Book Review

The titular Negro Mountain in C.S. Giscombe’s latest collection is, foremost, a real place: a long ridge in the Allegheny Range of mountains, southwest Pennsylvania, situated directly atop the Mason-Dixon Line. According to word-of-mouth histories that Giscombe includes in the book, Negro Mountain gained its name in the 1750s when a “gigantic African” died in skirmish between a group of English speculators and a band of Native Americans, although firsthand accounts are sparse and contradictory. A plateau on Negro Mountain stands as the highest point in the state of Pennsylvania but also exists in the realm of the historical imaginary (and in several of the poet’s recorded dreams) as a staging ground for questions of belonging and acclimation (both racial and ecological) and for narratives exploring movements towards and away from liminal geographic locales. Across the book’s five sections, Giscombe uses poetry, prose blocks, and deep dives into historical records to probe issues of race, hybridity and monstrosity, and the coincidence of geography and America’s fraught racial history. Events recur and time in—and on—Negro Mountain is circuitous and looping, while memories blur into dreams and render themselves speculative and untrustworthy.

On a structural level, Negro Mountain moves from the dream sphere to the realm of the historical, although lines of demarcation are never cleanly drawn and categories blur and interpenetrate. The collection opens with a section titled “Seven Dreams,” then moves through subsequent parts: “The Negro Mountains,” “Camptown,” and “Overlapping Apexes (for Ed Roberson).” Prose paragraphs mixing poetic language and historical details crop up with increasing frequency as the sections progress and culminate in the final section, “Notes on Region,” which comprises a collage of researched and dreamlike blocks of language examining the history of wolves in Pennsylvania (along with scientific studies regarding the successful interbreeding of various wolf subspecies), the relative dearth of Black families in the communities surrounding Negro Mountain, and the author’s own trip to meet the woman who claimed to have spotted a wolf on the mountain’s slopes.

Giscombe uses recurring, vanishing, and evolving themes to create a fugue-like book that mulls over dreams, the historical word-of-mouth, and the ways that figures of animalistic monstrosity worm themselves into the American psyche. The first poem in Negro Mountain, “First Dream,” establishes one of the book’s central conceits: the alleged presence of wolves in southwest Pennsylvania, both in dreams and in waking life. Giscombe writes:

Wolves came up the driveway and through the side yard of the old house—this
was in Kindergarten time—and I stood still though I was frightened
to be in their midst and they took note of me but did
not bite me or threaten me. . . .
The wolves had ragged gray pelts—bad fur, tufts
of it—and their hindquarters were skinny in comparison to their very big shoulders.

For Giscombe, wolves and closely related species open the text to broader topics than biological speculation. The poet plays off the animals’ spectral or dreamlike presence in the Commonwealth and compares it at various places in the collection to the folk figure of the werewolf: another pseudo-animal that haunts the American psyche. A fearsome mixture emerges, and Giscombe uses the figure of the hybrid throughout Negro Mountain to probe contradictions and idiosyncrasies inherent to America’s racial views, historical and contemporary alike. Wolves and other animals that went extinct in the vicinity of Negro Mountain—and which may have returned in the second decade of the 21st century—hold an important place within the collection, although wolves, much like Schrödinger’s cat, both do and do not exist on the mountain, having been confirmed extinct but also being rumored to have returned to the area. In this vein, multiple poems address the eyewitness of a woman who, in 2018, claimed to have seen a live wolf on Negro Mountain.

Exactly who can exist “naturally” within certain spaces, Giscombe seems to be asking, and whose presence is seen, like a wolf or a werewolf, as inherent threatening? The poet articulates this question directly in “Event Place,” the penultimate poem in “The Negro Mountains,” asking:

We didn’t have to go to Negro Mountain.
Crow, baby!
Question comes up again like bioluminescence: the educated speaker
might ask, What’s the alliance between red wolves and the Negro character?
Pine forests.
. . .
Negroes in the wildwood!

