By Jason Guriel
Poetry Media Service
Dismal Rock, by Davis McCombs. Tupelo Press. $16.95.
Younger poets still making a name for themselves, like Davis McCombs, know that they must be clear and compelling and not take up too much of our time--"for time," as August Kleinzahler smartly reminds us in a recent talk, "has vanished with inflated rents and the blitzkrieg of what's cheerfully called information, information to be attended to, and I'm talking right now." McCombs gets this and--in the first section of Dismal Rock, a sequence on tobacco farming--gets down to business, describing a world with the rigor of an anthropologist in the field:
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.
In these lines, from "Lexicon," McCombs's speaker, a good listener, has catalogued his environment's recurring sounds--the "u" in "bluff ," "lugs," and "cutters"; the "w" in "white," "whittling," and "whistling"--and organized them into a brief, cohesive sound loop that captures the aural energy of a rural landscape. Dismal Rock reassures us that words, when used well, can work. They can record the world and, at their best, transform it, as McCombs's do when they describe a bat "crossing / the water on the boat of its reflection," or how "a bulb of gnats flickers on / above the damp leaves."
But while words can be made to work, they can also become workmanlike. And while much of the poetry in Dismal Rock is precise, much of it is also unmemorable nature poetry, opting for the obvious over the transformative:
each moment flaring up
like a match, consuming itself.
this is the river's
whorled thumbprint, the water's surface dark as ink.
--From "The Tobacco Economy"
the storm that, far beyond him, was purpling
like a bruise.
when the storm spread
like a bruise along the coast.
--From "Bob Marley"
This is the sort of poetry in which things "unspool" (see "Salts Cave Revisited" and "Northtown Well"), in which stuff is compared to "ash" (see "The Tobacco Economy" and "Stripping Room")--poetry, in other words, that's teetering on the cliche of our era's cliches.
McCombs, a Yale Younger Poet, is capable of some fine moments--but then who isn't in an era that valorizes the bite-sized fragment over the fully realized narrative, the poetry over the poem? Instead of working through the implications of a neat idea--that bat "crossing / the water on the boat of its reflection," for example--McCombs merely moves onto the next idea--"it is squeaking / like a rusted hinge"--which is far less startling. The poems in Dismal Rock, then, are less poems than lists of description that never quite cohere into the self-contained pieces that need every one of their words. Like worms and double albums, they can be sectioned and still survive.
Jason Guriel lives in Toronto, and his next collection of poems is forthcoming from Vehicule Press in 2009. This article originally appeared in Poetry magazine. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at www.poetryfoundation.org.
© 2008 by Jason Guriel. All rights reserved.