In his poetry and novels, James Dickey often explored what extreme, and sometimes violent, situations reveal about the human condition. Dickey’s poetry and fiction of the late 1950’s to the 1970’s are characterized by startlingly original images and a strong narrative thrust, through which he expressed, and assessed, the belief that volatile qualities are an inherent and necessary, yet potentially destructive, part of the human animal. In the late 1970’s, Dickey turned to a reflective, language-oriented approach, less immediately accessible and more self-conscious, but he continued to explore his previous themes. Though his themes remained fairly constant, it should be noted that stylistically Dickey was a relentless experimenter, always looking to cover new ground in the terrain of poetic possibilities.
Into the Stone, and Other Poems and Drowning with Others
The poems of Dickey’s first two collections, Into the Stone, and Other Poems and Drowning with Others, are generally short, tightly structured, and highly rhythmic. Although these poems are often anecdotal, they do not so much unfold in time as focus on a specific psychological experience. In essence, these poems are short dramatic parables, describing a moment in which the first-person narrator experiences an epiphany resulting in a more unified and aware self. Through the brief situation presented, Dickey attempted to make a visceral impact on the reader that would become a continuing part of that person’s consciousness, intensifying and altering the way in which the person experienced the world by restoring, in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words, “an original relationship to the universe.”
These qualities are apparent in “Sleeping Out at Easter,” which suggests how Dickey handled the theme of communion with nature in his early work. The narrator’s description of his “resurrection” on Easter morning resonates with Christian and pagan overtones, making the dramatic situation—a man waking at daybreak after sleeping out in his backyard—assume a mythic, mystic dimension: “My animal eyes become human/ As the Word rises out of darkness.”
The steady, flowing, melodic quality of the anapestic meter enhances the feeling that the experience happens without encumbrance. In each of the first five stanzas, the last line repeats the stanza’s first line. The concluding line of each stanza is italicized and used as a refrain, producing the hypnotic quality of an incantation, and the sixth and final stanza consists entirely of the italicized refrains. The result is a sense of continuity and unity, as the poem’s lines echo themselves as effortlessly as the narrator accepts the dawn and his newfound self. Dickey captures an organic unity of theme and technique that arrests and annihilates time through the image of first light, creating a new world around the narrator as he grasps the “root,” and “source,” of all life and of his most elemental self; it is a moment of pure religious transcendence, involving a sense of immortality achieved through communion with the permanent essence of nature.
The poem is more than an account of its narrator, however, for Dickey clearly intended it to initiate change in the reader as well. He directly addressed the reader through the use of second person in the fourth and sixth stanzas (the other four stanzas are presented in first person). These stanzas are completely italicized, indicating a transcendent voice that reverberates through all things. Similarly, the light that accompanies the new day spreads everywhere, touching everything simultaneously, symbolizing the renewal and coming together of all things. In the first stanza, the waking man declares, “My sight is the same as the sun’s,” and in the fifth, he describes his child, who, “mouth open, still sleeping,/ Hears the song in the...
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egg of a bird./ The sun shall have told him that song.” The transformation becomes complete in the poem’s last three lines (“The sun shall have told you this song,/ For this is the grave of the king;/ For the king’s grave turns you to light”): The reader (“you”) is also included.
Aside from these two stanzas, Dickey primarily used first person in “Sleeping Out at Easter,” as in most of his poems. When the narrator experiences transcendence he enters into a state of unity with nature (“My sight is the same as the sun’s”), with the consciousness of the child, and with the reader. The narrator achieves this state without struggle; the tightly controlled, steady, almost monotonous metrics reflect the ease, godlike power, and control over experience that distinctly mark Dickey’s first two books.
In Helmets, Dickey continued to explore the themes of his earlier poetry; nevertheless, Helmets is a transitional volume in the Dickey canon. Although there are still many short poems relying on radically subjective narrative images—poems that express control and metaphysical certainty—there also appear longer, more diffuse poems that suggest doubt and a reduced sense of control. Some of the poems in Into the Stone, and Other Poems and Drowning with Others draw on the everyday, but the emphasis is (with one or two exceptions such as “A Screened in Porch in the Country”) on achieving a “superhuman” transcendent state, and transcendence is always gained. Though there are still plenty of poems of this kind in Helmets, in some of the poems—“Cherry Log Road,” “The Scarred Girl,” “Chenille”—the epiphanies are more modest and more fully human. Other poems—“Springer Mountain” and “Kudzu”—represent a more purely comic vein than his previous work.
