Water Tank Cosmogony
The leaves that sank to its bottom
were not magnified by the trembling
of the liquid, not its stillness, nor
its bevel at the corrugated rim.
A season decanted where a bullfrog
drummed his throat to the black gnats
strafing the watery lens— but how,
across that long drought summer
when we sold the herd, through fields
of parched, uneaten pasture, did he hear
its oval note of rain and aluminum?
I would have turned the valve that night
and let the water flow, a rippling plane,
into the grass, but I just stood there,
frozen like the frog in the beam
of my flashlight, while the deep grass
roar of summer pulsed around us,
and a meteor swam, I swear,
like a tadpole through the glistening dark.
Our bodies every seven years are completely fresh-materialed—
seven years ago it was not this hand that clench'd itself against Hammond.
—John Keats, Letter to George Keatses in Kentucky, September 1819
Coyotes are passing swift and scratchless up the mud-dark sloughs
they call to us from the sawbriars, discarnate they yelp
at the moon reflected
on the river’s wrinkling skin. Daddy flicks a cigarette from the bed
of the truck, its arc
like our own through the darkening, bodiless air.
We travel, it seems,
away from the still-lit portion of the field or something like it,
flutter like moths
toward the shadow the barn casts or, to put it simply, the fencerows
are blooming again.
A week? Two? The honeysuckle bares its dripping fangs
to the barbed wire.
What is the element that fills the spaces we vacate, that trembles
like a wall of water
barring the way back? This scent of boundaries and incursions
that rises with the warm air
off the river comes, as I do, from a source in the knotted spring.
from the tail-lights’ bitter glow to the woodline, through dark,
into sun-speckled leaves. I press my face into the night and toward
a distant field,
unreachable now, a face in the weeds that was mine, a sturdy little body
breaking into light.
-from Dismal Rock
BIO: Davis McCombs, author of Ultima Thule, Yale Younger Poets Award winner selected by W.S. Merwin, and of Dismal Rock, which won the Dorset Prize awarded by the Tupelo Press, directs the Creative Writing Program at the University of Arkansas. He attended Harvard University, the University of Virginia (MFA) and Stanford University as a Wallace Stenger Fellow. He is the recipient of fellowships from the Ruth Lily Poetry Foundation, the Kentucky Arts Council, and the National Endowment for the Arts. His work has appeared in Best American Poetry 1996, The Missouri Review, and Hayden's Ferry Review.
An Interview with Davis McCombs by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: "Water Tank Cosmogony," like so many of your poems, brings with it an inward weight, a force, a sort of unidentifiable gravity somewhere deep in the subtext that, I think, comes forth via the language and word choice in lines like "A season decanted where a bullfrog / drummed its throat to the black gnats strafing the watery lens," "oval note of rain and aluminum," and "frozen like the frog in the beam / of my flashlight, while the deep grass / roar of summer pulsed…"
These lines are so good on the level of the word that it’s hard, once I start quoting a line, to stop. Tell us a little bit about rhythm, word choice, music.
Davis McCombs: Thanks for saying all that. I'm always so happy to hear that someone has taken some pleasure in the things I've written. You can never take that for granted.To answer your question, I often "hear," for lack of a better word, what a poem is going to sound like before I have many, or even any, of the words. This is difficult to explain. The process of writing the poem is then getting what I hear in my head onto the blank page. This process can be a very laborious and frustrating one. Sometimes I never get it right, but I always know, in some intuitive or inchoate way, what it should have been.
Poems for me have to sound good and if they don't, I pull that little cord and get off the bus.
AMK: I wonder if you’d tell us a little bit about this process. Talking with Betty Adcock the other day, she said she barely even thinks about music anymore…it just comes. There can be no question that you are one of the contemporary masters of sound. At your desk (or wherever it is you write) is there always a Roget’s at hand? Does music come to you naturally or do you have to go in, word by word, and search for alliteration, assonance, meter, and all the other elements of song?
DM: Well, I don't write with a thesaurus or a list of words. The trick is just to be able to get myself into that place where language is charged and words begin to assemble themselves around an idea and in ways that are pleasing to me. After all this time, I still don't know how to get to that place. I wish I did. It just happens. Sometimes a portal opens in the air. That's the initial stage which, in rare, wonderful instances, produces a complete poem. Usually, though, much shaping and tinkering and sometimes downright destruction follows.
AMK: How did you develop this process? Who should other poets be learning from other than Davis McCombs?
