The Lifeguard

By James L. Dickey 1923–1997
In a stable of boats I lie still,
From all sleeping children hidden.   
The leap of a fish from its shadow   
Makes the whole lake instantly tremble.   
With my foot on the water, I feel   
The moon outside

Take on the utmost of its power.
I rise and go out through the boats.   
I set my broad sole upon silver,
On the skin of the sky, on the moonlight,   
Stepping outward from earth onto water   
In quest of the miracle

This village of children believed   
That I could perform as I dived
For one who had sunk from my sight.   
I saw his cropped haircut go under.   
I leapt, and my steep body flashed   
Once, in the sun.

Dark drew all the light from my eyes.   
Like a man who explores his death
By the pull of his slow-moving shoulders,   
I hung head down in the cold,
Wide-eyed, contained, and alone
Among the weeds,

And my fingertips turned into stone   
From clutching immovable blackness.   
Time after time I leapt upward
Exploding in breath, and fell back   
From the change in the children’s faces   
At my defeat.

Beneath them I swam to the boathouse   
With only my life in my arms
To wait for the lake to shine back
At the risen moon with such power   
That my steps on the light of the ripples   
Might be sustained.

Beneath me is nothing but brightness   
Like the ghost of a snowfield in summer.   
As I move toward the center of the lake,   
Which is also the center of the moon,   
I am thinking of how I may be
The savior of one

Who has already died in my care.   
The dark trees fade from around me.   
The moon’s dust hovers together.   
I call softly out, and the child’s
Voice answers through blinding water.   
Patiently, slowly,

He rises, dilating to break
The surface of stone with his forehead.   
He is one I do not remember
Having ever seen in his life.
The ground I stand on is trembling   
Upon his smile.

I wash the black mud from my hands.   
On a light given off by the grave   
I kneel in the quick of the moon   
At the heart of a distant forest   
And hold in my arms a child   
Of water, water, water.

James Dickey, “The Lifeguard” from The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1945-1992. Copyright 1992 by James Dickey. Reprinted with the permission of Wesleyan University Press,

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 Death, Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Living, Nature

 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 Death, Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Living, Nature

POET’S REGION U.S., Southern

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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