Dickey’s essay “The Enemy from Eden” is a meditation on the metaphysics of snake hunting with a blowgun. The blowgun-wielding hunter—“the One,” as Dickey identifies him—fashions his weapon from a length of aluminum pipe and arms it with sharpened lengths of coat-hanger wire guided by improvised vanes of typing paper scraps. With this weapon the snake hunter seeks his foe, alert not to walk “right into the fangs, the jungle hypodermic.” When the “Universal Evil,” the “Enemy from Eden,” succumbs to the coat-hanger needle in the brain, his skin will become “something to have a drink with, at all times of day and night.” After the kill, “For some reason, the One is well, full of himself and out of himself.”
This brief essay contains much essential Dickey, an avid deer and snake hunter as he prided on portraying himself. Striding into the natural world, armed with the minimum of hand-fashioned weapons, and doing battle with the allegorical monster is an irresistible theme. It also relates directly to Dickey’s concern in both his fiction and his poetry for the magic and mystery of nature and the dangers and satisfactions available to the man who will face up to the challenges. The attitudes expressed therein are typical of his main theme in literature and, likely, life: survival. Witness to harrowing scenes while serving in the Air Force during World War II, he confessed in one of his 1970 self-interviews to viewing existence from the standpoint of a survivor. Having been called “James Dickey, the Grateful Survivor,” in a critical article from that period, the writer gratefully identified with it.
The major Dickey themes are all exemplified in Poems, 1957-1967 (1967), a compilation from Into the Stone, Drowning with Others, Helmets, Buckdancer’s Choice, and Falling (not previously published in book form). Several of the poems treat the death of Dickey’s brother, Eugene, and the poet’s ensuing guilt. Dickey’s mother suffered from angina, and he became convinced that she would not have put herself through the exertion of bearing him if Eugene had not died. This view of his conception and birth troubled Dickey. “The Underground Stream” voices the poet’s frequently stated urge to merge his identity with natural elements—in this instance, with the underground stream he perceives as he lives on the edge of a flowing well—and is infused with the poet’s memory of his “one true brother,/ the tall cadaver, who/ Either grew or did not grow.” Another early poem, “The String,” recalls the story of his brother’s having performed string tricks, “Incredible feats of construction,” as “he lay/ In his death-bed singing with fever.” The direct personal feeling of “The String” is strengthened by the elegiac refrain “Dead before I was born.”
The same sense of the dead brother’s haunting presence emerges in “Armor” and “In the Tree House at Night.” The fantasy about armor conjures up a brother “whose features I knew/ By the feel of their strength on my face/ And whose limbs by the shining of mine.” In the poem’s moving resolution, the brother is armored in gold and the poet has:
let the still sun Down into the stare of the eyepieceAnd raised its bird’s beak to confront What man is within to live with me When I begin living forever.
In the tree-house poem, it is the “dead brother’s huge, freckled hand” that steadies the nails in the tree-house ladder; and it is his spirit that draws the speaker into the tree house at night, where he enjoys a mystical experience: “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.”
Of the numerous recollections of war in Poems, 1957-1967, “The Performance” is perhaps the most stunning. It is one of the most powerful elegies inspired by World War II. “The Performance” honors Donald Armstrong, master of the “back somersault, the kip-up,” as the poet imagines the downed flier’s execution. Doomed to dig his own grave before the enemy’s “two-handed sword” falls on his neck, Armstrong does all his “lean tricks. . . . As the sun poured up from the sea/ And the headsman broke down/ In a blaze of tears,” but at the end Armstrong “knelt down in himself/ Beside his hacked, glittering grave, having done/ All things in this life that he could.”
“Awaiting the Swimmer” is one of Dickey’s love poems. The speaker of the poem stands by a river, holding a white towel and waiting for a woman to reach him on the bank. He wraps her in the towel and leads her to the house, where he is overcome with feeling: “What can I perform, to come near her?/ How hope to bear up, when she gives me/ The fear-killing moves of her body?” Three other early love poems—“On the Hill Below the Lighthouse,” “Near Darien,” and “Into the Stone”—develop similar statements of awe at the power of love and sexual feeling. In each poem, the natural setting is important, with moonlight bathing the lovers in all three poems as the speaker works out his feelings in figures of light and shade, stone and water.
