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James Dickey 1923–1997
(Full name James Lafayette Dickey) American poet, novelist, critic, essayist, scriptwriter, and author of children's books.
For further information on Dickey's life and career, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 4, 7, 10, 15, and 47.
A prominent figure in contemporary American literature, Dickey is best known for his intense exploration of the primal, irrational, creative, and ordering forces in life. Often classified as a visionary Romantic in the tradition of Walt Whitman, Dylan Thomas, and Theodore Roethke, Dickey emphasized the primacy of imagination and examined the relationship between humanity and nature. He frequently described confrontations in war, sports, and nature as means for probing violence, mortality, creativity, and social values. In his poetry, Dickey rejected formalism, artifice, and confession, favoring instead a narrative mode that features energetic rhythms and charged emotions. Dickey once stated that in his poetry he attempted to achieve "a kind of plain-speaking line in which astonishing things can be said without rhetorical emphasis." In addition to his verse, Dickey authored the acclaimed novels Deliverance (1970) and Alnilam (1987) as well as the less well-received To the White Sea (1993), symbolic works that explore the extremes of human behavior.
Dickey, who died of complications of lung disease on January 19, 1997, commonly drew upon crucial events in his life for his subject matter. His early poetry, for example, is infused with guilt over his role as a fighter pilot in World War II and the Korean War, ruminations on his older brother's death, and reflections upon his Southern heritage. In his first three volumes of verse—Into the Stone, and Other Poems (1960), Drowning with Others (1962), and Helmets (1964)—Dickey explored such topics as war, family, love, death, spiritual rebirth, nature, and survival. These poems are generally arranged in traditional stanzaic units and are marked by an expansive and affirmatory tone. James Schevill observed such characteristics of Dickey's early verse as "a unique unmistakable tone, an awareness of the physical forces of the world that flow beyond time, beyond history." These volumes also contain several poems about the wilderness in which Dickey stressed the importance of maintaining the primal physical and imaginative powers that he believed are suppressed by civilization. Buckdancer's Choice (1965), which won the National Book Award, signaled a shift in Dickey's verse to freer, more complex forms. Employing internal monologues, varied spacing between words and phrases in place of punctuation, and subtler rhythms, Buckdancer's Choice investigates human suffering in its myriad forms. Dickey expressed ambivalence toward violence, most notably in "The Firebombing," a long poem that juxtaposes the thoughts of a fighter pilot as he flies over Japan and his memories twenty years later. Poems, 1957–1967 (1968) encapsulates what most critics consider Dickey's strongest phase as a poet.
In the novel Deliverance, which was adapted into an acclaimed film, Dickey reiterated several themes prevalent in his verse, primarily the rejuvenation of human life through interaction with nature. This work concerns four suburban men who seek diversion from their unfulfilling lives by canoeing down a remote and dangerous river. The characters encounter human violence and natural threats, forcing them to rely on primordial instincts in order to survive. Many initial reviews assessed Deliverance as a sensational adventure story that exalts violence and machismo. Subsequent evaluations, however, noted Dickey's skillful use of myth, biblical references, and Jungian archetypes, and several critics compared Deliverance to Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Despite growing belief in the book's value as legitimate literature, however, many schools refuse to include Deliverance in curricula. William G. Tapply, in a highly favorable analysis of the work, recounted being denied permission to teach to his high-school English students "a book in which the plot pivots on a scene where a man is sodomized at gunpoint, in which the heroes 'get away' with murder, in which verboten vocabulary words appear." Dickey's second novel, Alnilam, is an ambitious experimental work centering on a blind man's attempts to uncover the mysterious circumstances of his son's death. The man's son had been a charismatic leader of an elite corps of army pilots who held vaguely sinister revolutionary aspirations. While the book celebrates the pleasures of flying with vivid imagery, it denounces the misuse of power, becoming what Robert Towers described as "a vast, intricate work distinguished not by its forward momentum but by its symbolic suggestiveness and its bravura passages, some of which rise to visionary heights."
Dickey's To the White Sea, the story of a seemingly sociopathic soldier forced to parachute into Japan during World War II, received less favorable critical attention than his earlier novels. Greg Johnson reported that Dickey, "long acknowledged as one of our finest contemporary poets, with Deliverance … produced one of the most celebrated novels of its decade. Although his hefty second novel, Alnilam, garnered a mixed response, its ambitious scope and often dazzling use of language furthered his reputation as a novelist of considerable powers. Dickey's new work of fiction, To the White Sea, probably will not harm that reputation, though it is less ambitious and in some ways less accomplished than his previous novels." Thick with overtones of primitive survival and the natural world, To the White Sea follows Sergeant Muldrow on his trek from Tokyo to Japan's northern wilderness. Muldrow's desire to commune with nature as he travels is frequently interrupted by unwelcome human beings, most of whom he murders in cold blood and with sadistically creative techniques. This unsettling and central element of To the White Sea was frequently cited by critics as the basis for the book's lukewarm reception among readers, who found themselves unable to muster any sympathy toward the story's protagonist. "Any reader approaching To the White Sea in the hope of finding a traditional war story or an adventure novel will be sharply disappointed," Johnson concluded. "But the book will surely please admirers of Dickey's poetry and of his harsh, unsettling vision of natural savagery."
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Into the Stone, and Other Poems (poetry) 1960
Drowning with Others (poetry) 1962
Helmets (poetry) 1964
The Suspect in Poetry (criticism) 1964
Two Poems of the Air (poetry) 1964
Buckdancer's Choice (poetry) 1965
Babel to Byzantium: Poets and Poetry Now (criticism) 1968
Poems, 1957–1967 (poetry) 1968
∗Deliverance (novel) 1970
The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead, and Mercy (poetry) 1970
Self-Interviews (monologues) 1970
Sorties: Journals and New Essays (essays) 1971
The Zodiac [based on Hendrik Marsman's poem of the same title] (poem) 1976
The Strength of Fields (poem) 1977
Tucky the Hunter (children's poetry) 1978
The Strength of Fields [poetry collection; title poem published separately in 1977] (poetry) 1979
Scion (poetry) 1980
Falling, May Day Sermon, and Other Poems (poetry) 1981
Puella (poetry) 1982
The Central Motion (poetry) 1983
Alnilam (novel) 1987
The Eagle's Mile [poetry collection; title poem published separately in 1981] (poetry) 1990
The Whole Motion: Collected Poems, 1945–1992 (poetry) 1992
To the White Sea (novel) 1993
∗Dickey also wrote the screenplay for the 1972 movie.
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James Dickey with Ernest Suarez (interview date August 1989)
SOURCE: "An Interview with James Dickey," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 31, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 117-32.
[In the following interview, conducted in August, 1989, Dickey discusses his work, his life, and his political and literary ideas.]
At the age of thirty-five, James Dickey, in the poem "The Other," wrote of building his body so as to "keep me dying / Years longer." When I arrived at his house on Lake Katherine in Columbia, South Carolina, on August 8, 1989, Dickey asserted, with both eagerness and desperation in his voice, "There is so much I can write, if life will give me the time." An acute awareness of mortality and of its counterpart—the desire to create the illusion that death can be conquered—is never far from the heart of Dickey's work, which is pervaded by thoughts of a brother who died before Dickey was born, the deaths of his parents and friends, the carnage he witnessed in World War II and the Korean War, and his own bouts with serious illnesses.
The death of Dickey's close friend Robert Penn Warren in October 1989 leaves Dickey as the last living member of a long line of influential poets to emerge from Vanderbilt University in the first half of this century. During his often spectacular and always controversial career, now in its fifth decade, Dickey's achievements have been recognized widely. He has won numerous prestigious awards, including the National Book Award, Poetry's Levinson Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Melville Cane Award, the Longview Foundation Prize, and the Vachel Lindsay Award. He has twice been named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and to the National Academy of Letters and Sciences. Dickey has written a dozen books of poetry, two novels, two books of criticism, and several acclaimed screenplays. He has held the chair of Carolina Professor of English at the University of South Carolina since 1969 and has won several teaching awards. Despite these successes, Dickey remains convinced his best work is yet to come. In Dickey's work, death is combated—and courted—through action, and, at age sixty-seven, Dickey is still living and working at a vigorous pace, with an impressive new book of poems, The Eagle's Mile, ready for publication, another, Real God, Roll, well under way, and two novels, To the White Sea and Crux (a sequel to Alnilam) in progress.
