As Sweet As ‘Dumpster Honey,’ New Short Talks From the Hill Features Poet and English Professor Davis McCombs
Short Talks From The Hill, a podcast from the University of Arkansas, highlights research and scholarly work across the campus. Each segment features a university researcher discussing his or her work.
Matt McGowan: Hello and welcome to Short Talks from the Hill, a podcast from the University of Arkansas. My name is Matt McGowan. On this episode, Davis McCombs, poet, professor and director of the program in creative writing and translation at the University of Arkansas, will read selections from Lore, his most recent book of poetry. Davis McCombs, welcome to Short Talks From the Hill and thank you for being here.
Davis McCombs: Thank you so much, Matt, and thank you for having me here. I’m going to read three poems today. There’re all from my latest collection, called Lore. This is my third book of poetry. My first two books… the poems in those books were set almost exclusively in the small region of Kentucky where I grew up. It’s an area known as the cave land of Kentucky. And then 15 years ago, we moved here. That displacement had the sort of terrifying effect of producing several years of silence. I didn’t really understand this place. I certainly didn’t know how to write poems about it. And then all of that changed with the poems in this particular book. This first poem I’ll read is called “Trundle,” and it, like several poems in the book, it has to do with that process of feeling my way into writing poems about the Ozarks and of beginning to feel at home here.
I dream so often now across this vast plateau, the broken dome
of granite. . . I’ve come to call the Ozarks home.
Some nights I find the bent shape of a great bull
Brooding starrily over our field, the sky turning like spokes
Above of a herd of winter-thinning deer who fold up
With frost on their ribs, to sleep, and I think of people
I never know: there’s Maw Earl on a straw mattress fighting to bring
her seventh, and final, child into these hills—a boy at last,
after six little girls. And there’s the father, old Satch,
staggering around the barn with a Mason jar half-full of the liquid
that will drown him, and praying sweet-and-merciful-Savior-
oh-please for a son. And there’s little Kit at the foot
of her trundle, about to be supplanted; she’s saying her own prayer
that the baby, christened Azariah, but known as Scuppernong,
Oh-Jesus-can-you-hear-me-I’ll-do-anything, will die.
He doesn’t, and ten years later, more or less, he’ll be cleaning a shotgun…
It’s so easy now to see the burnished light in the orchard,
the yellow jackets heckling the windfall apples, Maw
on the porch shelling beans; I can hear the pings they make
against the pan, and then the explosion. No doctor near,
and not a dime to their names, his foot will never heal,
not properly, and so it’s Scup now, who knocks once at my office door
and enters as the last orange glow retracts across the boxwood
out the window—Gonna be a cold one, Professor—
and hobbles in with his four-legged cane to empty my small trash can
into a larger one with wheels.
About three years ago, we had a colony of bees build on the outside wall of Kimple Hall, which is the building where I work here on campus. And this was above the loading dock where many of us enter the building. And there’s a dumpster there, and the bees become very territorial about this dumpster. If you walked past, they would definitely let you know that you had strayed into their territory. And one day I was in the hall talking to my friend and colleague John Duvall, and John said that he’d heard of Apple Blossom Honey, but he’d never heard of dumpster honey. And I loved that phrase so much that I wrote this poem called Dumpster Honey. And, of course, this poem is for John.
The bees were working the contents
of the fenced-in metal trash bin,
zigging and scribbling past the goo
of candy wrappers and the sticky rims
of dented cans, entering, as they might
a blossom, the ketchup-smeared burger
boxes and the mold-fuzzed, half-eaten
fruity snack packs, those food-grade waxes
mingling with Band-Aids and a limp
“We’re #1” foam finger while on top
of the disposable wet mop redolent of solvents
and fresheners, the F.D.&C. Red No. 40
nontoxic food pigment leaked
from a bloated dip packet where the bees
were buzzing and collecting the high-fructose
corn nectars of that uncompacted jumble
and returning, smudged with the dust
of industrial pollens, to, perhaps some
rusted tailpipe hive where their queen
grew fat on the froth of artificial sweeteners
out back of the little oily gas station
in the middle of Arkansas where we pulled off
to change the baby’s diaper and had to ask
for the key they kept on a giant ring.
The last poem I’ll read is the final poem of the book. It’s a poem called Old Stith. And I preface this poem with two lines from Thomas Gray’s magnificent Elegy in a Country Churchyard. This is poem I’ve known… almost my entire life. My father used to read it to me when I was a child. The lines that I’ve chosen are these:
Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
And, you know, I come from this place that many people would considering a neglected spot. And I mean this poem, in many ways, to be a tribute to artists who may live and die, unknown and unrecognized.
Surely there was work enough, a lifetime’s labor, here
for a practical man, but Old Stith must have wandered away
from all of that: the scythe that needed sharpening,
or the fence that sagged where the deer had jumped it.
Once Charlotte came up from the woods with twelve white pebbles
she discovered in a bois d’arc’s knot: Old Stith—who else?
The kind of man who’d dig up cedars and transplant them
in a ring on the farm’s highest knob. Sometimes I enter
their mesh of branches now when snow is falling crookedly.
And he must have used a tractor—how else?—to upend
that limestone splinter by the pond and set its base in concrete.
On summer afternoons, the shadow of its finger points across
the water and the little fish swim up into its shade to feed.
What else? Our first spring here, I followed water sliding
down the mountain to where its current hinged off
the bluff and found a tulip poplar rigged with seven
nail-punched buckets to catch the flow as it filtered down
and splattered on a tablet of stone he must have placed there.
What kind of man would dream a water clock like this
or hang a shard of glass on twine to catch the sunlight
beaming through the hayloft’s diamond cutout? Old Stith
was dead and gone two years before we came here,
but I like to think he thought of us, that he was tapping out
a message. I lie awake some nights when rain rehearses
the gutter’s lines, but soon I’m thinking of his bucket rungs,
that tin unbuttoning tumble as I climb down the notch
of sleep, of dreams, and find myself—where else?—right here.
MM: That was great, Davis. Thank you again for coming in today and sharing your work with us.
Music for Short Talks from the Hill was written and performed by Ben Harris, guitar instructor at the University of Arkansas. For more information and additional podcasts, go to KUAF.com or ResearchFrontiers.uark.edu, the home of research news at the University of Arkansas.