“Approaching Prayer,” one of Dickey’s finest poems, indicates the manner in which the visionary moment and the role of violence began to evolve in Dickey’s later work. It begins with the lines “A moment tries to come in/ Through the windows, when one must go/ Beyond what there is in the room.” Instead of being plunged right into a religious experience as in “Sleeping Out at Easter,” the reader witnesses a struggle, as the narrator wanders around uncertain of what he is doing. He must “circle” and go “looking for things” before he can “produce a word” he is not even sure of.
Like an amateur shaman, the narrator begins to dress for a ritual ceremony he has never previously performed, as he accumulates objects that encompass a range of experience and retain contradictory associations. The things he gathers before attempting prayer are all associated with death—the head of a boar he killed, his dead father’s sweater and gamecock spurs— but also hold positive value: The hog’s head represents the narrator’s “best and stillest moment”; the spurs and sweater contain the memory of his father. The spurs and the hog’s head are also associated with violence, and the narrator declares that his “best” moment involved violence.
After the narrator puts on the objects, he begins, through the dead hog’s glass eyes, to discover another “best and stillest moment” by lining himself up with the stars in the night sky. A vision explodes before him, as “hunting” and being hunted become symbolic of the visionary moment: The narrator must experience the contrary roles. Hunting involves physical action requiring discipline and spontaneity; it also contains a deeply imaginative quality. In playing out their own parts, the predator and the prey each imaginatively enter the other’s consciousness. The man must be able to think like the beast, and the beast must try to anticipate the man. When the narrator “draws the breath of life/ For the dead hog,” he begins to experience the role of the prey. He is able to see himself through the eyes of the other, and a greater range of knowledge begins to open up before him.
When he views himself from the perspective of the hog, “stiller than trees or stones,” the images of himself as hunter, prey, and praying freeze in his mind, shearing away time. As the narrator imagines himself goring a dog and feeling the hair on his (the hog’s) back stand up, he also feels the hair that was on his head as a young man stand up. Through this thoroughly original moment, the past and the present, and the perspectives of predator and prey, merge.
As the narrator experiences killing and being killed at the same instant, the universe comes into balance, signaling his acceptance of life and death. This balance consists of stillness and motion—a universe in which the “moon and the stars do not move” and where “frantic,” violent action takes place. The arrow the narrator uses to kill the hog is characterized as a shaft of light—symbolic of unity and revelation—that connects the hunter and the hog. This culminates in a unity of vision that allows him to maintain his “stillest” moment until something he compares to a shaft of light from an exploding star (suggestive of the arrow that connected hunter and hog) shoots through him, letting him feel his own death. At this point he has participated in the complete gamut of life and death. He has seen his death as a “beast” (through the eyes of the hog) and as an “angel”: He has felt the light of the cosmos flare through him. When his death becomes a reality for him, he realizes that the full cycle of life contains death and violence for himself as well as for the “other.” Prayer here does not result in discovery of a god who holds out the promise of an immortal soul, but in a vision that holds many dimensions of experience. Only through experiencing the contraries can real prayer be achieved, because only through full knowledge of those contraries can life be fully comprehended.
The greater length and variety of metrical structure of “Approaching Prayer” demonstrate the increased poetical confidence and flexibility Dickey attained with Helmets. In subsequent collections, Buckdancer’s Choice; Falling, May Day Sermon, and Other Poems (first released in Poems, 1957-1967); The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead, and Mercy, and The Zodiac, this trend continued through Dickey’s development of the split-line technique, which aims at creating a type of poetic stream of consciousness.