This interview was conducted during my stay with Dickey in August 1989. Following an evening with the writer and his family in Columbia, he and I drove to his second home at Litchfield Plantation on Pawley's Island, where we remained for six days. A tranquil, remote, timeless atmosphere seeped from the lush grounds, a strangely meditative setting in which to interview a man whose art brims with vigor and sensation. With a tape recorder and a bottle of Wild Turkey to keep us company, we sat in the living room and talked, pausing occasionally to look out at a heron fly by or perch in a tree shrouded in Spanish moss. Though our nightly conversations sometimes continued hours into the early morning, Dickey was always up and striking the typewriter keys by seven or eight o'clock. On several occasions he bounded down the stairs to read me a scene or a line or a phrase that pleased him. Dickey is nothing if not passionate, engaged, and acutely aware of the possibilities life affords, as well as intensely disturbed—even insulted—at the loss of those possibilities when life ends.
[Suarez:] You began to compose the poems that appeared in your first book, Into the Stone, about the time you met Ezra Pound. What would you say you picked out from Pound?
[Dickey:] What I would call an extreme magical directness. That ability to take something which is factual and make a simple, highly imaginative statement out of it.
So you are specifying Pound's use of the image?
Yes, a very clear, concrete, simply stated and highly original, highly imaginative but simple quality. What I'm looking for in my own work more than anything else is a kind of deep simplicity. I was raised with the notion that as far as literary judgments are concerned, complexity is desirable. I. A. Richards or William Empson, for example, assert that more appetencies are satisfied with more economy by complexity. I don't think so. I like the thing that comes like a lightning flash, that is vivid and momentarily there and intense and unmistakable and doesn't require a great deal of ratiocination. When William Empson talks about a line of [William] Shakespeare's, like "Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang," he goes into this long peroration of all the things the mind calls up by means of this image of the birds—the fact that real choirs require sitting in rows with their own wooden benches like the branch a bird sits on and this and that and the other. The ingenuity just to conjure all that up is wonderful, but I get none of that at all—none of it, and I don't want it. The point is that criticism can proliferate endlessly on the slightest text, or sometimes, by theorizing endlessly, even on no text at all. Unlike most people I know, I like to read boring books, and I've never read a more boring book than Empson's Structure of Complex Words. It's extremely boring, and yet he is a brilliant man, and he says some good things that even I can assimilate every now and then. But to spend one's life doing that, or being in an area where that sort of activity is of a great deal of importance, is not to my liking at all. Thank God I'm at the age now where I don't have to give lip service to anything. If my opinions are those of an aging jerk, then so be it!
Can you think of any of your own poems where you use the Poundian conception of the image?
Yes, though you can't tell where Pound's or Eliot's influence is going to be. It takes place on such a subliminal level that you can never really say that this is directly influenced by one or the other. I think Pound's influence is deeper and more pervasive than anything I can directly lay a finger on. But I can pick out a number of lines of mine that have the kind of simplicity, the imaginative simplicity, that I learned more from Pound than from anyone else. One is from "Drinking from a Helmet," where the soldier picks up the dead soldier's helmet, which is filled with water, and looks inside it. He says, "I drank with the timing of rust." I could look through my work and show you plenty of places where I think that happens.
I think that this conception of the image is the very core of your work.
That's the guts of it for me. The image and the dramatic development—the dramatic aspect of what is actually going on in the poem. I think that too much poetry is being written about trivialities, with the attempt to pump up the triviality into something of consequence. But a triviality is a triviality. One gets a little tired of Blake seeing heaven in a wild flower and eternity in a grain of sand. That is all very well for [William] Blake and very well for some poets some of the time, but not for all poets all of the time. When Adrienne Rich gives an account of a cockroach in a kitchen cupboard, it's interesting momentarily, but one doesn't really in one's heart believe it's that important.
Much of your poetry involves transcending the mundane world. Do you see yourself as a visionary poet?
Well, one doesn't like to make such wild claims as that, but any original insight that any poet has is in a sense a vision. But in the sense that Blake is a visionary poet, I'm not at all. I don't really believe that I can see God sitting up in that tree yonder, you know. Or any of the things, any of the visions that Blake said he saw or claimed to see. I'm sure he did. I hope he did. I would like to see something like that. Somebody said to Blake, "Now when you look at the sun do you see a disc about the size of a florin?" Blake said, "No, I see a great multitude of the heavenly hosts singing hosannas unto the most high." Now, I don't see that when I see the sun. It would be great if I did, but a visionary poet in that sense, I'm not.
You place great emphasis on the poet as a "maker."
Yes, I do. That's something I firmly believe in.
In what sense do you see the poet as a "maker"? What consequences does "making" have for the world at large?
I don't know how the world is affected by it. I don't know because in some sense it's biblical. The Bible is always talking about the Lord working in mysterious ways. So does poetry, and you can't chart those. I. A. Richards talks about appetency and about this response or that response called forth by these words and so on. That is an attempt to make a scientific discipline of something that is profoundly unscientific. Poetry is not really subject to such investigation beyond a certain very rigid border. For example, if in a poem I mentioned the word "tree," what would you see? What would that call up in your mind? What is your tree?
Wrong. Because the only tree, the archetypal, the Platonic tree, is definitely a pine tree. You bring your life to the image, to create the image that the word suggests, and nothing can legislate that.
Robert Lowell's poetry is interesting because he is a powerful, tearing writer. I mean he can write like a streak, and all that desperate neuroticism has infinite ramifications. He can do a lot with it, but ultimately it comes back to him and his situation in life—his condition, his personality. And it is no good to say that Lowell takes on all this agony and grief for all of us. He does not take it on for all of us. He takes it on for himself; it is his life. It is not the life of twentieth-century humankind. It's his personal life, and too much of that is wearing. You're asked to give too much credence to it.
How would you say your work differs from that?
I'd like to think that it differs from it in opening out rather than closing down on the pinpoint of one person. I like to give. As I once said in an essay on Ted Roethke—he does this kind of opening out—if you have heard wind, you have heard Roethke's wind, but because you know about Roethke's wind, the wind he has put down in words, the wind to you has another dimension—something creative and positive that accrues to you. You are deepened and expanded because of the words.
In "Approaching Prayer" you write that "reason" must be slain for vision to occur. Is that essential?
Well, I don't know if it is essential or not. But I think that there are certain circumstances in a person's experience where it is better to participate in the experience by means of simple gut reactions and not through reasoning. Not through intellectualization about the experience but to just be in it and feel what you honestly feel as a response. That is essentially what I mean.
Earlier you mentioned a conversation you had with Yvor Winters many years ago where he called you an Emersonian because of your emphasis on directly experiencing things. Winters was very wary of that Emersonian doctrine.
I don't remember the conversation perfectly, but it seems to me he said something about my being essentially an American decadent romantic poet following [Ralph Waldo] Emerson. Yes, he was wary of Emersonianism. I hate to use such a loaded word, but Winters was a fascistic type who believed in order and the establishment of very rigid standards, largely determined by him. This is the stuff of dictators, is it not? To him I would compare a critic who is more flexible and who is willing to be wrong, like Randall Jarrell or John Berryman—somebody who is willing to say, "I thought this last year, but I've changed my mind." I've changed my mind many times, and I think that is a privilege. If you lock yourself into your own doctrines, then you lose the flexibility of the moment to moment ability to respond.
Is that why you think Emerson was a greater man than [Henry David] Thoreau?
I think he is because he opens up more territory than Thoreau. Thoreau is too much of a doctrine giver. Emerson is a presenter of possibilities. I like that.
Which, as you have expressed, is essentially the poetic enterprise.
It would seem to me to be so. Opening up possibilities. Thoreau is too concerned with laying down the law about everything. Thoreau says some good things. That people lead lives of quiet desperation. Things about stepping to a different drummer. These are wonderful statements, great stuff. But honest reaction to experience, intuitive reaction—nothing is of greater consequence than that. Emerson had a curious relationship to religion, although he was at one point a Unitarian minister. His idea was that you could have a direct line to God. That you don't have to go through the church or follow any dogma. That God comes straight to you like a ray of light—and so do you to Him. I think that is fine. I don't believe it. I would like to believe it, and I'm glad somebody said it. I'm glad he said it.
What do you believe? Do you believe there is any moral force governing the universe?
