The Sheep Child
James Dickey, “The Sheep Child” from The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1945-1992. Copyright © 1992 by James Dickey. Reprinted with the permission of Wesleyan University Press, www.wesleyan.edu/wespress.
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Poet James L. Dickey 1923–1997
POET’S REGION U.S., Southern
Poetic Terms Free Verse
James Dickey: “The Sheep Child”
Was James Dickey writing about bestiality just for kicks, or was he attempting to revive the pastoral tradition?
If the history of poetry had a red-light district, James Dickey would be found down one of its darker alleys. His poems’ sexual subjects include father-daughter whipping (“May Day Sermon”), wicked Peeping Toms (“The Fiend”), adultery (“Adultery”), a stewardess doing a high-altitude striptease as she tumbles earthward (“Falling”), blond loins and forbidden desires (“Slave Quarters”), and the grassy, moonlit interspecies union of “The Sheep Child.”
Dickey’s two-part hymn to bestiality first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1966, the same year he won the National Book Award and was named Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. The poem begins with an ugly rumor about a woolly jar-baby in an Atlanta museum, and then allows that child to utter some of the loveliest pastoral lines of the 20th century.
Its strategy was pure Dickey—to prick the puritanical conscience of America by dignifying its deepest taboo. The poem’s publication swiftly inspired a letter-writing campaign to remove him from office. Detractors accused him of being “pornographic” and “obscene” and of “advocating incest.” (Dickey soon blasted back with “May Day Sermon,” the impassioned homily that begins with a farmer lashing his daughter in a barn.) When Dickey read “The Sheep Child” aloud, he often introduced it by announcing, “I don’t know what other defects or virtues this poem might have, but you can’t fault it for not having an original point of view!”
The Atlanta-born author, a former football star, ad man, and fighter pilot, prized originality and extremism, often preaching his ardent belief in the “creative possibility of the lie.” To this end, he revised his life as much as his poetry, exaggerating his hillbilly roots (though he was reared in the city) and transforming a camping trip with his buddies into the best-selling river-to-hell in Deliverance. In the mid-1960s, when he was thundering up to the Library of Congress in a maroon Corvette Sting Ray and telling the Washington Post, “I want to get every guy to sit down and have a beer with his soul,” he also penned some of his most thoughtful poems and dazzled audiences at campuses from Hollins to Harvard. His constant swing between erudite writer and redneck outlaw put him in a unique position to redefine the pastoral poem.
Pastorals (taken from the Latin word pastor, meaning “shepherd”) glorify the country life. They are almost always written by urbanites: Theocritus and Virgil were giddy practitioners. Love ranks high on their list of topics, followed by idealized death. Ewes shuffle by, part of the bucolic background—until “The Sheep Child,” a poem that hints there might be something a bit dirty about being too “close” to nature:
Farm boys wild to couple
With anything with soft-wooded trees
With mounds of earth. . . .
Dickey uses pauses to accentuate the illicit nature of the material and ramp up the suspense of its delivery. The pause between “anything” and “with,” equivalent to a rest in music, emphasizes the speaker’s false hesitation. This rumorist does not stop at the polite, generic “anything” but—after a long breath—unveils the juicier details, “soft-wooded trees” and “mounds of earth.”
His pauses multiply in the second stanza, drawing out the narrative like switchbacks on a trail:
There’s this thing that’s only half
Sheep like a woolly baby
Pickled in alcohol because
Those things can’t live his eyes
Are open but you can’t stand to look
Each image is more horrifying than the last—the hairy baby pickled in liquor, his eyes gaping—yet just when the suspense peaks, the stanza breaks and the lines abruptly tighten. It’s as if the rumorist has drawn back, hitched his pants, and shrugged at the reader’s keen interest. He declares how different things are these days:
But this is now almost all
Gone. The boys have taken
Their own true wives in the city,
The sheep are safe in the west hill
Pasture. . . .
Carried back in his mind to the rural hills, the speaker hesitates again. He confesses quietly that “we who were born there” still are not sure about the reality of the sheep child. Such a monstrous thing could exist, because it exists in the minds of men. (“Are we / because we remember, remembered / in the terrible dust of museums?” he asks.)
From this moment on, rather than assume the tone of those who “know better,” Dickey lets the sheep child (and the countryside) speak for itself. As he grafts this second, surprising voice onto the first, the poem becomes an odd kind of eclogue—a dialogue between two rustics that Elizabethan poets used to express political dissent. The rumorist orates from one side of the proverbial fence, the sheep child from the other.
The child tells the story of its conception and birth in ghostly, italicized lines:
I am here, in my father’s house.
I who am half of your world, came deeply
To my mother in the long grass
Of the west pasture, where she stood like moonlight
Listening for foxes. . . .
With this new voice, the pauses—and the poem’s hesitations about its subject’s legitimacy—vanish. In their place, Dickey offsets his phrases so they end mid-line, and then splices one to the next with a comma or period (i.e., “I am here, in my father’s house” and later “To carry me. I woke dying”). Although the lines’ pasted-together quality reminds us of the grotesqueness of the interspecies union, the sheep child’s words run counterpoint. They are long-voweled and beautiful, knee-deep with romanticism: “moonlight,” “hillside,” “grassy,” “need,” “dying,” and “human.”
They buoy the reader to the penultimate stanza, when the lines no longer stutter but flow with mythic grandeur:
. . . I saw for a blazing moment
The great grassy world from both sides,
Man and beast in the round of their need,
And the hill wind stirred in my wool,
My hoof and my hand clasped each other,
I ate my one meal
Of milk, and died
Staring. . . .
As “The Sheep Child” moves toward its conclusion, Dickey shifts from attacking pastoralism to re-creating it. The sheep child’s mournful, lyric tone and slowly extending rhythms lend the poem the air of an elegy for a time past, when such secrets were hidden in the mountains and served as warnings to all men about the extremities of their desire.
The pauses reappear in the last four lines, when Dickey revisits the subject of farm boys:
They go into woods into bean fields they go
Deep into their known right hands. Dreaming of me,
They groan they wait they suffer
Themselves, they marry, they raise their kind.
Placed between short, mostly independent and iambic clauses, the spaces support a sonic effect akin to retreating footsteps: “They groan they wait they suffer.” Each phrase seems quieter than the last, as if the speaker is receding slowly into time and myth. The poem ends with the image of men returning to their own people. It alludes to kinship and blood lines, reinforcing the proper boundaries between animals and humanity. (The last word, “kind,” originates from the Old English gecynde, for “natural.”)
As the sheep child metamorphoses from rumor to legend, the poem that began with a decidedly un-idyllic love affair comes full circle to embrace the true pastoral agenda: to find symbols of hope and renewal in green arcadia and carry them back to civilization. In Dickey’s case, examining the dirty side of sexuality reveals that the deep root of all such encounters is the urge to connect and create, and that earthly immortality will always have a necessary hitch in its inexorable gait.
The Sheep Child
Poems by James L. Dickey
POET’S REGION U.S., Southern
Poetic Terms Free Verse