DM: Well, I think everyone develops their own very personal, deeply intuitive process. That's why teaching creative writing can be so difficult. You can guide your students, you can support them, but you always know that they're going to have learn what they need to learn by sitting alone in a room. They're going to have to teach themselves. There's just no way around it.
AMK: One thing I love about "Water Tank Cosmogony" is that I get a very clear image of Davis McCombs standing there with his flashlight aimed on a bullfrog. At the same time, however, I get a feeling that there’s something going on in the speaker’s life at that time that informs the poem. This is fairly obvious in the lines about the drought and the selling of the herd.I’m wondering if, first, you wouldn’t mind telling us a little bit of the autobiography within the poem— even if much of it has been fictionalized— and if you would then talk about how it is that this poem came from that experience and why you’ve made certain choices as to what you reveal in the poem and what you do not.
DM: Well, this is a poem that comes largely from my life. That's not true, certainly, of all my poems. Some people who read my first book, for instance, assume I have a brother; I don't. Anyway, I hope that the lines you refer to sketch-in a much larger picture of what was going on with my family's farms during the time the poem was written. We did have a drought; my father didn't have enough hay to get the cattle through the winter, and we had to sell them at a time that the price for cattle was low. My father is actually the person who found the bullfrog living in the unused water tank and who took me to see it. He has always known the kind of quirky things that I would want to see, that would fire my imagination. I don't mean to suggest that he took me there so that I would write a poem. Poetry was the farthest thing from either of our minds that night, I'm sure.
It's strange, I guess, that I've written him out of the poem. I'm not sure I can tell you exactly why. I think it has to do with the way I see the poem spatially: me, flashlight, water tank, frog, meteor. It makes a triangle.
AMK: Those last two lines. How long did it take to get there? Were you (Are you) concerned about that moment of the swear?
DM: That's an excellent question. The poem took six years to write. I wrote the first draft of it in California, worked on it on and off for two years in Kentucky and then finished it in Arkansas—and honestly, that kind of lengthy process is not that unusual for me. In that time, I put in and took out the "I swear" you're referring to over and over. In the end, though, I thought the moment of that final assertion had an effect that I wanted on how poem might be read or interpreted. Having said all that, I guess I now prefer not to say what I think that effect might be. It's better to just let the poem work or not work, as the case may be.
AMK: If you could, what "sort" of poem would you call "Water Tank Cosmogony?"
DM: I think it's not that different from many other poems I've written—that is, a kind of updated pastoral poem. By "pastoral" I mean that the characters in the poem are engaged in agriculture and that the details evoke rural life, and by "updated" I mean that the poem presents these elements in a less idealized way than the traditional pastoral.
AMK: "Honeysuckle" is probably my favorite poem in your second book, Dismal Rock. Again, there’s the beautiful music, but it’s also a poem that’s a little more personal than most of Dismal Rock. Your first book, "Ultima Thule," is largely composed of poems about mammoth cave and the slave who spent much of his life mapping it. This book opens with "Tobacco Mosaic," a long poem about the community that surrounded the Kentucky tobacco farm when you were a child. And, yet, we see very little of you in these poems. Do you avoid personal poems? And if so, why.
DM: Yes, I think that's true. It's a matter of temperament, for one thing; I grew up in a family where we didn't really talk about our "emotions." It's possibly also a reaction to the kind of cringe-inducing (in me anyway) confession that was very in vogue in American poetry when I was starting to write poems seriously. Maybe "avoid," though, is too strong a word. I just know that what motivates me to write, what brings me to the blank page, is not self-expression.
AMK: What is it that draws you to the landscape of your home? The landscape itself or the poem that can come of it?
DM: Oh, it's the landscape itself. No doubt. I feel an intense, helpless love for the place where I grew up, i.e., the beautiful hills and ridges and valleys of South Central Kentucky's Caveland. It's a place I understand like no other. Having spent a lot of time underground there, I understand the inner workings, if you will, of that landscape, why it looks the way it does, why, at times, it's so unstable; I'm in touch, in a personal way, with the great vistas that lie under our feet, the history, the pre-history and the geologic time easily accessed just under the surface of the ground.
AMK: Do you feel that your poems simply reflect the mysterious beauty of that landscape or does it amplify that beauty, heighten it in some way?
DM: I hope to, in some miniscule way, write poems that do justice to that landscape.Being able to write poems about this place I love is a gift; it is also a tremendous responsibility. I feel a lot of pressure (self-imposed) to make the poems as good as they can be, to make them worthy of the place and of the people who live there.
AMK: Thank you.
DM: I really appreciate this, Andy. Your questions were terrific and show a real attention to the work I greatly appreciate.