Throughout his poetry, Dickey employs shockingly bizarre or ludicrous images to communicate the alien position of nature in the "civilized" world. Indeed, the juxtaposition of the world of nature and the world of man often leads to grotesque incongruities. Things seem severely twisted by comparison. In the sea, the shark finds a natural home: in the parlor, its presence becomes unnatural. The poet sees civilization as so far removed from nature, its primal antecedent, that only such aberrations can aptly depict their relationship and, as he implies, possibly restore them to harmony and order.
Dickey makes it clear, however, that what seems to be unnatural is only so because of its context in a civilized world, and that these deviations actually possess a vitality which modern man has lost. In "Kudzu," for example, nature's power flows from the plant to the speaker, who needs its strength even though his civilized character dictates that he must destroy the giver. (p. 39)
The kudzu provides a kind of transfusion of nature's power into a human body that is somehow deficient, what H. L. Weatherby terms "the way of exchange," a mysterious regenerative process which may take place between man and his opposites." With the "green sword twined among / the veins" … the arm grows and takes on new strength. Such vigor does not come from "proper shaved fields" or "safe cows,"… nature which has been tampered with by man, but only from nature which refuses to be harnessed by man. While he sleeps, the power comes to him despite the closed windows, and in him it prospers. His waking self, however, finds it necessary to root the invader out or risk destruction by an irrational force. Yet the alien plant has made an impact on the civilized world, and in remembering, man is acknowledging his own need of a power which only nature can provide.
In "The Sheep Child," Dickey once again depicts the relationship between rational man and irrational nature through a bizarre image. Though Georgia farm boys admit the masturbatory function of nature in their wild need "to couple with anything,"… their fear of the product of complete irrationality in man, the sheep child, forces them to be civilized. Like the legend of the kudzu, the story of the "woolly baby pickled in alcohol" … in an Atlanta museum serves as a grim reminder of what happens when the irrational takes control. Such "things can't live" … because man and nature pose two extremes which are seemingly irreconcilable. (pp. 40-1)
In the figure of the sheep child, Dickey credits himself with having created the most unique persona in literature. This grotesque combination of two worlds,...
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[James Dickey is a] poet whose best work has always been charged with the presence of the master performer. The best of his Poems 1957–1967 work like an ideal, reversed ending of the Oz story: the curtain might be pulled aside for a glimpse of the professor working the levers to produce the sound effects and smoke, but the wizardry—contrived as it may be—continues anyway, and with a great deal of success. There is no demand for a return to the farm in Kansas—or Georgia—where real life is without magic and masks altogether. Instead, all sorts of bizarre and unlikely conjurings go on: a traffic jam becomes the Apocalypse, a military execution turns into an acrobatic stunt, a man's legs fall asleep and pick up the dream of the hunting dog sleeping on his feet. The artifices of showmanship and magic save us in poems such as "The Hospital Window," "The Celebration," "Slave Quarters," "Power and Light." They save us from sentimentality, pain, or self-pity. "Guilt is magical," says the speaker at the end of "Adultery," because guilt has been performed in the poem, exorcised by a shaman-narrator who has dissolved the walls of a motel room and extended the risks of a love affair into all the open frontiers of American history. (p. 410)
In the earlier poems, Dickey [avoided] … the "confessional" sort of personality found in Lowell, Snodgrass, Berryman, or Sexton…. But while the public Dickey was developing as a showman, the poet Dickey was experimenting with how loosely personal his act could become. Eyebeaters showed some of this experimentation, but his most recent poetry, the book-length poem The Zodiac, shows an actor-poet who has gone as far as he can, almost on a dare, into a painful, public exploration of trauma. While Snodgrass or Lowell would have written unabashedly personal accounts of the loneliness, fear of failure, terror of mortality, and struggle with language that haunt Zodiac, Dickey opts for the shaman's mask …—the mask of an historical person far removed in location and time.
In this case, though, the mask is too flimsy and the role too superficial, so that not even Dickey can play it right. Juggling with materials that he does not want to play confessionally, Dickey slips in his act and is finally unable to achieve the distance of the public, acting figure. Zodiac, which awed and puzzled most of its critics, demonstrates enough of the old Dickey eloquence and power to make it worthwhile to ask what went wrong. More than that, it asks us to examine what is perhaps the real difference between confessional and non-confessional poetry: the extent to which the speaker is onstage consciously enjoying his own performance as shaman, wizard, showman.
