Poetry | June 01, 1998

Ultima Thule

Mammoth is a grand, gloomy and

peculiar place, not soon to give up its

last, darkest secret.

-Stephen Bishop


Stephen Bishop was the slave of Dr. John Croghan, owner of Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave from 1839 to 1849. Bishop served as a guide at the cave from 1838 until 1857. His daring explorations, which led to the discovery of miles of cave passageways, were covered in newspapers and books. His fame drew visitors from all over the world. By smoking their names onto the walls of the cave, he learned to read and write. Stephen Bishop died in 1857 at the age of thirty-seven. Oddly, the cause of his death was not recorded and remains unknown.



Childhood was a mapless country, a rough

terrain of sinks and outcrops. Not once

did I suspect the earth was hollow, lost

as I was among the fields and shanties.

I remember the wind and how the sounds

it carried were my name, meant me, Stephen . . .

called out over the cornfield where I hid.

There was no sound when candlesmoke

met limestone-just this: seven characters

I learned to write with a taper on a stick.

What have they to do with that boy in the weeds?

Am I the letters or the hand that made them?

A word I answer to and turn from, or the flame

that holds the shadows, for a time at least, at bay?


Star Chamber


Once, the Doctor spoke to me at length

of stars and prognostications, how,

when we observe the waxing of the Moon,

everything cognate to her nature-marrow

in bones and in trees, flesh of the river

mussel-increases also. He told of tides

and how the ocean is affixed as with a chain

to moonlight. I think it must be different

in the Cave, where no light penetrates.

There, I have lost hours, whole cycles of the sun.

At Star Chamber, I control the spheres-

a lantern hung just-so will produce the night sky

as if seen from a gorge; wobble it, and a comet,

smoky, pestilent, streaks across the Ether.




There came to us, Tuesday last, a man

of most peculiar visage. The Doctor,

to whom we turned for insight, muttered

of abominations, dismissed our questions.

And yet I did not hesitate to show the Gentleman

as far in the Cave as his leisure and his pocket

would allow. For, there, to the faltering

glow of a greaselamp or candle, throng

shadows far more monstrous than he.

These I do not fear. It is the women

on the tours that give me pause, delicate,

ghost-white, how, at night, I’m told,

they wake to find themselves in unfamiliar

beds, and lost, bewildered, call my name.


Bottomless Pit


Before I crossed it on a cedar pole, legs

dangling into blackness, here the tours

would end: a loose and shingly precipice.

From my pack I would produce a scrap

of oiled paper, set fire to it, and send it

twisting and sputtering into the abyss.

I never saw it land, a flicker of light

on the fluted cistern. Soon I had found

the rivers beyond, their strange inhabitants

that emerged into the circle of my light

as if from another world, then vanished

at the least agitation of the water. Touched,

they said, fish with no eyes! until I sloshed

a pailful into light, reveled in their silence.


Echo River


Soon we had fashioned a rude boat,

and with lanterns affixed to the prow,

were ferrying tours across the smoky waters:

Styx, Lethe, Echo River, the host

of wonders I had found. By slapping

the water with the flat of my paddle,

there comes a sound like the ringing of bells,

a mournful, hollow melody-waves lap-

ping and beating under the low stone arches.

The voice, too, will reproduce in myriad;

often I have led a tour in song, shouts raised

or pistols fired on the dark, deep water.

Children of a clanging, squeaking world,

we cannot bear the silence.


Shadow World


I am speaking of the shade of walls

and woods, the half-light on the dark side

of groves and fences-a region nearer

to the source of things, but always close at hand.

I have felt, of late, my shadow as an other

person there. Behold how the shades in the Cave

gather and deepen, extend in darker zones

from the center of the flame where I stand.

It was in such light that first my Charlotte came

to me. For a week I’d half expected her, until

at twilight, a shadow at the door, the sky waiting

a long time, pale and still, for the Moon

to rise. And afterwards, even the pitch pines

seemed foreign, their scent and turpentine.




At Locust Grove, Great House, I pass days

in the garden-a stone bench, ornamental

cherries, August’s dappled light. Once, a hawk’s

shadow crossed my paper, startling me

from the dark rooms and corridors of my map,

an eye-draught of the known Cave passages.

The mind moves and the hand follows, as if

by torchlight on a moonless midnight, inking.

The Doctor is himself engaged in certain nightly

observations, plotting, by aid of lenses and tubes,

an atlas of the Moon, that distant, yellow orb,

yet closer, he says, than our own dark Continent:

its map made up of fringes and waterways, a dense,

vine-thick interior left blank. Uncharted.


Cave Formation


Safe from the withering glare of daylight,

a stone arbor, stone clusters of grapes.

I have heard more than one traveler

proclaim these encrustations coral-like.

Was once this place the bottom of a sea?

I think it must be so. How else explain

the salts that grow from joints in the rock:

Epsom, Glauber. Or what of the eyeless fish?

Stranded, perhaps, when the ocean vanished,

never again to join their kindred tribe

in that great salt realm. Who better to conjecture

on these matters than I? Theories I have learned

to keep from other, educated men,

lest they, like bats, fly shrieking at the torch-bearer.


Doctor Croghan


The Doctor draws the world to him by dint

of much imagination, fortunes spilled

to bring the rudiments of culture to this

poor backwater. At his bidding, oxcarts

bearing crates of wine will leave the coastline

of Virginia, clinking. The latest books

he brings that this place too might shine

as a center of learning and enterprise.

I have watched his projects grow, consume him-

hotelier, surgeon, gentleman farmer-

days when the light drains out of him,

and irritable, distant, he walks into

the orchard but finds, it seems, no peace

among the trees, his dream of ordered rows.


