The Sheep Child

By James L. Dickey 1923–1997
Farm boys wild to couple
With anything      with soft-wooded trees   
With mounds of earth      mounds   
Of pinestraw      will keep themselves off   
Animals by legends of their own:   
In the hay-tunnel dark
And dung of barns, they will   
Say    I have heard tell

That in a museum in Atlanta   
Way back in a corner somewhere   
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   
I heard from somebody who ...

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      but we who were born there
Still are not sure. Are we,
Because we remember, remembered
In the terrible dust of museums?

Merely with his eyes, the sheep-child may   

Be saying      saying

         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. It was something like love
         From another world that seized her
         From behind, and she gave, not lifting her head   
         Out of dew, without ever looking, her best
         Self to that great need. Turned loose, she dipped her face   
         Farther into the chill of the earth, and in a sound   
         Of sobbing      of something stumbling
         Away, began, as she must do,
         To carry me. I woke, dying,

         In the summer sun of the hillside, with my eyes
         Far more than human. 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. From dark grass I came straight
         
         To my father’s house, whose dust
         Whirls up in the halls for no reason
         When no one comes      piling deep in a hellish mild corner,   
         And, through my immortal waters,
         I meet the sun’s grains eye
         To eye, and they fail at my closet of glass.
         Dead, I am most surely living
         In the minds of farm boys: I am he who drives
         Them like wolves from the hound bitch and calf
         And from the chaste ewe in the wind.
         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.

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.

Source: James Dickey: The Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 1998)

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Poet James L. Dickey 1923–1997

POET’S REGION U.S., Southern

Subjects Pets, Love, Relationships, Desire, Heartache & Loss

Poetic Terms Free Verse