Dickey did not describe the mental processes he depicted through the split line as orderly or logical but in terms suggesting revelation: “fits,” “jumps,” “shocks,” “electric leaps,” “word-bursts,” “lightning-stamped.” He saw “insight” as a matter of instinctual associations that intellectual reasoning disrupts. By breaking up his lines into “clusters of words,” Dickey attempted to capture “the characteristics of thought when it associates rapidly, and in detail, in regard to a specific subject, an action, an event, a theme.”
“May Day Sermon”
“May Day Sermon to the Women of Gilmer County, Georgia, By a Woman Preacher Leaving the Baptist Church” is a good example of Dickey’s use of the split line. The woman preacher who narrates the poem speaks in long, sprawling sentences that form hyperbolic and melodramatic masses of language. She tells the story of a religious zealot who, after discovering that his daughter has been sleeping with her boyfriend, drags her naked into the barn, chains her, and whips her while reciting biblical passages. Frenzied and near mad, the woman preacher tells the story through a tidal wave of images from the rural South. Much of the imagery is mixed and contradictory, suggesting the confusion in her own mind and the paradoxical qualities of the relationship between Christian values, especially as embodied in southern fundamentalism, and natural sexual drives. Dickey saw the poem as a commentary on “the malevolent power God has under certain circumstances: that is, when He is controlled and ’interpreted’ by people of malevolent tendencies.”
Dickey expressed this theme by reversing traditional Christian symbols. He describes the female narrator and God in terms of a snake. The “Lord” referred to in the first line gives “men all the help they need/ To drag their daughters into barns,” suggesting the brutal, sadistically sexual use of God by some in the fundamentalist South. The psychosexual nature of the experience is indicated by the father’s chaining the girl to the “centerpole,” the opening of the barn door to show the “pole of light” that “comes comes,” and the “unbending” snake. Sexual associations are also created through the narrator’s use of snake imagery to describe God (“Jehovah . . . Down on His belly”) and herself (“flickering from my mouth”).
Sight, the imagination’s ability to see the implications of events to find God, becomes the poem’s central focus, as it takes on a deeply voyeuristic quality. First, the narrator asserts that the “Lord” watches the “abominations” the girl’s father performs, but as the reader moves deeper into the passage it becomes increasingly clear that the vision is the narrator’s. Instead of seeing the “abominations” she claims God witnesses, the narrator sees an orgiastic dance, as the animals “stomp” and the girl “prances”: The narrator is imaginatively possessed by the scene, not simply relating it for the benefit of her audience.
As the girl is beaten, she fights against her father and “King James” by experiencing a vision of her lover, which is generated through her dance with the animals, giving her the power to transform the beating into a vision of God. Though a vision of the “torsoes of the prophets” begins to form, it quickly “dies out” as the naturalistic forces of “flesh and the Devil twist and turn/ Her body to love.” Her God becomes a lover, “the dear heart/ Of life” located in the sexual urge. Like Christ on the cross refusing to recant, she refuses to deny the god she has just discovered, declaring “YOU CAN BEAT ME TO DEATH/ And I’ll still be glad.” Also like Christ, whose physical suffering on the cross resulted in a heightened state of spiritual awareness, the girl can “change all/ Things for good, by pain.” The animals know “they shall be saved . . . as she screams of sin.”
Rather than choking off her desires, the father’s beating awakens her passion all the more intensely. Indeed, God, her lover, and her father are all conflated. The girl refers to “God-darling” as her “lover” and “angel-stud.” Her cry “you’re killing” after asking her God and lover to “put it in me” and to “give,” like her use of the pronoun “YOU,” can be seen as directed to God, the lover and the father. The beating assumes a sadistic sexual dimension for the woman preacher, whose “to hear her say again O again” is both part of her narrative to the congregation and a call for the beating and lovemaking to continue. Physical urges that, from a traditional point of view, are inspired by “flesh and the Devil” cannot be extinguished.