The early love poems contrast with some later ones in different moods, such as “Adultery,” with its “Gigantic forepleasure,” “wrist watch by the bed,” and “grim techniques.” This poem ends in a recital of illicit lovers’ banalities and the speaker’s lighthearted summing up: “We have done it again we are/ Still living. Sit up and smile,/ God bless you. Guilt is magical.” In “Cherrylog Road,” the speaker waits in a junked Pierce-Arrow for the archetypal farmer’s daughter, here named Doris Holbrook. In the still heat of the junkyard, the hulks “smothered in kudzu,” the young speaker and his consort “clung, glued together,/ With the hooks of the seat springs/ Working through to catch us red-handed.” The wild ride over, they leave “by separate doors,” and the speaker roars off on his motorcycle, “Wringing the handlebar for speed,/ Wild to be wreckage forever.” Many of Dickey’s best poems express a natural relationship between the world of man, as personified in the speaker, and the larger world of leaf and stone. These poems often evoke a natural creation trembling with transcendent spirit.
“The Owl King”
First published: 1962 (collected in Drowning with Others, 1962)
Type of work: Poem
A father calls to his blind son, lost in the woods but bonded by natural sympathies to the owl king.
The eight-page poem “The Owl King” is arranged in three parts. Part 1, “The Call,” is the father’s hopeful search for his blind son. This one-page section is characteristic of much of Dickey’s poetry in several ways. It is written in eight-line stanzas, for example, with the first line recurring at the end as a refrain in italics. Many of Dickey’s poems, especially the earlier ones, are told in stanzas of five to eight lines, and the refrain is fairly commonly used (examples include “Dover: Believing in Kings,” “The String,” and “On the Hill Below the Lighthouse”). The stanzas are linked by enjambment, although this poem has rather less of that device than usual in Dickey. The unrhymed lines are mostly of eight syllables, with Dickey’s typically heavy anapestic stress heard everywhere. The metrical pattern found most frequently in a Dickey line is an iamb followed by two anapests, and “The Call” offers perfect examples, as in “It whispers like straw in my ear,/ And shakes like a stone under water./ My bones stand on tiptoe inside it. Which part of the sound did I utter?” The alliteration in these lines is not unexpected in a Dickey poem, and the word “stone” is perhaps the commonest word in Dickey’s vocabulary.
The father’s call is answered by the owl king’s song, and the second part of the poem, two pages, is the owl’s story; it is told in one long stanza. The owl king’s vision allows him to see “dark burn/ Greater than sunlight or moonlight,/ For it burn[s] from deep within [him].” He hears, then sees, the blind boy with “His blue eyes shining like mine.” They are immediately companionable, so that the father’s call becomes a “perfect, irrelevant music,” and they sit each night on the owl’s oak bough. The blind boy achieves something of the owl’s vision, with the boy’s eyes “inch by inch going forward/ Through stone dark, burning and picking/ The creatures out one by one.”
In the five-page third part, “The Blind Child’s Story,” the boy describes, in short lines, his journey into the forest and the relationship he achieves with the owl. Perched on the oak bough, the boy “learn[s] from the master of sight! What to do when the sun is dead,/ How to make the great darkness work/ As it wants of itself to work.” The owl weeps when the boy takes him in his arms in the glow of a heavenly light. The boy then walks through “the soul of the wood,” for he can now “see as the owl king sees.” The hints of religious allegory grow thicker at the end as the boy concludes, “Father, I touch! Your face. I have not seen/ My own, but it is yours./ I come, I advance,/ I believe everything, I am here.”
“The Sheep Child”
First published: 1967 (collected in Poems, 1957-1967, 1967)
Type of work: Poem
The myth of the sheep child—half human, half sheep—inspires a lyric celebration of the will to life embodied in sexual desire.
“The Sheep Child” is in two parts. In the first section, the poet revives the old legends of anomalous deformed births resulting from humans copulating with animals. Among these is the much-whispered-about story of the “woolly baby/ pickled in alcohol” somewhere in an obscure corner of an unnamed museum in Atlanta. Even though “The boys have taken/ Their own true wives in the city” and the sheep are now safe in the pasture, the story persists in the “terrible dust of museums.” Thus the poet imagines the sheep child saying, with his eyes, the story of his begetting, birth, and death. The sheep child’s narrative, printed in italics, is a beautiful lyric of desire.
Speaking from his “father’s house,” the sheep child recounts his sheep mother’s interlude in the west pasture, “where she stood like moonlight/ Listening for foxes.” It was then that “something like love/ From another world . . . seized her/ From behind,” and she responded to “that great need.” From this event ensued the sheep child:
I woke, dying,In the summer sun of the hillside, with my eyes
(The entire section is 4527 words.)