No, I don't believe in that at all. I'm writing a long poem now, Real God, Roll, where a father watches his son pumping iron and exercising on the beach, and he feels it's all part of the whole thing, of the real god. The waves coming in, his death, his father's death, the son's physique are all part of the whole thing. The real god is what causes everything to exist, like the laws of motion. The humanization of God in the Bible I find absurd. I love the Bible like I love Greek mythology, though Greek mythology is far more imaginative than the Bible is.
In your war poems, like "The Performance" or "Between Two Prisoners," you never seem to take sides or make moral judgments.
I suppose in those poems there is an implicit moral stance, I guess you could say. Obviously, I don't think it is right for the Japanese to behead Don Armstrong, who was my best friend. Obviously, I'm against it. Anybody would be. Or in "The Fire Bombing," which is based on a kind of paradox based on the sense of power one has as a pilot of an aircrew dropping bombs. This is a sense of power a person can otherwise never experience. Of course this sensation is humanly reprehensible, but so are many of the human emotions that one has. Judged by the general standard, such emotions are reprehensible, but they do happen, and that is the feeling. Then you come back from a war you won, and you're a civilian, and you begin to think about the implications of what you actually did do when you experienced this sense of power and remoteness and godlike vision. And you think of the exercise of authority via the machine that your own government has put at your disposal to do exactly what you did with it. Then you have a family yourself, and you think about those people twenty, thirty, forty years ago—I was dropping those bombs on them, on some of them. Suppose somebody did that to me? It was no different to them. All of that went into "The Fire Bombing."
Yet some people at the time, the mid-to-late sixties, did not read the poem as an antiwar poem.
Well, you do yourself a disservice if you blink the real implications of a situation like that. It is a poem about the guilt at the inability to feel guilty because you have not only proved yourself a patriot but something of a hero. You've been given medals for doing this. Your country has honored you—but there are those doubts that stay with you. You feel as a family man what all those unseen, forever unseen, people felt that you dropped those bombs on. You did it. The detachment one senses when dropping the bombs is the worst evil of all—yet it doesn't seem so at the time.
The poem ends with the narrator still unable to imagine "nothing not as American as / I am, and proud of it." What do you see as the meaning of those lines?
You are a patriot. You have fought in a war. You have fought for freedom and risked your life not once but many times for the cause of peace and freedom. It might be a Pax Americana, like the Pax Romana, the Roman peace—imposed peace by force of arms. In other words, you be peaceful or we will blow your heads off. In our times we will atomic bomb you. Even if that is the case, still peace is peace. If you have a home in the suburbs and a lawn to cut, you are able to have it because forty years ago you had to do something else when the world's historical situation called for it. And you're not ashamed of it no matter who says what. Suppose we hadn't stood against [Adolf] Hitler? We would be in a different world.
What other historical events do you see as most significant for American culture?
I'm not a historian; I'm just an ordinary citizen. But I suppose since the Second World War the whole concept of limited war, like Korea and Vietnam, has been the most important thing, because the balance of world power is involved. One hundred and fifty years ago a guy named Karl Marx wrote a treatise on economics based on the Hegelian dialectic. I don't mean to be so academic, but—and this is changing—the world has been largely divided in two because of economic and political doctrines. We're on the side of freedom, but for us freedom means capitalism. They are on the side—you can't say oppression but that's what is the result of it—of, theoretically at least, equal distribution. The state dictating everything, including salaries, living quarters, food rationing, and the rest of it. Marx says everything is determined by the economic situation—everything, even the quality of the mind. I don't think so. I think capitalism and democracy enable you to have more of that elusive quality called "freedom" in your life.
You wrote an overtly political essay, "Notes on the Decline of Outrage," which involved the civil rights movement.
Martin Luther King [Jr.] quoted from the end of that essay in his speeches—that for white southerners "it can be a greater thing than the South has ever done" to discover that blacks are out "unknown brothers." That was written back in the 1950s, which as far as the civil rights movement was concerned was practically prehistory. I took an awful lot of flak for that. I didn't get a job I wanted with an advertising agency in Atlanta because the people were so rabidly pro-Southern and antiblack. I came out for black citizens and said that if it took repudiating part of my so-called Southern heritage in order for blacks to have an equal chance, I would do it—and I advised other people to do it also.
Racism has ruined so many people's lives, white and black. Donald Davidson was one of my teachers at Vanderbilt. Davidson was a remarkable man. He was in many ways one of the most humane, sensitive, and caring persons I ever knew—and intelligent, too. He was a man who had great gifts but who ruined his life—especially the latter part of his life, which should have been the most productive—over the question of racism. You could not imagine that a sensitive and retiring and responsible man like Don Davidson could have these fanatical beliefs about blacks. He actually deeply believed that the Caucasian race was demonstrably superior to the Negro race, and that the laws and ethos and mores of society should reflect that. He thought the laws shouldn't militate against blacks—although that is inevitably the result of Don Davidson's ideas—but that these divisions should be recognized, to use a favorite phrase of his, "for what they are." Now, he wasn't anyone who wanted to go out and lynch people or anything like that. His beliefs were quite sincere. He was in many ways a brilliant guy and a wonderful teacher. He had a great ability to communicate one on one with a student. He had scholarly knowledge and was quite a good poet—much better than he has ever been given credit for being. He was overshadowed by [John Crowe] Ransom and [Allen] Tate, and especially by Warren. He was in many ways a very worthy person, but you could not get him on the subject of race, or allow him to get on the subject of race, without everything degenerating. It just went bad, and when it went bad you didn't want to be around him. He ended up allying himself with all these "white citizens" councils and the most dubious kinds of redneck racist groups. He spent his time and energy doing that; it was a terrible mistake.
What prompted you to write the essay?
I wanted to write it. It seemed necessary. Louis Rubin was putting together an anthology of essays, South, and asked me to do something—anything that I wanted to do—and I chose to write about the racial situation in the South.
Why didn't you do anything like that again?
Because I would then seem to be trading on it. I made all the statements I wanted to make there, and if people wanted to know my opinion about the subject, they could go there.
You were later involved in and helped write speeches for both Eugene McCarthy's and Jimmy Carter's political campaigns. What prompted your involvement?
When I was in Washington, as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, Eugene McCarthy became my closest friend. I felt he was a political leader that this country hardly deserved because he had a tremendous commitment to the life of the mind—especially to poetry. He was a poet himself, and some of his things are not bad. I became devoted to him: his cause seemed right because he wanted to end the Vietnam War and was a positive politician. He didn't just condemn, but said we have to go forward—that we're going to upgrade the whole national sensibility so that people can live more and have more of themselves. I loved the man. I think he stood for the right things. I wish he had become president.
Jimmy Carter I loved because of the morality factor. I think he is a very kind man. Who else could have achieved the peace he helped manage to establish—even if some of it was just temporary—in the Middle East? We were really not that close, although I spoke at his inauguration.
Although you worked for McCarthy in the sixties, you never wrote any anti-Vietnam poetry. What are your thoughts on the protests that were going on in the sixties?
Well, man is a political animal. As far as it concerns the poets and writers involved in sixties protests, I would say two different aspects should probably be considered. First are the poets and writers who were acting as outraged citizens, who felt that Vietnam was a tragic mistake for this country and wished to speak out. All of that is really good, even noble. The other thing is the poets and writers who seized on this political and national crisis to aggrandize themselves because they could not earn recognition by means of their talent. You get up on the podium and start spouting forgettable poetry in the name of the cause. Poetry against death. How can anyone be pro death? It's against slaughter; it's against the killing of women and children by fire bombing and so on. How can't you be against that? You're stacking the hand like a card game, stacking your hand in your favor. Who would be in favor of the slaughter of women and children? And yet the poetry that resulted from it is dead before it hits the page. It's topical, and when the historic occasion that called it forth has passed, so has the poetry. It's easy, it's wonderful, it's inspiring to have all the right opinions—and to put down words on a page that capitalize on those opinions, that identify you as being a right guy because you're against death. You're against torture—but that is just another version of being in favor of mom's apple pie.
What do you think is the relationship between poetry and culture?
