One hot summer afternoon in 1996, as I stood in my underwear ironing shirts and watching daytime tv in my tiny Brooklyn apartment, the telephone rang. I answered it without lowering the volume on the television, then returned quickly to the ironing board, where I’d left a cigarette burning.
“Mr. Mehigan?” the caller asked.
I tried to answer but had walked too far for the cord and the handset sprang from between my ear and shoulder and bounced across the wood floor. I scrambled to get it.
“Hello?!” I said.
“Hello,” said the caller, calm.
“Sorry!” I said. “I —”
“Mr. Mehigan?” interrupted the voice.
“Yes?” I said.
“Is this Joshua Mehigan?” the caller asked.
“Yep,” I said, letting a touch of absurdity creep into my tone. “Can I help you?”
“— — Mr. Mehigan?”
“Yes, who’s this, please?”
“Mr. Mehigan, this is Apollo.”
I kept quiet while I decided whether or not to hang up.
“Uncle George?” I asked.
“No, Apollo,” corrected the caller, gently. I now discerned he was from the southeast, past seventy, and might really be my mother’s uncle George, who had a funny sense of humor. But he pronounced my name “Me-again.” Then I remembered giving out my contact information at a poetry reading the previous weekend.
“Is this about the reading on Thirteenth Street?” I asked.
“No,” said the voice, still calm but faintly disappointed. “Mr. Mehigan, this — this is Apollo ... God of Poetry!”
I stood for a long five seconds as the caller softly repeated himself like a game-show host offering a hint. I had no idea who it was but wasn’t going to hang up now.
Two days earlier, I’d written James Dickey about his essay collection From Babel to Byzantium. He didn’t know me. I was twenty-six, working at my first office job, and looking for intelligent, readable poetry criticism. I’d bought Dickey’s book at a Washington Square book table and couldn’t put it down. It wasn’t the first time I’d considered writing him. Poems like “The Sheep Child” and “The Heaven of Animals” had helped draw me into poetry when I was nineteen. I’d recited “Falling,” Dickey’s four-page account of a stewardess’s plunge from an airplane, to my girlfriend, my friends, my mother. But Dickey had seemed too big to pester. With Deliverance, his appeal had long ago reached beyond the self-regarding duchy of poetry into the vistas of popular fiction and Hollywood, and onward into my tenth-grade locker room, where two kids shouted “Squeeeaaal!” as they shoved a chubby boy onto the floor. Dickey had even played Sheriff Bullard in the movie. Where poetry was concerned, he’d read at Jimmy Carter’s inauguration, won the National Book Award, and served the Library of Congress as poetry consultant. Another thing stopped me from writing him, too. As I think even Dickey recognized, he was a writer of baffling inconsistency. Whenever I started to feel sure of him, I’d find a poem that really made me wonder. The same went for his fiction. After tearing through Deliverance in a day, I’d spent five minutes frowning over Alnilam in the Strand before returning it to the shelf. But then I’d read From Babel to Byzantium. As a recent mfa graduate, I ate up its decisiveness and trenchancy, both qualities that seemed wanting in the criticism of that time. “I like this book,” I thought, “and must therefore notify its author!”
I had not, however, expected him to call me up and impersonate Apollo. In fact, any reply had seemed improbable. It’s embarrassing now to admit that when I finally realized whom I was talking to, I dropped to my knees, made a high-pitched sound, and swore, and just about started crying. Despite this display, he spoke to me, on his dime, for an hour and a half. For weeks, the notes I took sat on my floor, where they were damaged by shoes and, appropriately, spilled whiskey. I later tacked the mess to my wall, then lost it. By and large, he was funny and charming, surprisingly gentle in his manner, and also very sharp. These qualities I remember in the abstract.
I don’t know what I’d read, to that point, about Dickey’s reputation as a “creative liar.” Having been raised in a family of both Irish and Georgian raconteurs and bullshitters, I pretty quickly got the odor and was pretty quickly reconciled to it. Conversation began with more impressive affairs than poetry. Dickey told me the Coen brothers were starting on a film of his novel To the White Sea. “Have you heard of them?” he asked. Then he flattered me by pretending earnestly to solicit my opinion about whether or not Tom Cruise would make a good lead. I didn’t bother saying I thought Tom Cruise was ridiculous. (The film, which was real, halted production in 2002. They’d cast Brad Pitt.) In general, my disposition throughout the conversation was of excited compliance, as if Dickey were a favorite but overweening and half-loaded grandparent. Movie talk led to discussion of Deliverance, and Dickey went straight into what he must’ve thought everyone wanted to know. He said Burt Reynolds was a great guy and, asking if I played guitar, told me about his composition of “Dueling Banjos,” which he did not compose.