Poems in “Camptown” further Giscombe’s poetics by bringing a dreamlike imaginary—full of monstrosity and “[devils] in the bushes”—to the community surrounding Negro Mountain. The first poem in “Camptown” reads:

Camptown’s the long foot of Negro Mountain.
Please yourself, form’s harsh and anything
could slip across a bridge in the wee
hours, when traffic’s not heavy, from one place
or another to Camptown.
Please yourself.
I was a ship on the stormy ocean—stay off me, brother,
I write from bottomless description and
I still might be a monster.

Here, as in many other poems and sequences in Negro Mountain, Giscombe deploys language from multiple registers: the intimate ambiguity of “Please yourself” is deliberately jarring next to the confessional yet self-mythologizing “I was a ship on the stormy ocean … / I write from bottomless description.” Both uses of language contrast the poem’s opening, which situates Camptown in real geographical space but opaquely alludes to form (perhaps the form of the poem as well as the form of southern Pennsylvania’s landscape) as something “harsh” yet permiting travel and trespass. These hybridities of language parallel Giscombe’s interest in animal and human hybrids, invoked by the poem’s final line: “I might still be a monster.”

Giscombe uses juxtaposition and collage throughout the collection, whether writing from first-person experience (dreamed or waking) or, as part of his role as poet turned archivist, when deploying quotations from sources as diverse as recording artist Bo Diddly’s 1956 song “Who Do You Love?” to naturalist Henry W. Shoemaker’s 1917 monograph titled Extinct Pennsylvania Animals, Part 1: The Panther and the Wolf. Addressing the discomforting (alleged) presence of carnivores on Negro Mountain, Giscombe writes, near the end of “Overlapping Apexes”:

Sometimes it’s too hot to sleep.
Some danger, some beauty. Scorn the lyrics. Haunt the road, overlap.
Apex predator at the door, at the northern window, popped suddenly out of its pajamas.
. . .
Expect jaguars. Watch crocodiles. Consider wolves.
. . .
Dogs and crocodiles were thought to share a language.
Terms trail the animal, they’re a nuisance.

A range of animals may “haunt the road, overlap”; jaguars, crocodiles, and wolves have been exiled from the slopes of Negro Mountain but, analogous to Freud’s return of the repressed, reenter the territory and visit America’s psyche. The racial parallels to this haunting echo in the text. Passages in the collection frequently invoke the name (either Nemesis or Nemises) of the “giant African” whose death lent itself to the Mountain’s name, although the circumstances surrounding the man’s presence on the mountain are murky. For instance, was he friend, slave, or “body servant” of the white man whose band of speculators he accompanied? Likewise, in one of the book’s concluding prose passages, Giscombe recounts how, when he and a white female friend visited the white woman who claimed to have spotted a wolf upon Negro Mountain, she seemed “irritated” by Giscombe’s presence, not having realized that the poet’s friend “would, in fact, be bringing a Negro to visit.” Like the alleged wolf, Giscombe himself was perceived as out of place, both novelty and possible threat.

Negro Mountain stands as a vibrant and necessary collection showing the poet at the peak of his powers. The book builds upon Giscombe’s work in previous books—such as his 2008 Prairie Style (Dalkey Archive) and the 2014 Ohio Railroads (Omnidawn)—to explore the geography of America’s heartland and to create a collage-like portrait of the region’s fraught relationships with the concepts of Blackness and belonging.

About the Reviewer

Connor Fisher is the author of A Renaissance with Eyelids (Schism Press, forthcoming 2024), The Isotope of I (Schism Press, 2021) and three poetry and hybrid chapbooks including Speculative Geography (Greying Ghost Press, 2022). He has an MFA from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and English from the University of Georgia. His writing has appeared in journals including Denver Quarterly, Random Sample Review, Tammy, Tiger Moth Review, and Clade Song. He currently lives and teaches in northern Mississippi.