I would pin it down to our time because I'm functioning in our time. I don't know what it is in the various eras of history. Our age, the age of Marshall McLuhan, is an age dominated by the media. McLuhan believes that print will eventually be superseded by TV, and that words will no longer be printed but that there will only be spoken words, and that they will only be apprehensible by means of personal communication and by means of the electronic media, and that on that basis we'll all be together in the global village. I think the poet needs to stand forthrightly against that notion because words themselves have enormous potency. Language is the greatest gift that mankind has ever received or has given to itself. Language has made everything else possible. One generation can build on the discoveries of the previous one. This makes libraries possible, and all the information that you need to know to build rockets, conquer cancer and polio, and so on. Language makes it possible for all the professions and the arts to go forward. Language. The word. In the beginning was the Logos. The most mysterious statement of human history is "In the beginning was the word"—not the thing—the word, Logos. The supreme custodian of the word, the one who uses it with the most eloquence, the most meaning, the most consequentiality, is the poet. The poet is the one who has the most command of the word and of all strata and substrata of language, of all meanings and all connotations. There is something in the human soul that will respond to that kind of use of language because it is our most precious gift. There is something that will respond to it no matter how rudimentary the intellect of the responding person. Through such use words can reach a person in a way that is particularly intimate and individual. My main disappointment in this culture that I live in is the low level of sensibility. D. H. Lawrence says somewhere, "I will show you how not to be a dead man in life." Too many of us approximate the state of being dead in life, and the more mechanized a culture becomes, the more mechanical the people become. I believe there is value in feelings and in responsiveness and in the contribution of the imagination to those things. So many of our students are brainwashed. They don't give a shit—that's a favorite expression of our time. "I don't know about you, but I don't give a shit." And they don't. But I do give a shit. I don't want to "come off of it," I want to get on with it.
Do you feel that in other eras people did "give a shit"? In the sixties, for instance?
Yes, especially in the sixties. That shows us that there is an underlying stream of available emotion that simply needs a channel. In that era the energy was funneled into social protest. In my novel Alnilam, all Joel Cahill has to do is appear and all that loose, wandering emotion in the young people focuses on him, and he becomes their channel. That is what made John F. Kennedy, for example, or Hitler, for that matter. These leaders provide people's suppressed emotions with an image, a channel, to focus on. We all need that, and it is very inspiring in the case of great leaders and very terrifying in the case of sinister leaders. Leaders like Hitler, Frederick the Great, and Napoleon tap in on the same kind of emotion that enables someone like [Abraham] Lincoln or [George] Washington or [Thomas] Jefferson to be a leader. There is a charismatic quality in the leaders who are focused on that is indigenous to them.
Aside from such a leader's charismatic quality, do you feel that the moral underpinnings of the leader's message are arbitrary? Do you think that a negative leader like Hitler is just as likely to be focused on as a more positive figure?
I don't think these things are completely arbitrary. For instance, one thing these matters depend on is the historical situation at the time. But it does also depend on something that is basically fundamental in human nature that wants such things to happen. The reason that the people join the Alnilam conspiracy, that the plotters join up with Joel Cahill, is that they believe that he is initiating them into an elite which everyone wants to be in. It is like a college fraternity. A college fraternity is not based on what the word "fraternity" suggests; it is not based on brotherhood and inclusion but on exclusion.
Earlier you made the statement that you felt World War II was the last just war America was involved in. Why do you feel that way?
There was no enemy or villain in the Vietnam or Korean war—no enemy as profoundly evil as Hitler. The supposed villain was collectivism. The communist state. But that doesn't have the solidity of an actual figure like Hitler. The baleful fascination of that guy—I don't think it will ever diminish. There are people in this country right now who are worshipers of Hitler. People don't only worship him because of his political and military deeds, but because he represented some kind of mystical force that only occasionally shows itself. People, the human race, want some kind of inspired, charismatic leader. Whether it's Alexander the Great, Caesar, Frederick II, Napoleon, Hitler, John F. Kennedy, or Joel Cahill, it satisfies some deep hunger in people that somebody has got hold of a truth and a way of life that they themselves cannot command.
Tell me more about that idea in the context of Alnilam.
Joel Cahill is that kind of a figure. Joel is the young college-boy mystic raised to the nth power. He is a genius in an airplane. Even the instructors are afraid to fly with him because he's so much better than they are. They don't want to be humiliated by this guy who seems to have been born not in an airplane but as an airplane. The whole mysticism of the air, of flight, gives credence and weight to his political feelings. He's someone everyone remembers. He is a [Arthur] Rimbaud or [Percy Bysshe] Shelley of the air. A Jesus Christ or Messiah figure that one would follow to the grave because one's whole existence is justified by contact with this extraordinary person.
How does this relate to the things you say about poetry and the creative act in the novel?
I think the power of the word is great. Poetry makes plenty happen. In Alnilam the figure of Joel Cahill has a powerful effect on people. Not only on people who love him and follow him, but also on the people who hate him but can't ignore him. Part of his power is based on language. When he has the Alnilam plotters recite the lines from Shelley about the young charioteers drinking the wind of their own speed, the effect is hypnotic. This effect on the followers of Joel Cahill is made possible by means of language. "Drinking the wind of their own speed / And seeing nothing but the keen stars, / They all pass onward." It's the power of the words. Poetry is the ultimate; it has a powerful effect on people. It can have a satirical effect. Look at [Alexander] Pope. Pope says, "I stood aghast to see / They were not afraid of God, but afraid of me." Now this is power. [W. H.] Auden be damned. This is power. Part of Joel's power comes from the word, from language itself.
You equate Joel Cahill with Shelley at some points in the novel.
Yes, I do. Shelley is the ultimate beatnik. What a mind! What a mind! I wish I liked his poetry better. I keep reading Shelley, but there are only a few lines of Shelley's that I really care for. He is wonderful on the effects of the ephemeral qualities of air and light. The great type of Shelley image is that of a sunrise over the mountains.
But it's Shelley's personality that most interests you.
I love Shelley because he represents an extreme, like Joel Cahill represents an extreme. He's the ultimate youthful idealist with a great mind, completely unorthodox.
Yet he also has a potentially destructive side. I'm thinking of Joel Cahill.
Yes, there is also that side of him, as well. He is an overreacher.
How does this relate to our culture?
There is something about the excessive that appeals to people. Excess. As Oscar Wilde, a favorite of mine, says, nothing succeeds like excess. You look at movements—like the John Birch Society. Who is John Birch? Nobody knows that much about John Birch—and nobody gives a shit. He was a martyr—a martyr like John Kennedy. He has that charisma that comes down through successive generations. He becomes a legend. The greatest of legends in Western culture is who? Jesus. Now, I was talking to Jesus the other day. He's a very good fellow—sympathetic, interesting, and something of a philosopher. But Jesus Christ had only the simplest of doctrines! The Bible is a desperate attempt by the human race, which is a product of the animal world. A dead dog crushed on the highway has the same organs as you. It's got a heart, liver, kidneys, bowels, all that. It's no different from you. All the difference is that you have evolved into something that can think of and conceive of the idea of God. A dog can't do that. If I had a dog who had the notion of God, I would fall to my knees and worship. Well, the dog does not have the concept of God. We have the concept of God. Genesis says God formed people in his own image. But it's actually the reverse of what Genesis says: we have formed God in our own image. As Russell says, if horses had gods, the gods would look like horses.
Joel Cahill speaks in parables. He talks about precision mysticism. What the hell does that mean? You don't know what it means, and in the novel it's not explained. Yet I intended to implant that in the reader's mind. Precision mysticism. When you relate that to an airplane engine and to Joel's relationship to flight, it takes on another meaning, but you're never able to understand exactly what. The Alnilam plotters think it's something that may be beyond anything that they have ever been able to perceive. That's the fascination of Joel Cahill. He's able to formulate these weird, strange, provocative, evocative notions. And he can get up there in an airplane and prove them—or what he does in an aircraft seems, to the Alnilam fliers, to bear out everything he talks about.
Does Joel have a specific political position?
No—only one statement. He says to his followers, We're going to make it like it should have been at the beginning. But you don't know what that is. He talks about existence as seen from an aircraft, the great blue field and the purple haze and so on. My point here is, that if you have somebody as charismatic as Joel Cahill, his followers follow him toward his ultimate goal not despite the fact it's vague, but because it's vague. It's like Tertullian's proof of God. He says, I don't believe in God's existence despite the fact that it's absurd; I believe it because it is absurd. The more vague and problematical the end of the Alnilam plot, the more fanatical the followers become.
Let's switch gears. In your work you place great emphasis on the "creative lie," creating an illusion that becomes, in your words, "better than the truth." Can you relate this notion to the creation of your public personality?
I think I can. When we were out on the west coast, a university, I believe it was Oregon State, offered me one hundred dollars to read some of my poetry. My wife, Maxine, told me, "Jim, we need the money, so you have to do it." At the time I didn't even know if I had enough poetry to give an hour-long program. Although I had been a teacher, the idea of getting up to read my own stuff in front of all those people seemed unthinkable. But Maxine insisted. She said, "Jim, you get out there and you do this. Those people at Oregon State want to hear what you have to say." Well, this was a monstrosity to me. I couldn't imagine getting up there. I told her I would be paralyzed with stage fright and self-consciousness. She told me, "If you are a teacher and can get up in front of your class every day, you can get up in front of an audience. Just get up there and be yourself." Which sounded fine to me until I began thinking, "Yeah, but what self, which one?" I had to invent a self. The twentieth century has produced two great invented selves, people who wished to become other than they really were and who wrote and acted out of the assumed personality. The first is T. E. Lawrence, who was a timid fellow who became a superman in warfare because he willed the personality that he wished to be. Instead of being a little, weak guy he became a military genius and a wonderful writer. But the self he was writing out of was not his real personality. The other person I think of is [Ernest] Hemingway. The real Hemingway was not the public Hemingway. The assumed personality. I have a great deal of that.
In what ways?
Because I'm essentially a coward, so therefore I flew with the night fighters in the Pacific, or in football I hit the guy especially hard because essentially I was afraid of him. I think you must turn these things to your favor.
How does this work for you poetically?
Essentially I was a timid, Ernest Dahlson type—a "days of wine and roses," decadent, late-romantic poet—so therefore I go for force and vigor. And it works. My assumed personality is working for me just as much as Lawrence's worked for him or Hemingway's worked for him.
Characterize that assumed personality for me.
That is easy to do. Very easy. All I have to do is turn it back to you and ask what you have heard about me. That's the assumed personality: big, strong, hard drinking, hard fighting. Nothing could be less characteristic of the true James Dickey, who is a timid, cowardly person.
I don't think many people would agree with you there.
Well, maybe not, but you can't fool yourself, so you spend your life fooling yourself. The self that you fool yourself into is the one that functions. Isn't that so?
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Albin Krebs (obituary date 21 January 1997)
SOURCE: "James Dickey, Two-Fisted Poet and the Author of Deliverance, is Dead at 73," in The New York Times, January 21, 1997, p. C27.
[In the following obituary, Krebs presents a detailed review of Dickey's life and career.]
James Dickey, one of the nation's most distinguished modern poets and a critic, lecturer and teacher perhaps best known for his rugged novel Deliverance, died on Sunday in Columbia, S.C. He was 73.
He died of complications of lung disease, The Associated Press reported.
Mr. Dickey, a big, sprawling, life-loving, hard-drinking man once described as "a bare-chested bard," was a prolific poet whose work was admired for its "intense clarity," its "joyous imagination" and its "courageous tenderness."
His poems often sang the praises of fighter pilots, football players and backwoods Southerners, but, as one critic put it, they were also "deceptively simple metaphysical poems that search the lakes and trees and workday fragments of his experience for a clue to the meaning of existence."
In addition to books of essays and what he called self-interviews, Mr. Dickey turned out some 20 volumes of poetry, many of them vividly muscular and passionate, almost always composed in a solidly purposeful English. He avoided the affected, and he celebrated the ordinary along with the sublime. His collection Buckdancer's Choice received the National Book Award for poetry in 1968.
There were few subjects Mr. Dickey would not tackle. In 1966, for example, he covered the launching of the Apollo 7 spacecraft for Life magazine and, while other journalists concentrated on the blastoff's scientific implications, he stressed the human drama:
as they plunge with all of us—up from the
flame-trench, up from the Launch Umbilic Tower,
up from the elk and the butterfly, up from
the meadows and rivers and mountains and the beds
of wives into the universal cavern, into the
mathematical abyss, to find us—and return,
to tell us what we will be.
In 1970, after working seven years at it, Mr. Dickey finally published his first novel, Deliverance, a gripping, thrilling and highly praised account of a harrowing, disastrous canoe trip four friends take down a rolling north Georgia river.
The book was a best seller, and the 1972 film based on it, for which Mr. Dickey supplied the screenplay, was one of the most popular of its decade. The film starred Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds, and Mr. Dickey, already known for his several other talents, appeared in the featured role of the portly sheriff.
In 1977 Mr. Dickey was asked by his fellow Georgian, Jimmy Carter, to compose a poem for Mr. Carter's Presidential Inauguration. The poet read the work "The Strength of Fields" at the Inaugural gala, speaking in sonorous tones of "the profound, unstoppable craving of nations" that was part of the challenge facing Mr. Carter.
The poet was the winner of many awards, including Sewanee Review and Guggenheim fellowships for study and travel in Europe and the Longview, Vachel Lindsay and Melville Cane Awards for poetry.
James Dickey was born in an Atlanta suburb on Feb. 2, 1923, the son of Eugene and Maibelle Swift Dickey. His father was a lawyer fond of reading to his son, with rich rhetorical flourishes, the speeches of Robert Ingersoll, the 19th-century agnostic orator who relished personal confrontations with the fundamentalist preachers of his day.
Although the younger Dickey was more interested in sports at the time, his father's admiring readings of the Ingersoll speeches must have influenced him, for he was to be known in later years as an eloquent college lecturer and gifted reader of his own poetry.
Starting with his freshman year at Clemson College, where he was a varsity wingback on the football team, Mr. Dickey showed a fondness for risk and action, taking up canoeing, archery, weight lifting and other sports, all of which would interest him for the rest of his life. He also became an excellent guitarist and played a passable banjo.
He quit college after a year, in 1942, enlisted in the Army Air Corps and volunteered for the 418th Night Fighter Squadron, for which he flew more than 100 missions in the Pacific theater of operations.
He later wrote often about his war experiences, for example in "The Firebombing," the opening poem in his 1966 collection, Buckdancer's Choice. The poem read in part:
Snap, a bulb is tricked on in the cockpit
And some technical-minded stranger with my hands
Is sitting in a glass treasure-hole of blue light,
Having potential fire under the undeodorized arms
Of his wings, on thin bomb-shackles,
The "tear-drop-shaped" 300-gallon drop-tanks
Filled with napalm and gasoline.
Mr. Dickey found combat "viscerally exhilarating," he said, "like being on a big football team you knew was going to win." Yet his experiences in World War II, and when he was recalled to duty in the Korean War, taught him, he said, that life must be savored. "I look on existence from the standpoint of a survivor," he said.
It was while trying to bridge the gaps of wartime boredom that Mr. Dickey turned toward "tinkering" with literature, he said. "At first I spent most of my time writing erotic love letters to girls back in Atlanta and Montgomery," he said later. "I guess I started being a writer the day I found myself thinking, 'Gosh, that's pretty good,' instead of, 'That ought to knock her dead.'"
And so, at wartime base libraries, Mr. Dickey began a mission of self-teaching. "I sensed immediately that writers like [William] Faulkner or [Thomas] Wolfe had a different orientation with language than, say, [W. Somerset] Maugham. I kept looking for writers who had this thing. [Herman] Melville, James Agee. I felt writers like this were sort of failed poets but were trying to use prose for higher things. I thought that was the direction to go. I began reading anthologies of poetry."
It finally struck him, Mr. Dickey said, that "I had as much claim to saying or writing about my existence as anyone else had. I was just as much alive in my own way and if I did make my life speak, the possibilities of poetry were just as great as they were with [John] Donne or [John] Keats or Shelley."
After World War II, Mr. Dickey majored in English at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and, as a track star, won the Tennessee state championship in the 120-yard high hurdles. He graduated magna cum laude in 1949 and earned his master's degree the following year.
Then there was an English teaching job at Rice Institute, and the call back to duty in the Korean War, during which he had sold his first poem, "Shark in the Window," to The Sewanee Review for $28.50. In 1954 the magazine awarded him a $3,500 fellowship, which gave him a year of writing in Europe.
Back home, Mr. Dickey, who had married Maxine Syerson in 1948 and become the father of two sons, Christopher and Kevin, found it difficult supporting a family as a teacher at the University of Florida.
He went to work for the McCann-Erickson advertising agency in Manhattan, leaving behind his poetry to praise in prose the glories of Coca-Cola. He was to remain in advertising, writing copy about fertilizer, potato chips and air travel for nearly six years, confining his poetry writing to evenings and weekends.
Into the Stone and Other Poems, Mr. Dickey's first collection, was published by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1960. (Some poems had already appeared in magazines like The New Yorker and Harper's.)
