Tag Archives: Kentucky Authors

Ultima Thule by Davis McCombs

From the Yale Series of Younger Poets, Ultima Thule is a lovely and worthy read penned by Kentuckian Davis McCombs, especially recommended now during African-American History Month.

The hero of the first sequence of poems is the enslaved Stephen Bishop, the early explorer and cartographer of Mammoth Cave. A trusted guide, indeed the master of an underground world, his skill meant he was relied upon completely by educated, wealthy, powerful, white men and women who visited the Cave in its early years as a tourist attraction, yet Bishop was always aware of his station as property of another. The imagined voice McCombs summons in these beautiful, quietly musical, unrhymed sonnets allows us to appreciate the man as more than what was recognized in his own time. Here he is philosopher and naturalist, observer, entertainer, lover…a complete human denied that recognition of his humanity during his lifetime, his voice unheard by the world that benefited from his talents. The credit for his exploits and his fame was co-opted by his master, the Doctor.

Click here to read more about Stephen Bishop.

In the second and third cycle, McCombs pivots to verse inspired by his own life, including his own time spent as a ranger at Mammoth Cave. No less lyrical, these poems are deeply rooted in the importance of place. The natural beauty of the Commonwealth pours from the pages and invites city-dwellers, confined by routine, a pandemic, and winter storms to plan our own small explorations.

Here’s a taste:

Stephen Bishop’s Grave

“It took four summers here for me to realize

the cave looped back under the Old Guide

Cemetery, that what was mortal floated

in a crust of brittle sandstone or leaked

into the darkest rivers and was caving still.

I went that drizzling night to stand

where the paper-trail he left had vanished:

woodsmoke, mist, a mossed-over name.

I knew enough by then to know that he,

of all people, would prefer the company of rain

to my own, but I went anyway, thinking

of my pale inventions, and stood a long time,

vigilant for his shadow in my own,

his voice as it differed from the wind.”

– Review by Scott, Main Library

Where Fiction May Lead

parchementoleavesI recently had the opportunity to facilitate a group discussion of A Parchment of Leaves by the great Kentucky author, Silas House. While I enjoyed the book tremendously, there was another aspect of this novel that I came across during my research in preparation for the book discussion that I found equally wonderful: the poetry of Kentuckian James Still.

You see, it is a poem by Mr. Still from which Mr. House derives the title of this book. The poem, entitled I Was Born Humble, is a truly awe-inspiring contemplation, in my mind, of life in general, life not necessarily rooted in the place of Kentucky.

The following is the full text:

I was born humble. At the foot of mountains
My face was set upon the immensity of earth
And stone; and upon oaks full-bodied and old.
There is so much writ upon the parchment of leaves,
So much of beauty blown upon the winds,
I can but fold my hands and sink my knees
In the leaf-pages. Under the mute trees
I have cried with this scattering of knowledge,
Beneath the flight of birds shaken with this waste
Of wings.
I was born humble. My heart grieves
Beneath this wealth of wisdom perished with the leaves.

My reaction is the same each and every time I read or recite these lines: an overwhelming sense of both joy and sorrow. But isn’t life, after all, both joy and sorrow?

It is here that I must admit that I oftentimes find poetry somewhat inaccessible. While I admire and am familiar with the household names in this genre, such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, and Robert Frost, it is when I branch out to lesser-known poets that I find myself a bit befuddled.

This, I hope and believe, will no longer be the case, as I find a renewed interest in such structured musings and now possess the resolve to venture further. Hitherto, I have always turned to fiction to better understand history, tragedy and triumph, the human condition, etc., but it seems to me now that there is an additional literary vehicle available to me by which I can come to a better understanding of the world. They say that a thing is better late than never, an expression that I take solace in on this new, and somewhat belated, journey into the realm of that most objective of aesthetic art – poetry.

Two collections of Mr. Still’s poems that I would recommend, in addition to A Parchment of Leaves by Silas House, are:

Formats Available:  Book (Regular and Large Type), Audiobook, eBook

Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill