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Mention of “The Sheep Child” here has called to mind all kinds of recollections from the Atlanta of my youth, in which, among literary circles at least, James Dickey loomed large. Everyone had a tale, either of generous encouragement, or booze-infused arrogance and aggression–sometimes both. I myself had witnessed his (probably inebriate) overbearing on a literary panel (he insisted on answering every question from the audience, even if specifically addressed to another panel member), but also treasure a letter he typed (how quaint typing now seems!), addressed “Dear Mr. Stallings,” (sic) when my manuscript was a Yale finalist, encouraging me to keep at my work “for me, for poetry, and for Yale” as if he were Coach Dickey and I a quarterback…
Dickey was also that very rare thing in the suburban sprawl of Atlanta in those days (before the scene was dominated by academic programs at GSU, Emory, even Georgia Tech)–a genuine poet the city could claim for itself. The self-created myth of course seems to have swallowed the man. One winces slightly now to see, as the first sentence of his bio on the back cover of The Early Motion: James Dickey is a former night-fighter with more than 100 missions in World War II, an athlete, hunter, and woodsman, and author of the novel and screenplay Deliverance, It reminds me that the root of “authentic” is violence–the Greek for murderer.
One is equally surprised to see, as a blurb from Choice that “his poetry is essential to modern American poetry studies.
Is it much studied or read anymore? It seems that the drive for authenticity in the legend has sunk the authenticity of the poetry.
But surely it is time to relook at his poetic accomplishments. I’m not sure when I became truly aware of his work as opposed to the anecdotes. “The Sheep Child” struck me early on, partly because I knew the dusty State capitol museum–which displayed jars of pickled animals, including a two-headed snake, and the odd freakish new-born calf or lamb–quite well from my childhood when my father used to take us there to look at the arrowheads.
I have long been haunted by poems from his early books, collected in The Early Motion. They are, among other things, bold rhythmic experiments, in unrhymed anapests–what Dickey calls “the night rhythm.” It is interesting that for Dickey, American poetry is not pivoted between the grand organ chords of Whitman and the a cappella of Dickinson, but between the intoxicating chant of Poe and the sober speech rhythms of Williams. By divorcing the lilt of “Annabel Lee” from rhyme, Dickey achieves a very different American sound–dreamy, Southern perhaps, elegaic (with those falling cadences at the end of lines), but not forced–it is not only iambics that are “natural” to English. And it is a meter of great versatility, since the anapests freely admit of iambic substitution without losing their swing. (One would wish to see more rhythmic experiment of this kind among contemporary poets… )
My favorites of these early poems are probably “The Lifeguard” and “The Heaven of Animals.” But another poem I always go back to is “The Poisoned Man.” About a man who has been bit by a rattlesnake, it expands to incorporate the Fall in a way that could be, in another writer, heavyhanded, but carried off by the anapestic pulse, the images, and the close:
When I rose, the live oaks were ashen
And the wild grass was dead without flame.
Through the blasted cornfield I hobbled,
My foot tied up in my shirt,
And met my old wife in the garden,
Where she reached for a withering apple.
I lay in the country and dreamed
Of the substance and course of the river
While the different colors of fever
Like quilt patches flickered upon me.
At last I arose, with the poison
Gone out of the seam of the scar,
And brought my wife eastward and weeping,
Through the copper fields springing alive
With the promise of harvest for no one.
I love the colors flickering like the patches of quilts, and the copper fields (like copper heads?) springing alive–and the last line that snakes directly into the memory.