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Tom Chaney: Our Land is Honored

Of Writers and their Books, Our Land is Honored is a discussion of the poetry of Davis McCombs. This essay first appeared 4 November 2007
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Tom Chaney: An Island in the Stream

By Tom Chaney

Our Land is Honored

"How rare it is to encounter a writer ... who finds the world more compelling than the self. McCombs is just such a paragon." These words by Linda Gregerson judge of the Dorset Prize awarded to Hart County native poet Davis McCombs speak to the quality of McCombs' work in his second volume of poems Dismal Rock [Tupelo Press, September 2007].

The world of this poet is compelling in part because we share it.

The first suite of eighteen poems is titled "Tobacco Mosaic," evoking the crop disease and the finely crafted jewels of shimmering vision glittering in the moon beams drifting in the dust of a poem such as 'Stripping Room.'

In 'Liming the Patch' the old woman tells how two men came with a crusher and "had taken a spud and worked the gravestones out / of their sockets." She sat "In that dim room, where pipesmoke vined / wallpaper roses and yellowed the lamp's rickety shade" describing how "They had waited until the gray light there masked their faces;" before crushing the tombstones into lime for the tobacco ground. The poet sees with the half light of the old woman's half light.

Speaking of the culture of tobacco -- its mosaic, Wendell Berry describes the "community in which virtually everybody was passionately interested in the quality of the local product." Work is shared as is the joy of escape from work.

In McCombs' poem 'Tobacco Culture' the day's work is finished
Then came that moment when they thought again of the river.
Looking up from their work, they thought of fishing there,
. . . . it pulled them from the burley,
housed and curing, and they disappeared down cowpaths
at the edge of fields; they slid through stingweed
and the sycamores scabbed with lichen.
From the subterranean Ultima Thule which explored the caves of our native land, McCombs moves in this second volume to the dappled light reflected in the surface of 'The Water Tank' and to the misty shadows of the Nolin River "below the pedestal of Dismal Rock / as shadows straggled up like sheep from the river" as he watches for the ghost of 'The Last Wolf in Edmonson County.'

Davis McCombs infuses the natural world with meaning and significance that is not metaphor. His is a vision denied us save through his eyes -- a vision which penetrates to the transcendent essence beyond and beneath the surface.

The fisherman who is noodling in the poem by that name reaches into the hollow log "picturing a catfish, holed up / and fanning its eggs."
. . . . He is not afraid,
not now, though he goes with no tackle, no bait,
his mud-gloved fingers wiggling in the murk.
He holds his breath for a muskie's lunge,
a snake bite, a snapping turtle, a gar...
but he is waiting for the moment
when a bolt of iridescence might slither
through his hands, for the instant, instantly lost,
before he'll flip it, thrashing, on the bank.
The poetry contains an essence which reverberates with a sympathetic vibration, as when the catfish is flipped, that causes us to say, "That's it!" in a vivid flash of recognition.

McCombs makes us hear the half-remembered song of 'The Mimic Bird' and see the dim shadows of light more likely from the glittering of the moon than the harsh glare of the sun.

With the poet's eye we glimpse the kaleidoscope of the past. Though the poet cannot summon the dead to speak of the things they handled -- the fields they walked -- McCombs' vision provides an oblique glance.

Yes! Our land is honored to have Davis McCombs among us. With him we walk our fields, penetrate our caves with new eyes. He gives our local habitation a depth and texture we have not known.

But he is not alone. At times whilst I read him I am reminded of two other Hart County artists. I think of the vivid Green River storms whipping the tops of trees in the poems of A. A. Whitman. I think of the vivid colors of the landscapes of painter Joe Downing.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2012-11-04 09:00:07
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