Buckdancer's Choice

by James Dickey

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Themes and Meanings

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Like many of Dickey’s poems, “Buckdancer’s Choice” addresses the theme of the human will to exist when confronted with the inevitability of death. By comparing the narrator’s mother to ex-slaves who continued to express themselves through their songs even as the minstrel-show tradition was nearing extinction, Dickey affirms the human will to celebrate life and shows how displays of the will to live provide people with a vital message.

In the final stanza, the narrator describes his mother’s ability to whistle as a “gift of tongues.” This description suggests the profound communication the mother’s song holds for the listening child. A person who possesses the ability to speak in tongues is often regarded as a conduit who relays some essential message that emanates from a supernatural source. Similarly, the mother’s message is not conveyed directly to the child but through a medium, the ex-slaves’ song. Moreover, the mother whistles to herself and is not conscious of the child’s presence, but the whistling enables the boy to gain greater insight into his mother’s plight and, more generally, into the process of life and death.

The mother’s whistling is also characterized as “The thousand variations of one song,” with each variation symbolizing another continuing effort to ward off death by asserting her existence. Since her illness confines her to bed, her whistling becomes a way to declare that she is still in this world and not ready to give it up. Indeed, her whistling becomes a heroic act, something she continues to do despite the fact that she must battle “breathless angina.”

Listening to the song conjures an image in the child’s mind of a freed black who, “with cymbals at heel,” forms a “one-man band” that dances to his mother’s song. The narrator imagines that the buck-and-wing men’s dance, in which the dancers flap their elbows, is an attempt to fly, to transcend the human and escape death. Like his mother’s whistling, the dance becomes symbolic of the desire to live. This image is central to the poem because through it, the narrator expresses that seemingly trivial acts such as whistling or dancing can become deeply significant: Through them, people may be “Proclaiming what choices there are/ For the last dancers of their kind.” A key word here, one that is echoed in the poem’s title, is “choice.” Having choice suggests that individuals retain some power of volition, some means to express themselves; it is a declaration that though their existence and autonomy may be slipping away, they can continue to fight for whatever life they still possess.

In the final three stanzas, the narrator widens the poem’s frame of reference. Instead of referring to his dying mother, he speaks of “women”; instead of referring to his childhood, he speaks of “children.” This broadening generalizes the significance of the exchange between the particular mother and child described in the poem to include all of humanity, for, as the poem declares, all are “slaves of death.” The poem concludes with an image of “children enchanted at walls,” listening to the song and imagining the dance. The children are “not dancing but nearly risen.” The words “enchanting” and “risen” imply that the connection the song creates between people is magical, a revelation of the human spirit’s insatiable appetite for life and significance. Though the word “nearly” modifies this optimistic vision, suggesting the impossibility of such a dream, what remains of uttermost importance is the human will to resist death, even if such an endeavor is inevitably futile.

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