Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Though the generation of poets to which Davis McCombs belongs has hardly yet reached maturity, some common denominators can be identified. One of them is an interest in both history and landscape, concerns that are at the heart of Ultima Thule. McCombs works as a park ranger in Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave Natural Park. The term “ultima Thule” was coined by the ancient Romans to name islands in the far North Atlantic that their ships could not reach. Ultima Thule has since become a synonym for any area difficult for humans to access. Thus, it is not surprising that the people who first explored the Mammoth Cave complex in the early nineteenth century gave this name to the least accessible cave of the group.
Before he begins his first set of poems, McCombs provides the reader with a reprint of an 1845 map of Mammoth Cave. This shows the reader he is depicting a real landscape, not just an imaginative one. The poems are not just free-floating artifacts. They are tied to a concrete topographical image, and the reader can measure the poems against the map through the course of the book. Other poets might scan the geographical specifics of Mammoth Cave in favor of a more interior or subjective vision. McCombs, however, wants it to be known he is dealing with an actual place that has accrued centuries of historical meaning.
The first part of the book, subtitled “Ultima Thule” (just like the title of the overall book), takes advantage of the map immediately, though in a directly inverse way. This section is a sequence of sonnets narrated by Stephen Bishop, an African American slave who serves as a tour guide at Mammoth Cave in the decades preceding the Civil War. In an author’s note, McCombs explains that Bishop, a real historical personage, was the slave of Dr. John Croghan, who owned Mammoth Cave and tried to market it as a locale for rest cures as well as a vacation spot. McCombs’s poetic version of Bishop starts the first poem in the sequence, “Candlewriting,” by recalling his childhood, which he describes as a “mapless country.” In addition to the normal confusions of childhood, Bishop, an overworked field hand, is denied any purpose in life and has no control over his situation and no sense of autonomy to give him hope that the situation might change. His way out ends up being knowing how to read and write—a skill frequently forbidden slaves because slave owners knew that literacy would entail a desire for enfranchisement. Bishop learns to write by the light of a candle. Through this “candlewriting” he encounters a representation of language that will help him master, or “map,” his situation. In conjunction with the map a few pages before, the reader realizes that McCombs intends language and mapping to be two parallel modes of representation, both of which can empower those who comprehend them. This point is driven home when the reader realizes that Bishop himself made the map at the front.
Even though Bishop is Croghan’s slave, being a tour guide puts him in the rare role (for a black man in the antebellum South) of guiding and directing white people, namely the tourists who visit Mammoth Cave. Bishop knows the territory of the cave in a way they do not. His knowledge becomes symbolic of an awareness of a subjective, interior darkness. The cave has recesses where man can rarely go. It is not like the rest of the landscape, which can be read as a kind of book of nature.
Croghan treats Bishop relatively kindly, and the slave respects the doctor for his scientific knowledge and intellectual agility. The doctor, as a professional man, is so esteemed by society as a kind of expert that he can operate outside the usual Southern codes that stipulate that a master can pass on only the most menial and functional skills to a slave. Bishop becomes genuinely learned in matters of both geology and geography, and much else besides. Yet Bishop feels that, partially due to his status as a slave and partially due to his knowledge of areas of the cave complex Croghan has not experienced, his knowledge is in some areas actually deeper than the doctor’s. Bishop knows suffering as well as the exhilaration of knowledge; he is aware of physical ills that can, at least temporarily, be cured, as well as social ills, such as slavery and the divisions it causes, both in the nation as a whole and within an individual’s soul.
The “Ultima Thule” sequence reveals little about Bishop’s personal life. He seems to be in love with a woman named Charlotte, who offers him a sense of serenity but who is sketched only vaguely and may even be a phantom suggested by the way light moves in the caves. Bishop also suggests that the white women he guides around the cave call out his name at night as if they were still lost—this presumably amounting to some sort of romantic fantasy about him. Yet the reader knows much more about Bishop’s inner life than about his outer experience. He is not overly religious in conventional terms, but sees God as present both in the light and the darkness of the cave. He is proud of his...
(The entire section is 2068 words.)
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