But poetry, he said, engaged him above all else. Our conversation, perhaps following the tone I’d established in my letter, was pessimistic. We commiserated about all the flat language in contemporary poetry and the assumption that writing lyric poems is a question primarily of inspiration. He surprised me by complaining that almost no one knew anything about traditional technique anymore, and that most who did had nothing to say. He mainly wanted to talk about his generation, but he began with me, since of course I’d included a couple of poems with my letter. His praise was brazenly excessive, but also irresistible. He invited me to study at the University of South Carolina. Released by now from the exigencies of reality, I answered earnestly that I would. I felt like one of the shaky old women who has just won a million dollars in the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes. Then, before the flood of adrenaline could abate, he moved on to the poets of his generation — managing, through his dim assessment of a dozen great mid-century poets, to put any praise of me into serious question. After a while, I realized that the truth might matter less than the glee of competitive sniping. He compared Richard Wilbur to a southern girl “who moved up north for school and someone said, ‘Don’t ever lose that accent!’ and she didn’t.” He allowed that Sylvia Plath had written good poems but referred to her as “the Judy Garland of American Poetry.” He admitted that James Merrill was an accomplished poet but added that he was also damagingly overrated by “the New York Homosexual Mafia.”
He paused. “You’re not a homosexual, are you, Joshua?”
“No ... ” I answered. He continued talking, mostly about poetry, but over the next several minutes asked again if I were gay. Then, with that question in the air, he asked if I wouldn’t mind sending him a photograph. “I like to see who I’m dealing with,” he explained, suddenly seeming to grow cautious. Despite the Merrill comment, and the fact that he was willing to play in such a dumb way to a stranger, my impression wasn’t that Dickey was a hardened bigot. It also wasn’t that I was being cruised, as a couple of friends later suggested. That he was fixated on issues of conventional masculinity everyone knows. That he might be uncomfortable with homosexuality and comfortable saying so should probably shock no one, if American poets are anything like ordinary Americans. My guess is that if I’d said I was gay, he would’ve spluttered and then said something else to keep the mutual admiration flowing.
Conversation returned to his generation of poets. “Well, Joshua. I think it’s clear that I was the best poet of my generation. Don’t you?” At this, my mouth dropped open for no one to see. I swallowed, and I told him just what he wanted to hear: “Yes. Yes. You are.” When it was time to end the conversation, Dickey mentioned matter-of-factly that he was tired because he was sick, which I hadn’t known.
“But you sound so well!” I said.
“Son,” he began, with serene wisdom. “I was drunk in some capacity every day for twenty-six years, and I smoked two packs a day for longer.” He told me about his jaundice and pulmonary fibrosis and confided calmly that he was often weak. He made me promise to quit smoking and mentioned again, as a fait accompli, my enrollment at his school. I offered a profusion of sincere gratitude, he stammeringly demurred, and that was that.
That afternoon I told my girlfriend and parents, who had seen Deliverance, that James Dickey had called me and I was going to try to go south to study with him. I told my friends, who might’ve thought I was lying. A month later, I wrote one of my college teachers, who answered with tales that made Dickey’s household sound like the “Gimme Shelter” montage from Goodfellas. He also said that Dickey was deathly ill and that I should probably reconsider South Carolina. It wasn’t long before someone else told me another thing I didn’t want to hear. A second old teacher, hearing my prize story, responded with a lift of the eyebrows and a half-smile. “Yeah,” he said. “Dickey does that kind of thing all the time. He was probably just drunk.”
This had a predictable effect. But in the ensuing years I found that, as Dickey’s biographer Henry Hart recently wrote in Salmagundi, “Everyone, it seemed, had a ‘Dickey story.’” After I’d heard a number of others, and after I’d retired mine because of them, Dickey came up in conversation at a poetry conference. A close friend and I each discovered that Dickey had once called the other out of the blue. Finally this spring, one of the editors to whom I pitched this remembrance told me of numerous phone calls he’d received from Dickey, whom he remembers with both fondness and fear. In the end, it could seem unreasonably easy to get a telephone call from James Dickey. This, of course, is only an illusion. As an entrée to contemporary poetry, and as an entrée to oneself, one might cultivate a curiosity about the meaning of such an illusion.
The January after Dickey called me, a friend greeted me in a bar with the New York Times. “Did you see about your friend?” he said, a little archly, spreading Dickey’s obituary on the bar.
Fifteen years later, what matters most to me is the fact of the call. A big-deal writer, some of whose writing I loved, had read my letter, gotten my number from directory assistance, and called me up to talk. Whatever else was going on, I lived on the excitement for months. I’ve paid schools to do far less. Most poets could hope that, when they are old, past repair, and needful themselves, they trump their own self-interest and make some irrelevant kid feel less hopeless about trying.