The Performance

By James L. Dickey 1923–1997
The last time I saw Donald Armstrong   
He was staggering oddly off into the sun,   
Going down, off the Philippine Islands.   
I let my shovel fall, and put that hand
Above my eyes, and moved some way to one side
That his body might pass through the sun,

And I saw how well he was not
Standing there on his hands,
On his spindle-shanked forearms balanced,   
Unbalanced, with his big feet looming and waving   
In the great, untrustworthy air
He flew in each night, when it darkened.

Dust fanned in scraped puffs from the earth
Between his arms, and blood turned his face inside out,   
To demonstrate its suppleness
Of veins, as he perfected his role.
Next day, he toppled his head off
On an island beach to the south,

And the enemy’s two-handed sword   
Did not fall from anyone’s hands   
At that miraculous sight,
As the head rolled over upon
Its wide-eyed face, and fell
Into the inadequate grave

He had dug for himself, under pressure.   
Yet I put my flat hand to my eyebrows   
Months later, to see him again
In the sun, when I learned how he died,   
And imagined him, there,
Come, judged, before his small captors,

Doing all his lean tricks to amaze them—
The back somersault, the kip-up—
And at last, the stand on his hands,   
Perfect, with his feet together,
His head down, evenly breathing,
As the sun poured from the sea

And the headsman broke down   
In a blaze of tears, in that light   
Of the thin, long human frame   
Upside down in its own strange joy,
And, if some other one had not told him,   
Would have cut off the feet

Instead of the head,
And if Armstrong had not presently risen   
In kingly, round-shouldered attendance,   
And then knelt down in himself
Beside his hacked, glittering grave, having done   
All things in this life that he could.

James Dickey, “The Performance” 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: Poetry (July 1959).

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This poem originally appeared in the July 1959 issue of Poetry magazine

July 1959
 James L. Dickey

Biography

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 War & Conflict, Friends & Enemies, Heroes & Patriotism, Death, Living, Relationships, Social Commentaries

POET’S REGION U.S., Southern

Poetic Terms Elegy

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