"Ultima Thule" by Davis McCombs

Ultima Thule Davis McCombs

Yale Series of Younger Poets
Publication date:
11 Mar 2000
Yale University Press
72 pages: 235 x 140mm

This year’s winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition is Davis McCombs’s Ultima Thule, which was acclaimed as “a book of exploration, of searching regard.... a grave, attentive holding of a light” by the contest judge, the distinguished poet W. S. Merwin. The poems are set above and below the Cave Country of south central Kentucky, where McCombs lives and which is home to thousands of caves. The book is framed by two sonnet sequences, the first about a slave guide and explorer at Mammoth Cave in the mid-1800s and the second about McCombs’s experiences as a guide and park ranger there in the 1990s. Other poems deal with Mammoth Cave’s four- thousand-year human history and the thrills of crawling into tight, rarely visited passageways to see what lies beyond. Often the poems search for oblique angles into personal experience, and the caves and the landscape they create form a personal geology.

Selected as a finalist for the 2000 National Book Critics Circle Award in the Poetry category

?[An] exemplary, prizewinning debut. . . . [McCombs] writes haunting poems about his home in Kentucky?s cave country and his experiences as a park ranger and guide at Mammoth Cave. . . . Restrained yet lyrical, McCombs describes an astonishing underworld of stone shaped like coral and rivers harboring eyeless fish.??Booklist

?The compellingly eccentric word choices and odd history and geography come together . . . to make this the finest Yale Poets selection in years.??Publishers Weekly

?McCombs . . . works by a haunted lyrical candlelight as he takes us deep, very deep inside the Mammoth Cave of south central Kentucky, a 345-mile underground filled with bones and legends. He absorbs his ghostly fragments into a style that seems almost styleless, built of subtle . . . increments. . . . The book is an adventure of memory and its limitations.??Allan M. Jalon, San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle

?[McCombs] lucidly mines Kentucky?s cave country. . . . Throughout, Mammoth?s fantastical underworld?a place of ?eyeless fish,? dripstone nodules that ?live and grow, and when struck, produce/melodious tones, liquid and wavering,? boat rides on subterranean rivers reminiscent of ?Styx, Lethe??is calmly revealed through McCombs?s translucent, musical language. . . . The rough geology of the landscape . . . and the discovery of its shape . . . become urgent images that strikingly illuminate darkened interior spaces.??Megan Harlan, The New York Times Book Review

?Ultima Thule is a unique work which a reader can return to over and over again, always finding something new to explore.??Daniel Elkinson, ACE Weekly

?[McComb?s] linking of natural and spiritual grandeur give us contemporary examples of what was once known as the poetry of the sublime. . . . With is caves and cave guides. McCombs widens our vision, reminding us that there are landscapes and occupations which do not often turn up in poetry, yet remain worthy of poetic attention.??Jack Anderson, American Book Review

?Ultima Thule?s intimate sense of its setting of Mammoth Cave is its great asset. By the end of the book, the reader knows this remote corner of Kentucky well and has experienced its rendering vividly and faithfully in poetic terms. . . . An impressive first book.??Magill?s Literary Annual 2001