Buckdancer’s Choice

By James L. Dickey 1923–1997
So I would hear out those lungs,   
The air split into nine levels,
Some gift of tongues of the whistler

In the invalid’s bed: my mother,   
Warbling all day to herself
The thousand variations of one song;

It is called Buckdancer’s Choice.   
For years, they have all been dying   
Out, the classic buck-and-wing men

Of traveling minstrel shows;   
With them also an old woman   
Was dying of breathless angina,

Yet still found breath enough   
To whistle up in my head   
A sight like a one-man band,

Freed black, with cymbals at heel,   
An ex-slave who thrivingly danced   
To the ring of his own clashing light

Through the thousand variations of one song   
All day to my mother’s prone music,   
The invalid’s warbler’s note,

While I crept close to the wall   
Sock-footed, to hear the sounds alter,   
Her tongue like a mockingbird’s break

Through stratum after stratum of a tone   
Proclaiming what choices there are   
For the last dancers of their kind,

For ill women and for all slaves
Of death, and children enchanted at walls   
With a brass-beating glow underfoot,

Not dancing but nearly risen   
Through barnlike, theatrelike houses   
On the wings of the buck and wing.

James Dickey, “Buckdancer’s Choice” 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 Music, Family & Ancestors, Health & Illness, Theater & Dance, Youth, Growing Old, Death, Living, Relationships, Arts & Sciences

 James L. Dickey


Widely regarded as one of the major mid-century American poets, James Dickey is known for his sweeping historical vision and eccentric poetic style. Joyce Carol Oates described Dickey’s unique perspective as a desire “to take on ‘his’ own personal history as an analogue to or a microscopic exploration of twentieth-century American history.” His expansionist aesthetic is evident in his work’s range and variety of voices, which . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Music, Family & Ancestors, Health & Illness, Theater & Dance, Youth, Growing Old, Death, Living, Relationships, Arts & Sciences

POET’S REGION U.S., Southern

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