Brush Fire


A hot night, and the first breeze through my window

carried with it the whinny of a horse.

It had been so still, and suddenly the night

was restless, cocking its ear to a distant crackling,

a light, as of dawn, across the valley. To walk

abroad, and toward its source, was to swim

against a river of game, flushed from their roosts

in the oldest stands of timber, or from dens

in the tangled underbrush. By dawn,

forty acres had been consumed, the Hotel saved.

How strange when a party emerged from the Cave

at daybreak, blinking into the blue, smoke-

filled ridgetop of embers-unaware

of the flames that all night raged above them.


Indian Mummy


If, as the Doctor believes, putrefaction

is the work of unquiet spirits hastening

to congregate with the air, she must have died

at peace, little Indian. Still dressed

in cloths of woven hemp, preserved,

she was displayed for a time in the Cave

where I found her. I will never forgive him

for selling her remains to a Mr. Nahum Ward,

purveyor of traveling curiosities,

oddments, a renowned Wonder Cabinet.

As I predicted, she never returned-lost,

they say, in a burning Museum,

a tiny spirit freed in ash and smoke . . .

safe at last from looters, learned men.


The Church


How soon the Cave forgets their worshipping,

a preacher and his flock, the great vault quiet.

Surely their God was here as he was not

in their sermon, words that have dissolved unheard.

I have stood at Pulpit Rock and felt the Cave

grow thick around me, as if for having

once been broken, it here became the essence

of itself. Nothing remains of their scattered

lights, of what they said or did. Nothing.

Where once the faithful came, a congregation

of bats, faint stirrings from the pews.

Gods too will be forgotten, exiled

to the pages of books. The Cave is praising them:

from the Organ Loft, vast chords of silence.




The Bengal Light is the most effective means

we have of driving darkness from the corners

where it lurks-a quick, blue flare that brought this day

a single drop of water to my gaze. Globe-like,

suspended, it held the scene about me in reverse:

a grotto glistening with nodules and globules.

Though not of the vegetable world, these

live and grow, and when struck, produce

melodious tones, liquid and wavering.

Mat and I had gone in search of specimens

for the Doctor’s collection. How sad I grew

to see the changes wrought in them by sunlight.

How lusterless they appeared under glass,

their sparks extinguished, their music fled.


Tuberculosis Sanitarium


A taper burned at night, two stearine lights

by day-no way to gauge the weather here.

Such was their hope, distinct and inseparable

condition of the disease, that even when

reduced to shadows, they refused to quit

the Cave, insisted on their imminent return

to health. From the Doctor’s monograph

on the curative virtues of the Cave, came

stone huts, black drifts of smoke from cookfires,

their dry, hollow coughs. A colony of invalids.

I smuggled them plants against the Doctor’s

commands that they should take the cure

beyond the solar influences-that grave

experiment. Unmentionable now.




The services of a guide cannot, as a rule,

be dispensed with; we alone can disentangle

the winding passageways. I will admit

the tours for me grow burdensome.

How long must I endure their need to fill

with talk the natural silence? I have heard

it all before, their proposed improvements:

Widen the trails so that two carriages

may pass abreast . . . here, a capacious ballroom.

Mere fancies. And yet beneath their words

I have discerned a kind of rough-hewn fear.

From drawing rooms and formal gardens

they come to me, from sunlit lives they enter

the chill, grand and instantaneous night.




The river is a wondrous machine. Haunt

of the Moon’s changing face, it drifts among

the knobs and foothills: there, deep and fluid;

here, rippling over gravel beds. The water

swims with flesh-walleye, minnow. From nights

foggy and indeterminate rise mornings

when the sun burns like a scald. On its banks

frogs pipe, the grass bends and rustles. It is

the singularity of chance and the shuffle

of things, stone basins where the chaff I’ve cast

on waters in the Cave emerged some several

hours hence. From the high stone bluffs nearby,

the water shines with an inner light-

makeshift, shifting, a candle in the current.


The Others


Thus far I have explored into the bowels

of the earth without impediment.

Others too would try-Materson, Nicholas,

those injudicious and eager for fame.

I’ve heard it said that yesterday, our Nick

was lowered by rope into the Maelstrom,

a pit of unknown depth. Those present claim

such shouts arose then from the chasm, the rope

was pulled until it fired by friction. A comedy.

I have seen the eyes he casts at her, and she

at him. This year I hardly note the seasons’ turns:

first spring, and now the woodlands are awash

with summer. My thoughts remain unquiet,

here: low arch of the Netherworld, brooding.




It was the night before the night before last

when I sat so deep in thought by the fire.

The Doctor boasts I was the merest germ

of a man when he bought me. Through him,

I was able, in time, to acquire a knowledge

of science, a considerable degree of culture.

Through him, my fame-the subject of articles,

my map distributed widely. But fame,

like the fire in the hearth, must be fed:

a bundle of twigs soon needs a log to stay

alight. And then full thirty cords of oak.

I am ever in search of exploits, discoveries.

Some nights I wake in darkness to know

a greater darkness waits. A hillside. A mouth.


Ultima Thule


Above me even now the hills are bristling

with pine and cedar, dark branches shifting

in the rays of Sun or Moon; there, deep pools

receive their cave-cooled water, the Entrance

breathes its mingling airs, and, surely, somewhere,

Charlotte-stepping, perhaps, to the back porch

door at twilight. Absently. By habit.

I have felt the legend almost leave me.

Elbows, rucksack. No one has ever come

this far-a dusty, Hell-bent crawl, past pits

and keystones, to find myself deep in the ridge.

I was drawn to wonder, the margins of the map.

Breath and a heartbeat. A fading lamp.

I was coffled to the light.


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