"Cherrylog Road" - A Summary
"Cherrylog Road" is a poem by James Dickey of youthful passion fulfilled in secret in a car junkyard full of stock cars that have fulfilled their destinies and backseatless cars once used for that which was forbidden, to "run / Corn whiskey down from the hills." [Hear "Cherrylog Road" discussed and read by James Dickey.]
The setting is rural Georgia, "Off Highway 106 / At Cherrylog Road." This is an autobiographical tale of James Dickey's rendezvous with his sweetheart, Doris Holbrook, who was zealously protected by "her red-haired father" whom she had to "escape" in order to go off their farm.
Her "escape" at "noon" was the enterprise of cutting parts from the junked cars, which she sold for spare parts and scrap metal. Her demolition tool was "a wrench in her hand."
Loosening the screws,
Carrying off headlights,
Cracked mirrors and gear-knobs,
Getting ready, already,
To go back with something to show
In a setting overgrown with creatures who live in the rusty, "weedy heart of the junkyard"--the toads, kingsnakes, beetles, roaches and blacksnakes--Dickey tells the story of how he and she met in the middle in "Some grandmother’s long Pierce-Arrow" limousine, with a glass panel dividing the black driver from the white philanthropist lady who was on her way (in Dickey's mind's eye) to the "orphan asylum" with "some old toys."
The underlying metaphor of the relationship of "deadly overexcitement" between James and Delores is that of the mouse and the blacksnake. Doris scrapes likes a mouse as she wrenches parts from cars, partly for money to ease the poverty she and her father know and partly to have evidence of her time well spent in the junkyard. James engages with the mouse as a blacksnake that "curved back / Into life, and hunted the mouse."
Their love is enshrouded in danger, for, if her father learns of it, if there are "traces of [James] on her face when back at home," then she will be punished "in the squalling barn, / Her back’s pale skin [changed] with a strop." Then her red-headed father would "lay for" James. Doris needs, really needs, "To go back with something to show / Other than her lips’ new trembling" from her love for James.
After they "clung, glued together," they departed from separate doors. Then, after reversing the journey through "changed, other bodies / of cars"--their own bodies equally changed--they left from separate sides of the junkyard, "she down Cherrylog Road," and he to his motorcycle, the emblem of the soul of the junkyard--and the teenager--restored, empowered, wild for speed, "Wild to be wreckage forever," if being wreckage meant being sexually liberated "Amidst the gray breathless batting / That burst from the seat at our backs."
We left by separate doors
Into the changed, other bodies
Of cars, she down Cherrylog Road
And I to my motorcycle
Parked like the soul of the junkyard
Restored, a bicycle fleshed
With power, and tore off
Up Highway 106, continually
Drunk on the wind in my mouth,
Wringing the handlebar for speed,
Wild to be wreckage forever.
James Dickey - A Biography
James Dickey held the position of Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress from 1966 to 1968, an office that would later become Poet Laureate.
Dickey was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1923, in Atlanta's Buckhead suburb. His father was a Southern gentleman lawyer who read famous speeches aloud to James when he was small. James would later turn his boyhood attention to Byron's poetry, making Byron's works his first book purchase.
Leaving Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina, where, at 6'3", he studied under a football scholarship, Dickey joined the Air Force to fight in World War II as a radar operator in a night fighter squadron. He later was recalled by the Air Force to train officers for the Korean War. After his duty in World War II was over, he returned to college, but this time he enrolled at Vanderbilt University where he proved his mental prowess by earning his bachelor's and master's degrees in English and Philosophy, having also minored in Astronomy.
Dickey took up teaching beginning with Rice University in Texas. Discouraged with the restraints of university instruction, he switched to advertising copy writing and creative work oversight principally for the very large accounts of Coca-Cola and Lay's Potato Chips. He worked in New York but, a true Southerner, he later moved to advertising in Atlanta. His aim was to make money, but he found that it entailed "selling" his "soul to the devil all day" and trying through writing "to buy it back at night." He was eventually fired from the Atlanta advertising firm he worked for because he shirked his duties, not putting his heart and soul into his work.
His reward for trying to buy his soul "back at night" was that his experience of getting fired became the basis of his 1970 novel Deliverance, which was made into a smash-hit movie by the same title in 1972. Acclaim continued to follow while he returned to teaching, eventually becoming the poet-in-residence and Carolina Professor of English at the University of South Carolina. The Poet Laureate from 1966 to 1968, Dickey was called upon to accept the honor of reading his poem "The Strength of Fields" at President Jimmy Carter's inauguration in 1977.
Dickey's poems combine lyricism with narrative, as seen in "Cherrylog Road," while telling the true tales of the Deep South. Said to have a Renaissance lifestyle, Dickey pursued interests in guitar playing and hunting. A war hero, James Dickey died following a protracted illness in 1997 while living in South Carolina. As quoted in Howard Nemerov‘s Poets on Poetry, Dickey said of himself:
"I came to poetry with no particular qualifications. I had begun to suspect, however, that there is a poet—or a kind of poet—buried in every human being like Ariel in his tree, and that the people whom we are pleased to call poets are only those who have felt the need and contrived the means to release this spirit from its prison."