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Dismal Rock

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Dismal Rock by Davis McCombs

Synopsis | Awards | Selected Poems | Reviews
Dismal Rock
Davis McCombs

$16.95 Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-932195-48-4
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$22.95 Signed, numbered, limited edition hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-932195-65-1
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This beautiful book records the sacraments of labor and the dark equivocations of history in a single swath of tobacco land in south central Kentucky.  With infinite patience and luminous particularity, Davis McCombs unearths the traces of those-who-have-passed-before-us through the material world.  How rare it is to encounter a writer — to encounter any human being — who finds the world more compelling than the self.  McCombs is just such a paragon. And his poems have the weight of psalms.
—Linda Gregerson, Judge of the Dorset Prize competition

One must look to the great American novelists — Faulkner, O’Connor, Welty — to find a writer whose work illuminates a very specific region. No American poet in recent memory has accomplished the transcendent act of writing completely out of a place without succumbing to regionalism, until Davis McCombs in his brilliant debut, Ultima Thule (named “the finest Yale Poets selection in years” by Publishers Weekly), and now in his second book, Dismal Rock. Ultima Thule explored the subterranean world of Mammoth Cave; Dismal Rock lifts the reader from that vast underground labyrinth into the magical and vanishing terrestrial world above it, opening with a brilliant sequence of poems called “Tobacco Mosaic,” which explores the terrible beauty of that most American commodity, tobacco.

While always firmly rooted in the sloping topography of South Central Kentucky, McCombs ranges seamlessly into unexpected territory in the book’s second half, giving us poems with subject matter as diverse as Rossetti robbing his wife’s grave, the Elgin Marbles, and the genius of Bob Marley.

McCombs’s voice is brilliantly and deliberately restrained; its compassion is singular in current American letters.

The book’s first section, "Tobacco Mosaic," chronicles the disappearing culture of white burley tobacco farming in south central Kentucky. Since the time of the Native Americans, white burley tobacco has been cultivated in the long, humid growing seasons of Kentucky. Suddenly, in one generation, that highly specialized, largely unmechanized, intimate way of farming and the culture that grew around it have begun to disappear. These poems reverbrate with the loss of this unique way of life.

The subject of ecological destruction returns in the book’s second section as well, more globally. Other poems deal with topics as diverse as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Elgin Marbles, John Keats, Bob Marley, fatherhood, fishing and local and familial history, as well as the way in which the caves of the area shape the lives of the people who live above them.


Winner of the 2005 Dorset Prize, selected by Linda Gregerson

Winner of the 2008 Eric Hoffer Award in Poetry

Winner of the 2007 Kentucky Literary Award for Poetry

Winner of Contemporary Poetry Review’s Best Second Book of Poetry for 2007

Selected Poems

Local Color

In the early 1950’s, William Logan of Brownsville invented and
briefly sold a paint made from the county’s abundant natural
asphalt. He called it Loganite Ventrasuvius Paint.
A History of Edmonson County, Kentucky
And sure enough, a thick, obliterating snow
erased the crack on Dismal Rock; it hurried
through the trees at Cedar Sink, and settled
into humps on the cold gravestones at Joppa.
That night the moon pried open the ridge’s lid
and climbed the poplars, and if, through its branch–
marbled light, Bill Logan’s ghost came stumbling,
if he found the spot where his lab once stood,
and set to work mixing pigments in a crock,
it was because the snow knows the future,
because the hours between the fox’s footfall crunch
and dawn were cut down by a light that, blue
and heatless, sketched in the frosted hills
and found him there, alone in a glittering field.


The Contemporary Poetry Review, a journal devoted exclusively to poetry criticism, has named Davis McCombsDismal Rock as the Best Second Book of Poetry for 2007. Included with this honor is this encomium:
McCombs transports the reader to his native Kentucky for his follow up to Ultima Thule, which won the Yale Younger Poets Prize. The poems are laden with rich local imagery, and they seem at times carved into the very sandstone of Dismal Rock like the ancient petroglyphs his characters encounter there.

Congratulations to Davis McCombs, this is the fourth poetry prize for Dismal Rock. His book has also has garnered a Dorset Prize, the Eric Hoffer award, as well as the first place prize in the Kentucky Literary Awards.

Dismal Rock has received the First Place Prize in Poetry from the Kentucky Literary Awards. We offer our sincere congratulations to the Davis McCombs.

In addition Dismal Rock has also been selected as the campus-wide community reading choice for Fall 2008 by Kentucky’s Owensboro Community and Technical College. Approximately 700 students will read and discuss the book, and the author will visit the campus as a guest speaker.
Craig Beaven, a reviewer for Blackbird, the online literary journal of Virginia Commonwealth University, has written a positive and highly literate review of Dismal Rock. Beaven says:
Because these poems are engaged in a poetic or aesthetic we’re familiar with, one that is not ‘new’ per se, we might wrongly dismiss them as ‘simple.’ But McCombs’s skill, his ability to recreate whole worlds in a poem of fifteen or twenty lines–worlds with their own histories, geographies, lexicons, and characters–is complex and almost novelistic in its scope and richness.
The rest of the review may be read on the Blackbird website.
Dismal Rock has won the 2008 Eric Hoffer Award for poetry. The judges of the prize offer the following as their reason for their choice:
WINNER Dismal Rock
by Davis McCombs
Tupelo Press
ISBN 9781932195484, 72 pgs

A serpentine of sepia-toned smoke on the matte black cover of this luxurious book forecasts the sensual “Tobacco Mosaic” sequence of this two-part collection of meditative poems. The poet, a descendent of an accomplished Kentucky tobacco grower, writes with alluring language about the mysteries and complexities of the tobacco producing culture where he grew up. In the longer, second part series “The Mist Netters,” a variety of subjects shimmer with the deeply felt particulars and fresh images many readers crave. In the first line of the poem “Old Munford Inn,” the poet asks, “Are words more beautiful than things?&drquo; With these poems—set in a handsome font, on thick, creamy paper, in this elegant volume—the reader gets both beautiful words and a lovely object. And the poet gets his answer.

Davis McCombs’s Dismal Rock is recommended as one of the poetry picks of 2007 by the Raleigh News & Observer.