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Davis McCombs, Dismal Rock

Dismal Rock serves up a variety of short poems that masterfully blend fiction and prose. Most of McComb’s poems have a title that presents the topic of the poem and then he expands from there. However, his brilliance lies within his ability to write about his topics in a somewhat conversational manner that is loaded with a dense, sophisticated vocabulary. In fact, his poem “Lexicon” is all about conversations in Southern Kentucky.

“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, planet beds stripping rooms. (5)

The vocabulary in these lines entrances me. A lot of it (like “lugs” and “thrips”) may just be common to his roots, but to the unfamiliar reader it speaks volumes from both an intellectual and regional standpoint. Such language draws me into his world and gives me perspective on his cultural heritage. I also sit around and try to imagine what some of these words even mean. The imagery is provocative and demands me to continue reading. The “story” being told here is simple but surprisingly deep.

The first section of the book deals with poems about Southern Kentucky. The book’s second half delves into a variety of different topics. Here’s an excerpt from “Bob Marley”.

“In Negril we were duped and hustled
for a week, but even there, in the muscled,

blood-veined face of the bauxite mine,
in the coconuts we drank with straws–too green,

lobotomized–something more, some quiver
of a man, of fingers at the strings of your guitar.” (32-33)

You really get a sense of what Marley meant to McCombs. Throughout the poem the man himself is never mentioned. You are only given strong imagery and carefully-worded depictions of Jamaica. The poem is in tune (bad pun intended) with the man’s musical gifts: soulful and rhythmic. I’m positive the two-line blocks (like the two-beat sound often found in reggae) is very intentional. Anyway, give Dismal Rock a read sometime. It is very impressive.

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