Cover image for Ultima thule
Ultima thule
McCombs, Davis, 1969-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New Haven : Yale University Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
xiv, 52 pages : map ; 25 cm.

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PS3563.C34348 U48 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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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. This collection 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'.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Two exemplary, prizewinning debut collections focus on the spirit of place. McCombs, the latest winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition, writes haunting poems about his home in Kentucky's cave country and his experiences as a park ranger and guide at Mammoth Cave. He begins with a series of sonnets honoring the great cave's most famous explorer and guide, Stephen Bishop, who was born into slavery and owned by the man who also owned Mammoth Cave from 1839 to 1849. Restrained yet lyrical, McCombs describes an astonishing underworld of stone shaped like coral and rivers harboring eyeless fish. He then contrasts this secret, subterranean realm with the hectic and much trampled world above and draws on a deep vein of metaphors about the seen and the unseen, the known and the unknown. Phipps boldly contrasts her cosseted Haitian childhood with the sufferings of the island's urban poor, writing with unsentimental sensuousness and quietly vehement specificity. Everything is alive in her dangerous poetic universe, from abrupt hard rain to a persistently devouring river, from the "puffed-up" braids of an elder to flowers blaring their luxurious colors into the hot, breathless air. Family members and street people--her water-loving Aunt Frances, a starving young mother--emerge as full-blown characters in just a few judiciously composed lines. A keen awareness of Haiti's many conflicts, including the spiritual tug-of-war between the power of voodoo and the sanctioned role of the church, underlies Phipps' piercing vision of the island's heady blend of beauty and cruelty, its stubborn affirmation of life and daily traffic with death. --Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

A worthy addition to the recent American literature of place, this year's Yale Younger Poets collection keeps to Mammoth Cave, Ky., where McCombs lives and has worked as a guide. The opening sonnet sequence is written in the persona of Steven Bishop, a slave who was a guide to the caves in the mid-1800s. Whether or not McCombs's period-ventriloquism is accurate, his just slightly stilted diction transforms ordinary observations into pleasing verse. "He told of tides/ and how the ocean is affixed as with a chain/ to moonlight," McCombs writes in "Star Chamber," while "Echo River" makes a more musical point: "By slapping/ the water with the flat of my paddle,/ there comes a sound like the ringing of bells." Building on these understated pleasures, McCombs sneaks broad sexual comedy past the reader in "Visitations": "It is the women/ on the tours that give me pause, delicate/ ghost-white, how, that night, I'm told,/ they wake to find themselves in unfamiliar/ beds, and lost, bewildered, call my name." The poems that follow miss the peculiarly off diction of the opening sequence--and even in those poems, McCombs goes back maybe too often to his key words: "silence," "light" and "night." But the compellingly eccentric word choices and odd history and geography come together often enough to make this the finest Yale Poets selection in years. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

It's always interesting to see what will be chosen next for the renowned "Yale Series of Younger Poets," and last year's choice proved particularly strong: it went on to become a National Book Critics Circle finalist. The title, which hints metaphorically at the mythic cold north, is also the name of an inaccessible passage in Kentucky's Monmouth Caves, where McCombs worked as a ranger. In a quiet, steady voice polished as the cave's limestone walls, McCombs delivers a history (both geologic and human) of the cave. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.