MAMMOTH CAVE NATIONAL PARK, Ky. -- Even before it can be seen, Mammoth Cave beckons.
The land slopes sharply downward, warm summer air gives way to a frigid blast, and out of the dense woodland a rugged rock staircase appears, winding down into the blackness. The staircase is framed by smooth beige stone that is the cave's gaping mouth. On the clearest of mornings, dense fog still hovers about its entrance.
Once inside, walls sparkle white with gypsum crystals, white spiders scuttle along the floor in cave rooms as big as suburban houses and eyeless fish swim in the dark depths of the River Styx.
Still largely uncharted, the damp, surreal world that is the planet's longest cave has stoked the imaginative fires of generations of explorers. Now it is home to one of America's best new poets -- a Harvard-educated park ranger.
Henry David Thoreau had the woods of Walden for inspiration. Davis McCombs has the cavernous depths of Mammoth Cave.
"People that share this love of Mammoth Cave, we share some sort of a bond. It goes beyond everything," McCombs says. "I know I'll feel that way my whole life and that people who have worked here in the past and have come back decades later really feel it. You love Mammoth Cave -- you're changed."
McCombs, 31, won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Prize last year for "Ultima Thule," his book of poetry about the 348-mile cave and the picturesque wooded Kentucky farmland that surrounds it. The book was published this April.
Its title comes from the name of a large pile of rocks that early explorers once thought to be the end of Mammoth Cave until two explorers crawled under it in 1908 and discovered more. For the ancients, ultima Thule referred to the northernmost part of the habitable world. Figuratively, it means the highest goal of human effort.
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet W.S. Merwin, who judged the Yale contest, called McCombs' work "quiet, understated, delicate as a hand exploring a tunnel in the dark." It is one of the few, if any, books of cave poetry around, says Pulitzer and National Book Award winner Charles Wright, who taught McCombs at the University of Virginia.
Mummies and artifacts found in the cave indicate that humans first ventured into its cavernous depths as far back as 4,000 years. Stretching through the southwestern corner of the state, Mammoth Cave is a series of chambers and passageways on five different levels that connect to two other cave systems. A national park, with forests and the winding Green River, was opened in 1941.
With McCombs' credentials, which include a graduate degree from Virginia, a fellowship at Stanford University and numerous other distinguished poetry awards, it might seem more appropriate to place him in the world of academia rather than a low-paying, seasonable job as a park ranger, one who this season is relegated to the duty of campground parking-lot attendant.
"I think it's unusual what he does as a park ranger, but that's where his subject lies," Wright says. "I don't see anything spiritual in being a park ranger. I think it's the cave that's called him."
And the cave called him early. McCombs grew up in nearby Munfordville and saw the cave for the first time on a school trip when he was 7.
"The woman who gave the tour still works here," he says. "She doesn't remember, but I do."
The trip also sparked a childhood obsession with Floyd Collins, a famous cave explorer who died in 1925, trapped inside a nearby cave as newspapers chronicled for two weeks the unsuccessful efforts to rescue him.
"I would make my dad take me, drive me to Sand Cave where he was trapped, all the time," he recalls.
One of his poems, "Floyd's Lost Passage," is about Collins' death:
"... Calloused hand
to limestone scallop, he crawls into the hollow
of a river's skeleton, and the muck wants him,
comes sweating to his touch. A switchback
and a siphon. The cave pinches down
to a sloping, narrow chute, and feet first,
the scuffed tip of his boot catches the rock that pins
his leg in the mud -- a terminal breakdown
though the cave slinks on through the hills'
inhuman ribcage holding now
his looked-for, soon-to-be-famous heart."
McCombs said that the poem about Collins is his favorite because, "I felt like I got to say all these things I'd been needing to say for years.
"As much as I as poet and I as tour guide have kind of denounced the media frenzy that surrounded Floyd Collins' death -- they wanted to package and sell him and make money from him -- I'm a part of that," he says. "I wanted to say that, and I wanted to say that to him."
McCombs became a cave guide after his freshman year at Harvard, when he would return for the summers to work. Through the years, his numerous cave tours -- "I bet I've done it thousands of times," he says -- caused a connection to another explorer: slave guide Stephen Bishop, who discovered and mapped out from 1839 to 1849 much of what is known about Mammoth Cave today. His voice appears in many of McCombs' poems.
"He's just everywhere down there," McCombs says. "We don't do anything where we don't follow in his footprints, or knee prints as the case may be. I lead a tour called 'Wild Cave' which is crawling, squeezing through little holes and climbing six hours, and there are places on that tour where you crawl into these little passageways and you're on your stomach, you're writhing around in the dirt and the mud and you look up on the ceiling and there is Stephen Bishop's signature."
McCombs started writing the poems when he returned to Harvard in the fall following his first summer as a guide.
"I sometimes think that made it easier," he says. "I had a portion of my life where I just lived it. I don't think I could have come here thinking, 'OK, I'm going to write a poem about what I do here. It wouldn't have worked. I had to go live it and let it happen, and then I had to realize later on, 'Oh yeah, that's what that meant."'
At Harvard, McCombs studied with Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, who encouraged him in his exploration of Mammoth Cave.
"I had a friend -- she was a really good writer. She wrote beautifully; she had all the technical skills. Seamus told her, 'You write beautifully, but go out and live. Get something to write about,"' McCombs says. "And he never told that to me, because I had this weird life, this other life where I would come to Mammoth Cave in the summers and I grew up in Munfordville and had this strange and crazy childhood."
McCombs' father, a farmer and shopkeeper who went to Duke University and taught high school English, was born on land that contains Mammoth Cave before it was claimed by the government as a national park.
One grandfather was a teacher and cave guide and another, a lawyer and part-time farmer in Hart County who sold tobacco, baby ducks, kept bees and studied law at Duke with Richard Nixon. His mother, who was born in Munfordville, met his father while both taught at a local high school.
"I'm local, very local," he says.
But McCombs' days near his beloved cave may be numbered. He and his wife, also a poet who writes under the name Carolyn Koo, now have an infant son, Warren, and McCombs says he has little chance of getting on at Mammoth Cave full-time because of government cutbacks and regulations. Full-time park jobs hard to get, he says.
"There's nothing like fatherhood to focus you on your career," he says. "I can't have a rinky-dink job any more."
The next step, he says, probably will be teaching, although he admits mixed feelings about it.
"We get into this deal where every poet teaches and I don't think that's good," he says. "Why can't there be poet park rangers, poet lawyers and poet doctors?
"Ideally, I'd like never to have to work. I know that I would be incredibly happy not working, forever. But I think that's because my real work is not the work for which I get paid. So I'd be working, I'd be killing myself with effort. But it wouldn't be 9-to-5. Poetry is the job I want, but it's a hard job to get."
Wright said McCombs' dilemma is common to writers, although his love of the cave poses an unusual geographic problem.
"People do whatever it takes," Wright says. "If they want to write they have to figure out a way to pay the rent. But he wants to be close to his inspiration, and I don't blame him."
And another place just would not be the same.
"I love pretty places," McCombs says. "I've been to other places. Living in San Francisco was majestically beautiful. But I didn't write poems about the San Francisco coastline. It's always about here."
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