"It is when he yokes the natural and the mechanical, the antipodes of our folklore, he really sings," wrote the critic Geoffrey A. Wolff. "In this he resembles Hart Crane: wedding the machine to the natural, taking all things for what they are and explaining their shapes and motives."
As he grew more successful in advertising, working for agencies in New York and Atlanta, Mr. Dickey said, he realized he was "living half a life," stealing time for poetry. He was also feeling guilty, looking on advertising as a corrupter of the values of both its creators and the public. "I knew how to manipulate those poor sheep," he said, "but the fact I felt that way about them was an indication of my own corruption."
In 1961, Mr. Dickey chucked it all, went on welfare briefly, then received a $5,000 Guggenheim grant and sold his home in Atlanta. After spending a year in Italy, he was for the next few years poet in residence at Reed College in Portland, Ore.; San Fernando Valley State College in Los Angeles, and the University of Wisconsin. He also published volumes of poetry in 1962 (Drowning With Others) and in 1964 (Helmets, Two Poems in the Air).
He also published a selection of his critical essays, The Suspect in Poetry, in which Mr. Dickey ventured some ornery judgments. He classified John Milton, for example, among "the great stuffed goats of English literature," showed scant enthusiasm for Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, and dismissed altogether such contemporaries as Allen Ginsberg.
In 1966 Mr. Dickey succeeded Stephen Spender as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress and held the post—at the time, the rough American equivalent of Britain's poet laureate—for two years. He enlivened the library with his unbridled opinions, as illustrated at a news conference in which he described Dylan Thomas's poetry reading style as "too actorish," called Theodore Roethke "immensely superior to any other poet we have in this country," denounced the Beat poets as "awful, ludicrously inept, hopelessly bad" and pronounced Vietnam War protest poems mere "tracts—messages with a capital 'M,' propaganda."
Mr. Dickey finally settled, in 1968, at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, where he was poet in residence and a professor of English. A popular teacher who dressed habitually in blue jeans, he became locally renowned for his epic capacity for consuming liquor and attracting the attention of women. He liked to advise his creative-writing students to tune into their recalcitrant unconsciousness or, as he put it, the "celestial wireless."
His favorite pastime was archery, a sport in which he excelled and which figured prominently in the plot of Deliverance.
Mr. Dickey said writing that novel was one of the most challenging experiences of his life. He admitted that his poetic sensibility was his main problem with the book.
"I wanted to write imaginative prose that did not strain for metaphorical brilliance," he said, "I spent time taking things out of my prose." The book came hard, he added, because separating words from rhythm was like "putting on a wooden overcoat."
He succeeded in delivering straightforward prose, though it carried strongly poetic overtones. Mr. Dickey's poetry, on the other hand, like that of many of his contemporaries, often appeared to be a typographer's nightmare. Reviewing his collection The Strength of Fields, in The New York Times Book Review in 1980, the critic Paul Zweig wrote admiringly:
The poems in James Dickey's new book float down over-wide pages, contract to a single word, lapse into italics, skip over blank intervals. They are like richly modulated hollers, a sort of rough, American-style bel canto advertising its freedom from the constraints of ordinary language. Dickey's style is so personal, his rhythms so willfully eccentric, that the poems seem to swell up and overflow like that oldest of American art forms, the boast. Dickey is crowing, flooding his subjects with sheer style.
Mr. Dickey's favorite themes were commonplace: the tongue-in-cheek poems, poems about fighter pilots and about his experiences in World War II, the animal poems, those about death and grief, and those about bow-and-arrow hunters and football players and running marathons.
In "For the Death of Vince Lombardi," which immortalized the storied football coach, Mr. Dickey, with great relish, extolled the game for its "aggression meanness deception delight in giving pain to others," with such wholeheartedness that the game seems to stand for the onslaught of life itself. The poem reads in part:
Around your bed the knocked-out teeth like hail pebbles
Rattle down miles of adhesive tape from hands and ankles
Writhe in the room like vines, gallons of sweat blaze in buckets
In the corners the blue and yellow bruises
Make one vast sunset around you.
Among Mr. Dickey's volumes of poems were Drowning with Others, The Eye-Beaters, The Zodiac, Scion, Puella and The Central Motion. His critical works included Babel to Byzantium and Sorties.
Mr. Dickey's first wife, Maxine, died in 1976, and two months later he married Deborah Dodson, who was one of his students. He is survived by his wife; two sons, Kevin and Christopher, from his first marriage, and a daughter, Bronwen Elaine.
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Lachlan Mackinnon (review date 10 May 1991)
SOURCE: "Mumbling and Clanging," in Times Literary Supplement, May 10, 1991, p. 22.
[In the following excerpt, Mackinnon condemns Dickey's The Eagle's Mile as "a clanging, overweening collection."]
[I]n the title poem, "The Eagle's Mile", in memory of Justice William Douglas, theoretically welcome as a public elegy and especially as one about such a man, Dickey invites the addressee to reappear in landscape and "power-hang in it all now, for all / The whole thing is worth: catch without warning / Somewhere in the North Georgia creek like ghostmuscle tensing / Forever, or on the high grass bed / Yellow of dawn, catch like a man stamp-printed by God- / shock, blue as the very foot / Of fire." All the words work like pistons in a museum engine, flailing, rhetorical and futile.
A quieter poem like "The Olympian", in which Dickey races "the Olympian, / Now my oldest boy's junior / High school algebra teacher" round his garden, reads better. The teacher trips "and on a bloated blessed doughnut-ring / Of rubber rolled" and laughs in a way Dickey "maybe" hears "all over the earth, where that day and any and every / Day after it, devil hindmost and Goddamn it / To glory, I lumbered for gold." "Lumbered" merits the epical overwriting that precedes it, but such touches of poetic self-awareness are too rare to redeem a clanging, overweening collection.
William Pratt (review date Summer 1991)
SOURCE: A review of The Eagle's Mile, in World Literature Today, Summer, 1991, p. 489.
[In the following review, Pratt discusses the language in The Eagle's Mile.]
Having long ago charted his place as a leading American poet of flight, James Dickey makes flight the central theme of his latest collection of poems. He borrows his title from a line of William Blake, "The Emmet's Inch & Eagle's Mile," and like Blake he mixes the visionary with the actual, sometimes mounting on the powerful wings of eagles, sometimes on the delicate wings of butterflies, letting his imagination soar into space or, at other times, calling back images of aerial gunnery in the Pacific, from his service as a night-fighter pilot in World War II and the Korean War. There is no poem in The Eagle's Mile as sensational as his earlier famous "Falling," which combines the exhilaration of flying, the erotic motions of a woman's body in space, and the inevitability of dying, but the brilliant colors of "To the Butterflies" offer a visual and descriptive feast to be enjoyed along with its imaginary flight.
Dickey has always been an experimentalist with form, never settling for casual or conversational free verse, but shaping his words in strongly patterned cadences, with frequent spaced pauses and marked accents in the manner of [Gerard Manley] Hopkins (suggesting that "The Windhover" is one of his models of poetic flight), producing staccato and crescendo effects that bear some resemblance to the vibrating movement of engines in human flight. Dickey has a fondness for the incantatory power of words which links him with [Edgar Allan] Poe, and as in Poe, the sounds of his words sometimes seem to take on more significance than their meanings, creating what Poe would have called an emotional "effect" more important than any meaning.
The title poem shows all the strengths, and the weaknesses, of Dickey's poetry: "The Eagle's Mile" is dedicated to the late Justice William Douglas of the U.S. Supreme Court, who was an outdoorsman like Dickey and loved the Appalachian Trail that ran "from Springer Mountain [in Georgia] to Maine," as the poem remembers, describing hiking journeys along the trial and also envisioning flight above it, where you "like Adam find yourself splintering out / Somewhere on the eagle's mile." In a trick of ventriloquy, however, the poem addresses Douglas directly as if he were still alive, making it the sort of public performance which Dickey more and more favors (he was the Poet Laureate of Jimmy Carter's presidency, and in the new collection there is a poem for "a South Carolina inauguration of Richard Riley as governor"), and at times he strains for words like the hurdler he once was—"Douglas, power-hang in it all now, for all / The whole thing is worth"—so forcing his reader into collaboration with him in what seems a rhetorical act of celebration as much as a poem.
Dickey's poetry is a mixture of the visionary with the actual that sometimes soars and sometimes runs aground, splitting consciousness as he likes to split his lines, thus deliberately keeping any single poem from becoming a unified and harmonious whole, despite its often singing and moving uses of language.