As God is pain and pleasure for the woman preacher, God is also death (“it is true/ That the kudzu advances, its copperheads drunk and tremendous”), birth (“young deer stand half/ In existence, munching cornshucks”), and, above all, sex. The woman preacher rants that the women of the congregation, like the girl, must every spring awaken to “this lovely other life-pain between the thighs.” The girl has suffered her father’s beating so that other women can “take/ The pain they were born for.” This pain is not the sadistic torment the girl endures and transforms, but the pain that “rose through her body straight/ Up from the earth like a plant, like the process that raised overhead/ The limbs of the uninjured willow.” In other words, the woman preacher claims that women must discover God in the natural passionate ache of love and giving birth. This urge springs from the earth and is part of the continuing process of life, leaving the world “uninjured” and intact, unlike the pain the father inflicts with a willow branch torn from a tree.
However, Dickey portrayed the father’s beating as awakening the girl’s—and the woman preacher’s— sexual passion. Moreover, Dickey’s woman preacher proceeds to present a male fantasy of women’s perceptions and desires as she glorifies the phallus by demanding that the congregation “understand about men and sheaths.” The images she uses to explain herself to the congregation are all of process, movement, “flowing,” picturing existence as a constantly evolving cycle, in which male sexuality provides the impetus, “the very juice of resurrection.” The poem concludes with the girl murdering her father by driving an icepick between his eyes, releasing all the animals on the farm, and roaring off with her lover on a motorcycle. The girl and her lover follow no actual road or track but disappear on the “road of mist,” which moves through and envelops all nature, and they can be heard returning each spring as a reminder of the primacy of the forces of the flesh. This mythic vision inspires the woman preacher to urge the congregation to leave “God’s farm,” find their lovers, and go to “Hell”—that is, experience the natural world of physical drives that she believes the Bible condemns.
Though “Sleeping Out at Easter,” “Approaching Prayer,” and “May Day Sermon” differ radically in style, like many of Dickey’s poems they concern people’s attempts to gain a greater intimacy with the vital forces of the natural world. Though these particular poems present this endeavor as an affirmative experience, in “The Fiend,” the novel Deliverance, and other works Dickey portrays this process as menacingly destructive.
With Puella and The Eagle’s Mile, Dickey continued to push the limits of his artistic achievements through even more intrepid experimentation. Puella, which is Latin for “young girl,” consists of a series of relatively short poems written from the perspective of an adolescent emerging into womanhood. “Doorstep, Lightning, Waif-Dreaming” typifies this collection through its emphasis on moments of revelatory manifestation and its use of audibly charged language. The poem begins with the line “Who can tell who was born of what?” and proceeds to capture the mystery of creation and self-creation by describing the young woman’s thoughts as she watches a thunderstorm unfold from the doorstep of her home. Through acoustically resonant language—“vital, engendering blank/ The interim spraddling crack the crowning rollback/ Whited out ex nihilo”—Dickey described the “shifting blasts” of thunder and lightning that culminate in the young woman’s realization of the vitality within her (“I come of a root-system of fire”) as she beholds her powers of self-sufficiency. In its entirety, Puella is a resounding celebration of natural processes, independence, and the strength and power of womanhood.
The Eagle’s Mile
With The Eagle’s Mile, Dickey continued to foreground the sounds of poetic language while exploring the self’s relationship to nature; however, instead of using narrative as does much of his previous work, these poems are deeply reflective meditations. “Daybreak” describes an individual’s thoughts and sensations as he observes the forces of nature while standing on the beach. The narrator realizes that the auroral and tidal processes have no choice but to follow the laws that dictate their patterns, and he finds that it is impossible not to think of the human condition while making such observations. Although he feels that he has “nothing to say” to the waves, which show no signs of autonomy, he thinks that perhaps by staring into the shallows, which are “shucked of all wave-law,” he can discover something about his relationship to the world. He imagines that by doing so he could see his own reflection and the reflection of the clouds and sky merging into one image, suggesting that some force, somewhere, must have conceived of and created a unified design that allows him and the world to exist.
“Daybreak” characterizes The Eagle’s Mile, and much of Dickey’s poetry, in its emphasis on the power of the psyche’s imaginative capacities. Though in the past Dickey had shown that such idealism contains potential dangers, the rewards Dickey discovered reflect his belief in the human spirit’s insatiable desire to extend itself beyond conventional boundaries, embracing a heightened state of emotional responsiveness and a capacity for glory.