In the Tree House at Night

By James L. Dickey 1923–1997
And now the green household is dark.   
The half-moon completely is shining   
On the earth-lighted tops of the trees.   
To be dead, a house must be still.
The floor and the walls wave me slowly;   
I am deep in them over my head.   
The needles and pine cones about me

Are full of small birds at their roundest,   
Their fists without mercy gripping
Hard down through the tree to the roots   
To sing back at light when they feel it.   
We lie here like angels in bodies,
My brothers and I, one dead,
The other asleep from much living,

In mid-air huddled beside me.
Dark climbed to us here as we climbed
Up the nails I have hammered all day
Through the sprained, comic rungs of the ladder   
Of broom handles, crate slats, and laths
Foot by foot up the trunk to the branches   
Where we came out at last over lakes

Of leaves, of fields disencumbered of earth   
That move with the moves of the spirit.   
Each nail that sustains us I set here;
Each nail in the house is now steadied
By my dead brother’s huge, freckled hand.   
Through the years, he has pointed his hammer   
Up into these limbs, and told us

That we must ascend, and all lie here.   
Step after step he has brought me,   
Embracing the trunk as his body,
Shaking its limbs with my heartbeat,   
Till the pine cones danced without wind   
And fell from the branches like apples.   
In the arm-slender forks of our dwelling

I breathe my live brother’s light hair.   
The blanket around us becomes
As solid as stone, and it sways.
With all my heart, I close
The blue, timeless eye of my mind.   
Wind springs, as my dead brother smiles   
And touches the tree at the root;

A shudder of joy runs up
The trunk; the needles tingle;   
One bird uncontrollably cries.
The wind changes round, and I stir   
Within another’s life. Whose life?
Who is dead? Whose presence is living?   
When may I fall strangely to earth,

Who am nailed to this branch by a spirit?   
Can two bodies make up a third?
To sing, must I feel the world’s light?   
My green, graceful bones fill the air   
With sleeping birds. Alone, alone
And with them I move gently.
I move at the heart of the world.

James Dickey, “In the Tree House at Night” 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 Family & Ancestors, Nature, Home Life, Trees & Flowers, Death, Animals, Living, Relationships

 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 Family & Ancestors, Nature, Home Life, Trees & Flowers, Death, Animals, Living, Relationships

POET’S REGION U.S., Southern

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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