Robert Kirschten (review date May 1993)
SOURCE: "Form and Genre in James Dickey's 'Falling': The Great Goddess Gives Birth to the Earth," in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 58, No. 2, May, 1993, pp. 127-54.
[In the following essay, Kirschten analyzes the significance of the stewardess in Dickey's "Falling."]
A quarter of a century ago, well before many current intellectual trends became mainstream, James Dickey reaffirmed the multicultural brotherhood of his own poetic vision with Native Americans, when, in Self-Interviews, he lamented
the loss of a sense of intimacy with the natural process. I think you would be very hard-put … to find a more harmonious relationship to an environment than the American Indians had. We can't return to a primitive society … but there is a property of mind which, if encouraged, could have this personally animistic relationship to things…. It's what gives us a personal relationship to the sun and the moon, the flow of rivers, the growth and decay of natural forms, and the cycles of death and rebirth.
An exhilarating celebration of just those harmonious cycles, "Falling" is one of Dickey's best known and most spectacular poems. The lyric runs more than six full pages in page-wide lines with minimal punctuation to interrupt its accelerating whirlwind of energy while depicting the fatal fall of a twenty-nine-year-old stewardess from a commercial airplane over Kansas. Although this woman starts off as the victim of a tragic accident, her fall is exhilarating because she ends up as someone significantly different.
Critics have offered clues to this transformation. Joyce Carol Oates claims that the stewardess is "a kind of mortal goddess, given as much immortality … as poetry is capable of giving its subjects." Monroe Spears notes that she "becomes a goddess, embodiment of a myth." Joyce Pair, editor of The James Dickey Newsletter, observes that the stewardess is "a modern incarnation of the goddess of crops and fertility." Even Dickey himself says that the stewardess has a "goddess-like invulnerability." While these clues identify the stewardess as a goddess, there are few extended discussions of the poem that develop this premise. My own seven-page analysis, written in 1983 as part of a chapter on sacrificial victims in a book-length study of Dickey's poetry, concurs with these opinions to some degree, suggesting that "we may best read 'Falling' … as a ritual reenactment of the primitive practice of killing a god of vegetation to ensure both the perpetuation of crops and the continuation of the human species itself." However, after more extensive reading in mythological literatures, I believe that my initial assessment undervalues the power and character of this woman and that a more detailed reading is in order. To say that the stewardess is merely a "sacrificial victim"—a term derived from Kenneth Burke and René Girard—renders her passive in a way that does not reflect her true dynamic and dramatic character. We need thus to trace more fully the process of empowerment (the "plot" or "form" of the poem) that the stewardess undergoes by looking at the kind of mythological activity (the "genre") this process resembles. By offering three analogies with goddesses from Native American, Asian, and Mesoamerican myths, we may best see "Falling" as an animistic, matriarchal, creation myth—in many ways, the emotional and cultural opposite of the patriarchal narrative in Genesis—whose particular rendering in Dickey's hands reveals further insights into his conceptions of women and nature. My claim is that "Falling" is Dickey's remarkable transformation of an airline employee into an analogue of one of the Great Goddesses of primitive seed-planting cultures, more specifically, Mother Earth, who, in the process of falling and dying, gives birth to herself and the earth.
First Analogy: Bird Woman (or Lady of the Animals) and The Woman Who Fell from the Sky
After the stewardess falls out of the plane, she panics at first, then experiments with her fall. Dickey says, "[S]he develops interest she turns in her maneuverable body // To watch it." Not only does she begin to enjoy her fall, but she takes on the first in a series of new kinds of power, namely, the power of animals. At line 30, she changes from someone merely performing "endless gymnastics" into what I will call her role as "Bird Woman," for she now can "slant slide / Off tumbling into the emblem of a bird with its wings half-spread." Whether in "Reincarnation II," where we find "There is a wing-growing motion / Half-alive in every creature," or in "Eagles," where the poet says "My feathers were not / Of feather-make, but broke from a desire to drink / The rain before it falls," the empowerment of human beings through magical contact with animals is a long-standing commonplace in Dickey's work. This topic recalls two of Jungian psychologist Erich Neumann's observations when he discusses animals symbolic of ancient goddesses: first, that the "birdlike character of woman points primarily to her correlation with the heavens," and second, that in Creto-Aegean culture "The Great Mother as a nature goddess … was mistress of the mountains and of wild animals" and that "birds … symbolized her presence."
In "Falling," Dickey's stewardess-goddess has "Time to live / In superhuman health" by so taking on the properties of bird flight and vision that she becomes a variation of what is called in Pali Buddhism "The great woman rich in creatures":
Arms out she slow-rolls over steadies out waits for something great
To take control of her trembles near feathers planes head-down
The quick movements of bird-necks turning her head gold eyes the insight-
eyesight of owls blazing into the hencoops a taste for chicken overwhelming
Her the long-range vision of hawks enlarging all human lights of cars
Freight trains looped bridges enlarging the moon racing slowly
Through all the curves of a river all the darks of the midwest blazing
By acquiring the "insight- / eyesight of owls" and "The long-range vision of hawks," the stewardess is not only rich in creatures but reenacts the role of a prehistoric goddess known as "The Lady of the Animals" who often appears in the form of a bird. Citing Marija Gimbutas's The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, Carol Christ tells us that Gimbutas found a
pre-Bronze Age culture that was "matrifocal" … presided over by a Goddess as Source and Giver of All. Originally the Goddess did not appear with animals but herself had animal characteristics. One of her earliest forms was as the Snake and Bird Goddess, associated with water, and represented as a snake, a water bird, a duck, goose, crane, diver bird, or owl, or as a woman with a bird head or birdlike posture. She was the Goddess Creatress, the giver of Life.
Known in classical mythology as "Aphrodite with her dove, Athene with her owl, [and] Artemis with her deer," the image of the Lady of Animals, Christ notes, goes back in history beyond Homer to the Neolithic and Paleolithic eras. In the Homeric Hymns (c. 800-400 BC), "The Lady of the Animals is cosmic power; she is mother of all; the animals of Earth, sea, and air are hers; the wildest and most fearsome of animals…. [She] is also earth: she is the firm foundation undergirding all life."
In "Falling," Dickey's Lady of the Animals not only possesses the vision of hawks and owls but also their "fearsome" power over prey and, most importantly, their powers and instruments of flight. With "a taste for chicken overwhelming / Her" and "The air beast-crooning to her warbling," the stewardess arranges her skirt "Like a diagram of a bat" and thus "has this flying-skin / Made of garments." These diverse animal traits dramatically enable her to change both her activity and her character. Her fall becomes purposive, no longer the formless result of an unintended accident, but instead "a long stoop a hurtling a fall / That is controlled that plummets as it wills." As the velocity of her fall accelerates, an effect conveyed brilliantly by Dickey's spectacular visual imagery, so too the stewardess' plummeting will-to-power increases. At one point, she alters the very laws of nature as she "Turns gravity / Into a new condition, showing its other side like a moon shining / New Powers." And shortly thereafter, she begins to become fully active by determining her own fate; that is, she will not "just fall just tumble screaming all that time." She will "use / It" (italics in original).
While magically connected to animals, yet still in her human form, Dickey's stewardess also resembles a goddess who experiences a similar fall in an Iroquois creation myth called "The Woman Who Fell from the Sky." From J. B. N. Hewitt's "Iroquois Cosmology" (as abridged and recast in Campbell's World Mythology) we learn that in "regions above," where "[s]orrow and death were unknown …," a
tree had been uprooted [so that] … a hole was left … opened to the world below…. [A] woman-being … fell into the hole and kept on falling through its darkness, and after a while passed through its length. And when she had passed quite through onto this other world, she … looked in all directions and saw on all sides about her that everything was blue…. [S]he was now looking upon a great expanse … of water…. On the surface of the water … were all sorts and forms of waterfowl…. [One of them] noticed her…. [T]hey sent up to her a flight of numerous ducks of various kinds, which in a very compact body elevated themselves to meet her on high. And on their backs, thereupon, her body did indeed alight. So then slowly they descended, bearing on their backs her body.
