(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“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 eyesFar more than human. I saw for a blazing momentThe great grassy world from both sides,Man and beast in the round of their need,And the hill wind stirred in my wool,My hoof and my hand clasped each other,I ate my one mealOf milk, and diedStaring.

From his birth in the pasture, the sheep child goes directly to his incarceration in the museum and his “closet of glass.” He becomes a reminder of the taboo surrounding unnatural sex, driving the farm boys “like wolves from the hound bitch and calf/ And from the chaste ewe in the wind.” The force celebrated in this poem is a terrible one and must be regulated. So, says the sheep child, “Dreaming of me,/ They groan they wait they suffer! Themselves, they marry, they raise their kind.”

The Sheep Child Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bruccoli, Matthew J., and Judith S. Baughman, eds. Crux: The Letters of James Dickey. New York: Knopf, 1999.

Calhoun, Richard J., ed. James Dickey: The Expansive Imagination. Deland, Fla.: Everett/Edwards, 1973.

Calhoun, Richard J., and Robert W. Hill. James Dickey. Boston: Twayne, 1983.

Dickey, James. Classes on Modern Poets and the Art of Poetry. Edited by Donald J. Greiner. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.

Dickey, James, Barbara Reiss, and James Reiss. Self-Interviews. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1970.

Heyen, William. “A Conversation with James Dickey.” Southern Review 9 (1973): 135-156.

Kirschten, Robert. James Dickey and the Gentle Ecstasy of Earth. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988.

Kirschten, Robert, ed. Critical Essays on James Dickey. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994.

Lieberman, Laurence. The Achievement of James Dickey: A Comprehensive Selection of His Poems with a Critical Introduction. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1968.

Van Ness, Gordon. Outbelieving Existence: The Measured Motion of James Dickey. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1992.