The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Firebombing” is a musing in almost three hundred lines of free verse, some twenty years after the event, on the horror of incinerating the Japanese city of Beppu with “300-gallon drop-tanks/ Filled with napalm and gasoline.” The vagaries of fate are announced in the first line, a peremptory “Homeowners unite,” but the bitter truth is that though “All families lie together,some are burned alive.” The account is impressionistic and roughly follows a sequence of events beginning with the airman’s nighttime trudge to his plane (“A booted crackling of snailshells and coral sticks”) and culminating in his safe return “To where Okinawa burns,/ Pure gold, on the radar screen.” As the speaker coolly recalls the destruction he viewed from the safety of his “glass treasure-hole of blue light” with his “Bourbon frighteningly mixed/ With GI pineapple juice,” he keeps reflecting on his comfortable middle-class suburban life. The bombing mission, Okinawa to Beppu and back, becomes the narrative line along which are strung the speaker’s ironic comparisons of the deaths he caused and the life he enjoys.

The speaker’s story of his flight begins with lovely passages describing the flights through banks of cumulus clouds, emerging into a vision of the landscape beneath, with its “Rice-water calm at all levels/ Of the terraced hill.” The rivers below guide the death-ship through the sky, where five thousand people lie sleeping...

(The entire section is 490 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Long lines and short lines come and go in no pattern, with single lines interspersed among stanzas as long as twenty-one lines, as short as two. Most lines are enjambed to imitate an uninterrupted flow of images in the mind, and words are often separated by several spaces for rhetorical effect in reading. Dickey is a master of the imaginative conceit, as in the “undeodorized arms” of the underside of the plane wings where the deadly fluids bide their time. The plane disappears into the marvelously oxymoronic “white dark” of the cumulus, and “Rice-water calm” and engines that “ponder their sound” exploit the pathetic fallacy. Frequent alliteration (“dark dream”) and, especially, sibilance (“silver side,” “sea/ Slants,” “sleep-smelling”) combine with occasional assonance (“Come up,” “dark arms,” “eight blades”) and repetition (“Think of this think of this/ I did not think of my house/ But think of my house now”) to complement sense with sound.

Other subtle patterns can be seen in the preponderance of gerund forms that structure so many of the passages recounting the mission: “Coming out,” “passing over,” “Sliding off,” “coming slowly,” “going forward,” “Going: going,” “dogs trembling,” “Rivers circling,” “sleeping off,” “racking slowly,” and “flying inside.” This structural device disappears in the “suburban” passages dense with details of domestic life but reappears in the second round of the bombing horror (“clutching the toggle,” “fulfilling/ An ‘anti-morale’ raid,” “Singing and twisting,” “kicking,” “Flinging jelly,” “Holding onto”). Only reading “The Firebombing” aloud, obeying Dickey’s spacings and enjambments, will do full justice to the rhetorical fullness of the poem. What at first glance seems a scattering of words in random lines emerges finally as the product of considerable self-conscious artistry.

A sort of perverse romantic menace pervades the cockpit imagery: “One is cool and enthralled in the cockpit,/ Turned blue by the power of beauty,/ In a pale treasure-hole of soft light,/ Deep in aesthetic contemplation.” Many of the images startle at first reading. To speak of being “twenty years overweight” is witty and striking; “Oriental fish” with eyes that reveal “one tiny seed/ Of deranged, Old Testament light” are creatures that challenge the explicator; and a hammock that “folds its erotic daydreams” executes an imaginative transference from the hammocker to the hammock; “Japan/ Dilates around [the aircraft] like a thought”; in a cruel vision “another/ Bomb finds a home/ And clings to it like a child.”


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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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.