green; they speak of topping

and side-dressing; they are whistling and talking

about setters, plant beds and stripping rooms.

At Hedgepeths, under the shade of the Feed Mill awning,

in that place of burlap and seedbins, of metal scoops,

they are sitting on milk crates; they are drinking from bottles

and they are talking about pegs, float plants and tierpoles.

At the Depot Market, they say blue mold, high color;

they are nodding and saying sucker dope; they are leaning

on the counter and talking about Black Patch, high boys, flue-cured.

They are arguing about horn worms and buyouts.

They are saying come back, come back, come back.

At other times, he reverses this process, beginning with the repetition of a phrase and following it with more oblique repetitions, i.e., with synonyms that perform the same grammatical function. For example, the poem “Self-Admonition at Summer Seat” opens with “Consider the shelf of cracked bedrock where the roots / of cedars knuckle down. Knuckle down,” and then proceeds by means of various imperatives similar to “consider,” (“Think” . . . “Remember” . . . “Imagine”), investigating different possibilities from the same emotional perspective.

The same might be said, to a large degree, of Dismal Rock as a whole. For even when a poem is set outside rural America, as happens only three times (one follows Rossetti in England, another the tropical beauty and poverty of Jamaica, the last the theft of the Elgin Marbles), the tone—declarative, distant, nearly dispassionate—rarely wavers. And while this consistency strengthens the poems’ authority and the connections between them, it also accretes to a coldness that nearly stifles sympathy. One wishes there were a touch more ardor, anger, humor, or excitement here—a little more fire and a little less ash.

But despite this, some warmth does flicker through, especially in the poet’s love of the particular. There is an obsessive tenderness on display in the lush and exhaustive catalogue of plants (“thistles,” “fescue,” “kudzu,” “yucca,” “laurels,” “poplars,” “cedars,” “stingweed,” “sycamores,” “walnuts,” “sawbriars,” “pokeweed,” “pawpaws,” “willow,” “lily,” “wild asparagus,” “dandelions,” “grass,” “boxwoods,” “honeysuckle,” “bamboo,” “palm,” “bromeliad,” “trumpet vine,” “grapevines,” “fiddlehead fern,” “black oaks,” “bloodroot,” “moss,” “daffodils,” and multiple instances of “tobacco”); animals (“bats,” “grasshoppers,” “budworms,” “aphids,” “thrips,” “horn worms,” “barred owls,” “moth,” “spider,” “crows,” “minnows,” “bull,” “crayfish,” “bobcats,” “carp,” “dog,” “towhee,” “robbin,” “chaffinch,” “frogs,” “lion,” “wombat,” “camel,” “crinoid,” “black gnats,” “tadpole,” “Argiope,” “midges,” “dragonfly,” “coyotes,” “Doctor Bird,” “rat,” “crickets,” “fox,” “catfish,” “muskie,” “snake,” “snapping turtle,” “gar,” “bee,” “peacock,” “glowworms,” “Trilobites,” “box turtle,” “Bobwhite,” “mimic bird,” “jay,” “mockingbird,” “quail,” “starlings,” “rabbit,” and “wolf”); machinery and implements (“barrel stove,” “jar lamps,” “Gnomon,” “loading chute,” “tedder,” “tractor,” “pocketknives,” “tierpoles,” “porchlight,” “tackleboxes,” “flashlights,” “spud,” “flatbed wagon,” “crusher,” “broomsticks,” “hoehandles,” “fenceposts,” “flanges,” “pistons,” “rails,” “signal mirror,” “plow,” “kiln,” “cane torch,” “greaselamp,” “Bengal Light,” “lantern [coal-oil, now Coleman],” “light-emitting diode,” “blade,” “strop,” “inner tubes,” “ice cream churn,” “high-tension wires,” “taps,” “spigots,” “spade,” “valve,” “tripods,” “headlamps,” “flash strobes,” “net,” “transistors,” “radio,” “tuning forks,” “barbed wire,” “lures,” “hooks,” “headlamps,” “windmill,” “chisel,” “compass,” “hourglass,” “lens,” “ax,” “windlass,” “buckets,” and “plug”); materials (“chalk,” “gravel,” “burlap,” “metal,” “sandstone,” “plastic,” “brick,” “iron,” “clay,” “flint,” “carbide,” “quartzite,” “slate,” “chert,” “aluminum,” “tin,” “granite,” “bauxite,” “asphalt,” “alluvium,” “limestone,” “marble,” “teak-wood,” “straw,” and “glass”); and place-names (“Hedgepeths,” “Munfordville,” “Bonnieville,” “Bedquilt,” “Austin,” “New Discovery,” “Blue Hole,” “Hart County,” “Pine Ridge Hill,” “Glen Lily,” “Hundred Acre Pond,” “London,” “Canterbury,” “Highgate,” “Penkill Castle,” “Girvan,” “Chelsea,” “Craddock Hill,” “Point Village,” “Tangle River,” “Brownsville,” “Cedar Sink,” “Mummy Valley,” “Salts Cave,” “Turnhole Sink,” “Joppa Ridge,” “Spider-Crystal Descent,” “Mansfield Bend,” “Summer Seat,” “Haunted Hill,” “Edmonson County,” and, of course, “Dismal Rock”) from which McCombs weaves a fabric that is simultaneously mundane and mythical.

This varied accumulation, along with the recurring repetition, infuse the collection with a feeling of determined endurance, a refusal to surrender to the inexorable forces of time and entropy, that keeps the poems from plunging into the abysses down into which they so often stare. Moreover, it is ultimately this love of what has been, is being, and will be lost that gives Dismal Rock, if not the full sorrow of elegy, all the beauty and bittersweetness of eulogy.

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Adam L. Dressler is Assistant Editor of Parnassus. His poems have appeared in The New Criterion, Raritan, and The Yale Review.

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