By Davis McCombs
The University of Utah Press
Reviewed by Amie Whittemore
Davis McCombs's third collection of poetry, lore, is an organic extension of his previous work in Ultima Thule and Dismal Rock in its ongoing contemplation of people and place. In lore, we find McCombs exploring his current home in the Arkansas Ozarks alongside his native Kentucky, whose landscape was central to his earlier collections. These two geographies ground these economic and vivacious poems, which investigate the intersections of landscape and history, of human and animal, of myth and story.
The first section of the book, "Tradition Bearer," establishes the poet as interlocutor. The speaker consistently reminds us in this section that he is merely the messenger: phrases like "or so I've been told," "the way he told it," and "or so they said" occur throughout this section. The speaker, in maintaining these colloquialisms, weds the economy of poetry to the rhythms of storytelling. We are invited to trust these stories because they are given to us the way they were told and it is in the telling that a story is made true.
"In His Own Country" is a fine example of one of these overheard stories. In it, we meet Old Doc Proffitt, who removes an aching tooth from the devil himself:
he kept that tooth,
an evil-looking spike, in a drawer of his roll top desk
and if asked, would produce it for the deeply skeptical parade
of hillfolk through his office.
This "skeptical parade" is crucial to the integrity of McCombs' poems in this section—he is an outsider to the culture of Arkansas: though he's in the South, it's not his South. He, like Old Doc Proffitt, must provide evidence of what he says about this place; he must prove himself as a worthy listener and accurate reporter. These poems provide good evidence of all that; in "Wind in the Ozarks" for instance, the wind "files and defiles" and "peels the snow in tendrils off the bluff. It loosens a crack in the rock, worrying it like a tooth." This kind of attention to weather and landscape demonstrates that the small towns of the South are not reliquaries: this landscape and its people are alive, present, unfolding. All the more important, then, to get the story right, to create space for the place's myriad voices; McCombs lets us listen in on ways of life that are no less real for being overshadowed by the distractions of pop culture with its bells and beeps and likes.
"Dumpster Honey" expertly limns this intersection: the poet and his wife and child are driving through Arkansas and stop at a gas station where he sees bees "working the contents / of the fenced-in trash bin," delivering their artificial nectar to their queen, hidden away in a "rusted tailpipe hive." These hills and their bees, though settled in the husk of flyover states, are not removed from the effects of globalization, of environmental degradation; indeed, these poems suggest that it is in such places forgotten by mainstream culture that the dark side of capitalism lives: young people flee small towns for the economic opportunities of cities. Small towns grow ghostly. McCombs' poetry does not suggest a culture clash so much as a cultural palimpsest: the present is written on the un-vanished past. We must, as in the poem "Freshwater Drum," "follow the song where it leads:" the tune an old one, though the words ring new.
The haunted present is rendered heart-wrenchingly in the poem "Sight Unseen." In this poem, the speaker is at his family farm, recalling a childhood memory of fixing a cattle fence with his grandfather. The boy is afraid and the grandfather assumes it is because of the cattle "smoke-breathed, jostling" on the wrong side of the fence. The speaker reveals his childhood fear was not of the escaped cattle, but of losing his grandfather and that fear continues to preside in "the dark's unaltered vigil. / My old fear exactly what it was: that I'll never see him again." Fear is shown to be a matter of perspective and interpretation; loss the thread that ties past to present.
The second section of the book shifts the narrative focus from Arkansas back to McCombs's Kentucky, with its focus on the slaughter of the "last wolf in Edmonton County, Kentucky," in 1902. The generous, meticulous interlocutor of the first section enters the wolf's perspective as well as the landscape where it lived. McCombs's musicality and image-building are in top form in this section, particularly in the beautiful "lone":
When the moth of his breath got stuck
in a web, the wolf freed its wings of dust
and coaxed it—come now, come—to a cage
he wove from twigs and hooked the latch.
This strange entrapment/rescue/re-entrapment cycle speaks to one of the book's major themes—life is a net and a netted thing at once. The wolf witnesses his world of "the movement of leaves, the unfathomable odor / of black, spiced earth and the oldest wrinkled trunks" disappearing. Replacing it is a world where "now the trees too were being ransomed." Whereas the poems in "Tradition Bearer" demonstrate the continuation and transformation of tradition in the Ozarks, in "lore," we must confront encroachment and its costs—some things will be lost while others may be carried forward.
The collection ends with the poem "Coda," which brings us to the poet's home, the strange folk art left behind by the former owner, Old Stith: "what kind of man would dream a water clock like this / or hang a shard of glass on twine to catch the sunlight / beaming through the hayloft's diamond cutout?" An uneasy closure pervades this final movement: what do we have but the present? What can the present hold but the past and future at once? In this singularity, loss and gift reside and coincide—the story about to be told and the story remembered, conjoined, overlaid. In these poems we see that what transforms is also transformed; that such is the nature of the conversation between time, place, and story. It is this conversation that McCombs's work amplifies with beauty, grace, and expertise.