“Falling” is a long poem that uses the “split line”—a technique innovated by James Dickey—in a block format; its title suggests the poem’s dramatic situation, a flight attendant falling out of an airliner, as well as a metaphor for the human condition. The flight attendant’s fall from the airplane serves as an analogy for an individual’s descent through life, where every moment brings one closer to the time when one will not exist. This process is depicted as an unavoidable progression over which a person has little or no control. The question the poem poses implicitly is: Since death is an inescapable part of the human condition, and there is no certainty of an afterlife, how does one make existence meaningful?
To create the poem, Dickey draws on a newspaper account of a twenty-nine-year-old flight attendant who fell to her death when the emergency door of an airplane accidentally opened. Through a third-person narrator, Dickey imagines her thoughts and sensations as she is swept out of the plane and plunges to her death.
The poem begins by describing the plane flying at night and the flight attendant pinning a blanket over an emergency door that is emitting air. Suddenly, the door blasts open and the flight attendant is sucked out into the night sky. The narrator emphasizes that, at this point, the flight attendant is “Still neat lipsticked stockinged girdled by regulation.” In other words, she is still bound by the conventions of the everyday role she performs. Though she is frightened, she also comes to realize that she has the opportunity “to be something/ That no one has ever been.” As she discovers that she can maneuver her body in ways she had never previously imagined, she becomes increasingly immersed in air, which she has always depended on for life but which now completely encompasses her, making her, paradoxically, feel more alive (“There is time to live/ In superhuman health”) as she hurls toward death.
As she falls, the flight attendant engages in various gymnastic tricks and attempts to control her fall by arranging her skirt “Like the diagram of a bat.” She also evokes media images—television sky divers as well as Coca-Cola commercials of someone diving into a pool, emerging, and being handed a soft drink—to help her comprehend and react to her situation. These images from American popular culture provide her with an illusion of control, and she determines that she will “hold out/ for water,” into which she can dive and survive.
When the flight attendant realizes there is no water below, she panics momentarily but then determines she “still has time to die/ Beyond explanation” and begins to perform a midair striptease. As she sheds her clothes, she takes on a new identity—a sacrificial virgin who will be “desired by every sleeper in his dream”—and begins to caress herself in a masturbatory fantasy. The narrator suggests that the flight attendant’s actions result in her transformation into a goddess who will resurrect feelings of sensuality and enhance the procreativity of the people who live below.
As she is about to hit the ground, however, the narrator interrupts the description of her plunge to emphasize that the flight attendant’s thoughts of survival and transformation are illusions, though she maintains them to the end by picturing herself as a “Girl in a bathing-suit ad” who finds water and “comes out smiling.”
“Falling” is one of Dickey’s most ambitious experiments with the split line, a technique with which he began to experiment in Buckdancer’s Choice (1965). The split...
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line captures a poetic stream of consciousness by breaking up a poem into rhythmic clusters of words. Through the split line, Dickey desires to explore “the characteristics of thought when it associates rapidly, and in detail, in regard to a specific subject, an action, an event, a theme.”
In “Falling,” the block format Dickey uses in conjunction with the split line makes the poem’s appearance on the page look much like that of prose, except that each cluster is separated by a distinct space (“with the delaying dumbfounding ease Of a dream of being drawn like endless moonlight to the harvest soil/ Of a central state of one’s country with a great gradual warmth coming”). Though that makes the poem read much like a short story, each unit of words is highlighted in order to capture various effects. The form of each cluster is often determined by the sound of the words that are grouped together, but Dickey also uses them to isolate particularly vivid images, key ideas, or moments of realization. These rhythmic clusters build upon each other, making the verse gradually pick up speed, until at the poem’s conclusion, there is the effect of frenzied desperation. In essence, Dickey patterns the verse to reflect the continually increasing speed with which the flight attendant experiences her descent, as the earth, and death, loom closer and closer.
“Falling” also employs point of view in a manner usually associated with novels and short stories. Though “Falling” primarily uses a third-person narrator, at certain crucial moments the poem is written from the perspective of the flight attendant. This switch in narrative point of view is essential because the poem comments on how the flight attendant’s thoughts reflect and are limited by her cultural milieu. The third-person narrator enables Dickey to provide an assessment of the flight attendant’s thoughts, while his ventures into her perspective enable him to dramatize those thoughts.
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