This collection of poetry by Davis McCombs uses the language and terrain of the burley tobacco country of south-central Kentucky to reveal the complexities of a fading way of life. It received the 2005 Dorset Prize for poetry.
McCombs grew up near Mammoth Cave in a family that had raised tobacco for generations. He knows burley tobacco farming as both “an unmechanized, hands-on, very intimate process” and as “a quagmire of moral and ethical dilemmas.”
He refers to the dilemmas in “Nicotiana,” which begins with a young man being told that tobacco had paid for his education and ends with “He thinks of the words he writes, of the dark like silt / beneath them, and of the secret hiding like a crayfish there.”
The Dismal Rock of the title is a massive sandstone outcropping in Edmonson County, Ky. In McComb’s work, it looms as a place and a place name, sometimes outlined with snow, sometimes defining the horizon. At times it is the site of loss, as in “The Last Wolf in Edmonson County,” which refers to the shooting of the last gray wolf in the area at the base of Dismal Rock.