Zodiac has all the material for shamanistic transformations. The main character, Hendrick Marsman, is a hallucinating, half-mad poet-sailor who wants to "relate himself, by means of stars, to the universe."… (p. 411)
But this time Dickey's conjurings fail. The power behind the poetic machinery blinks off, and the transformations never occur. Because there is often very little distance between Dickey and his subject, Marsman never becomes as dramatic as the self-performing speakers of the earlier poems. Often the metaphors are not imaginative juxtapositions but attempts by a drunken narrator to relate himself to anything. And even though Marsman is attempting to recreate a zodiac, the zodiac never becomes a real structure for his personality or imagination…. When last seen, Marsman is writing and/or being firebombed, and the final affirmation of the transcendence of his art seems tacked-on in relation to Marsman's miserable, drunken wanderings throughout the other sections. Nothing in those other scenes justifies a triumph of either Marsman or the universal artist suggested throughout. In general, without the transformative magic of drama and distance, there is a sad exposure of the poet stepping out to admit it's all been just levers and smoke, and willing to give us now an "honest" account of the impossible attempt to transcend pain through language.
The transformations that do go on in Zodiac are mostly those between drunkenness, sleep, and brief periods of sobriety. Using alcoholic spiels as frames for monologues, like using dreams, allows for repetition, illogical apposition, random imagery, and quick shifts of scene. But unlike the dreamer, the drunk is also subject to misinterpretation and misperception of what is really there. Like Lowry in Under the Volcano, Dickey is relying on a belief in moments of drunken clarity and even brilliance,...
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When Ed Gentry, the narrator of James Dickey's Deliverance, stands over the corpse of the man he has killed with a bow and arrow, he waits for an impulse. "It is not ever going to be known; you can do what you want to; nothing is too terrible. I can cut off the genitals he was going to use on me. Or I can cut off his head, looking straight into his open eyes. Or I can eat him." The impulse does not come, "but the ultimate horror circled me and played over the knife." Ed dispels this horror by singing a popular song. Then, "I finished, and I was withdrawn from." The horror leaves him, and he returns to the practical problem of survival.
The horror, the release of bestiality in a man whose...
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Unfortunately, none of the poems (or translations "from the UnEnglish") in The Strength of Fields measures up to "The Performance," "The Sheep-Child" or "Falling." In recent years Dickey has forsaken traditional meter for a broken line using a "gap technique," somewhat reminiscent of late William Carlos Williams. At times he has employed it with splendid effect—especially in "Butterflies" where his typographical fragments were able to mirror the flitting of butterflies—but here it is overly ragged and abrupt. Read aloud, or even better, declaimed by Dickey himself, these story poems can generate great power….
Still another novelty in the later work is Dickey's increased regard for...
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[None of the poems in Dickey's The Strength of Fields] compares with his best, yet readers who know and like his work will feel at home. World War II still echoes…. Redemption through love, dumb luck, poetry, is still possible. Water, that life-threatening, life-renewing force, is pervasive, as always, in pool, river, ocean, rain, perspiration. Though there are no poems here as stunning as "Drinking From a Helmet" or "The Lifeguard," "The Voyage of the Needle," which describes the "magic" of a needle floating on surface tension, creates a magic of its own.
The poet is no longer tied to the South but has become a world citizen…. The first of "Three Poems with Yevtushenko" states one of...
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[The poems in The Strength of Fields] float down overwide pages, contract to a single word or expand across the page, lapse into italics, skip over blank intervals. They are like richly modulated hollers; a sort of rough, American-style bel canto advertising its freedom from the constraints of ordinary language. Dickey's style is so personal, his rhythms so willfully eccentric, that the poems seem to swell up and overflow like that oldest of American art forms, the boast….
"The Strength of Fields" [bristles] … with the muscular, excessive imagery that is Dickey's signature….
One recognizes Dickey's familiar themes: the obligatory World War II poems; the fighter-plane...
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