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