Though the birds and animals in Dickey's poem do not bear the stewardess on their backs, they form an entourage of accompanying support that shapes the very contour of her fall. Her alignment with hawks, owls, and bats changes her fall from a "Tumble" to a fall like that of "sky-divers on TV," which, at least, hypothetically, offers her the hope that, "like a diver," she may "plunge" into "water like a needle to come out healthily dripping / And be handed a Coca-Cola." In addition to her birdlike motion, the Iroquois woman-being, like the stewardess, shares a similar creative relationship with the earth. When the Iroquois woman falls, there is no land below her, only water. To safeguard her from drowning, the ducks place her on the back of the Great Turtle. Beaver and Otter try to bring up mud from the bottom to fashion earth for her, but they die in the process. So does Muskrat. As he surfaces, however, mud is found in his paws, and this the animals place around the carapace of the turtle. When the woman awakes, she finds the mud, like Dickey's "enlarging" earth, transformed:
[T]he earth whereupon she sat had become in size enlarged…. [S]he … saw that willows along the edge of the water had grown to be bushes…. [S]he saw … growing shrubs of the rose willow along the edge of the water…. [S]he saw take up its course a little rivulet. In that way, in their turn things came to pass. The earth rapidly was increasing in size. She … saw all kinds of herbs and grasses spring from the earth and grow … toward maturity.
Later in this legend, the woman-being gives birth to a daughter who in turn gives birth to a set of twins. The first twin, Sapling, tosses the sun and the moon into the sky and forms the race of mankind. The Woman Who Fell from the Sky is thus a kind of mother responsible for the creation of the cosmos, the earth, and humanity.
In "Falling" the stewardess gives birth to a special kind of "enlarging earth." After she determines to "use" her fall, the American landscape "enlarges" not only because she falls closer to ground; it becomes animated—animistic—and a tremendous source of revelation and energy for her. Dickey's earth is, in fact, created out of animated elements similar to those in Chinese and Babylonian creation myths in which reality is said to emerge out of original "chaos" when "all was darkness and water." When the stewardess falls out of a layer of clouds, she beholds a new world likewise issuing out of "chaos" and "darkness and water": "New darks new progressions of headlights along dirt roads from chaos // And night a gradual warming a new-made, inevitable world of one's own / Country" with "its waiting waters." These "waiting waters," like those toward which the Iroquois woman falls, also come magically alive as the source of all life for Dickey's goddess. Even though, on a literal level, the stewardess stands little chance of diving safely into water, imagery of "The waters / Of life" is so pervasive that it constitutes a major element in the vast scenic receptacle of natural movement in the "new-made … world" that receives her. As she heads "Toward the blazing-bare lake," this world of water is "new-made" and life-giving because of its tremendous potential for burgeoning energy. Like a life-saving rope that cannot aid her, "The moon [is] packed and coiled in a reservoir," and in the agricultural and sexual worlds of fecundity that she will never know, "farmers sleepwalk … a walk like falling toward the far waters / Of life in moon-light … [t]oward the flowering of the harvest in their hands." As nourisher and transformer, water is the vessel of life in the womb; its nutrients make it a medium for growth, and, of course, the sea is the source of life, but also, tragically, the destroyer. Water thus unites heaven and earth in the "Great Round" of life and death. By entering so fully into this perpetual cycle, Dickey's stewardess is the great Egyptian heaven goddess Nut, who is, Neumann reminds us,
water above and below, vault above and below, life and death, east and west, generating and killing, in one…. The Great Goddess is the flowing unity of subterranean and celestial primordial water, the sea of heaven on which sail the barks of the gods of light, the circular life-generating ocean above and below the earth. To her belong all waters, streams, fountains, ponds, and springs, as well as the rain. She is the ocean of life with its life- and death-bringing seasons….
This realm is not the world of discursive consciousness. It is, rather, what Neumann calls "The primordial darkness" of "The Dark Mother," "The Nocturnal Mother," or more specifically, "The matriarchal world of the beginning" of the creative unconscious, which "the patriarchal world strives to deny." And with its "moon-crazed inner eye of midwest imprisoned / Water," Dickey's night-world is far less the real Kansas than it is D. H. Lawrence's Etruscan universe in which "all was alive…. The whole thing was alive, and had a great soul, or anima."
Dickey's animistic conception of nature radically opposes that of the machine-world of the airliner with which the poem begins. In considering Dickey's animism, which reveals much about his main character, it is useful to recall Carol Christ's statement: "To the Old Europeans the Lady of the Animals was not a power transcending earth, but rather the power that creates, sustains, and is manifest in the infinite variant of life forms on earth. Old Europe did not celebrate humanity's uniqueness and separation from nature but rather humanity's participation in and connection to nature's cycles of birth, death, and renewal." Speaking in a similar vein about natural "connection" in Self-Interviews, Dickey paraphrases Lawrence's statement to the effect that "as a result of our science and industrialization, we have lost the cosmos. The parts of the universe we can investigate by means of machinery and scientific empirical techniques we may understand better than our predecessors did, but we no longer know the universe emotionally." Dickey's poetic answer to technological alienation characterized by "The vast, sluggish forces of habit, mechanization and mental torpor" is to build a universe populated not only by what he has called, in an article so titled, "The Energized Man," but, in this poem, what we may call the "Energized Woman." She is, among other things, a poetic adversary of contemporary commercialism. The Energized Woman is someone whose mind is "not used simply to sell neckties or industrial machines or to make cocktail conversation, but to serve as the vital center of a moving and changing, perceiving and evaluating world which … is that world of delivery from drift and inconsequence." She does not dwell in an earth filled with the deadening rhetoric of advertising; Dickey even parodies advertising slogans: when "opening the natural wings of [her] jacket / By Don Loper," the stewardess shifts in the same poetic line from the world of fashion to the primitive world of movement "like a hunting owl toward the glitter of water" (italics in original). Rather, the Energized Woman lives in a world filled with the dynamic energy of "mana," which is, in Jane Harrison's description, "a world of unseen power lying behind the visible universe, a world which is the sphere … of magical activity and the medium of mysticism."
Commenting on the Iroquois myth, Joseph Campbell sheds further light on Dickey's energized "Sky Woman" and this magical, mystical power she possesses. The Woman Who Fell from the Sky is, Campbell says, "a North American example of … a universally recognized, early planting-culture mythology, wherein by analogy with the seeded earth, the creative and motivating force (sakti) of the world illusion (maya) was envisioned, and in fact experienced, as female (devï)." The Sky Woman is an "avatar from the Sky World to this earth, bearing in her womb the gift of a race of human beings, heavenly endowed to join in mutual regard the supportive animal population already present." She is also a Neolithic great moon goddess or moon-messenger. Gimbutas notes that the moon goddess was "essentially a Goddess of Regeneration,… product of a … matrilinear community…. [She] was giver of life and all that promotes fertility…." Lamenting the fact that "[t]here's no moon goddess now," Dickey once stated that, from a scientific point of view, the moon is "simply a dead stone, a great ruined stone in the sky." And so it is, at the opening of "Falling," that "[t]he states" are "drawing moonlight out of the great / One-sided stone hung off the starboard wingtip." As the stewardess acquires momentum, however, the ancient mythological connection between the moon and water comes magically alive, for the moon is transformed into "The harvest moon," "racing slowly / Through all the curves of a river" and into "a great stone of light in waiting waters." This all takes place beneath and above a moon-bride who falls from "The heavenly rapture of experienced non-duality…. [T]he woman's fall is at once a death (to the sky) and a birth (to this earth)."
Second Analogy: Mistress of All Desires and Joys; Or, Goddess Unchained
The role of the stewardess as Sky Woman continues throughout her fall, but at line 94, her "shining / New Powers" take on an even greater scope. Dickey provides a clue to this stage of change in Self-Interviews when he says that he tried "To think of the mystical possibility there might be for farmers in that vicinity." Not only farmers, we might add, but all who feel the influence of the moon goddess are drawn, as
under her under chenille bedspreads
The farm girls are feeling the goddess in them struggle and rise brooding
On the scratch-shining posts of the bed dreaming of female signs
Of the moon male blood like iron of what is really said by the moan
Of airliners passing over them at dead of midwest midnight passing
Over brush fires burning out in silence on little hills and will wake
To see the woman they should be struggling on the rooftree to become
At this passage, the stewardess acquires a pervasive sexual power that animates sexual instinct in all those, women and men, who fall within her range. This power accelerates in the following lines when, defiantly, "To die / Beyond explanation," the stewardess rids herself of the restrictive trappings of her airline uniform, "The girdle required by regulations," and "The long windsocks of her stockings." She is now Goddess unchained, and her flight is "superhuman" because her mystical, sexual power is even more comprehensive. She is
desired by every sleeper in his dream:
Boys finding for the first time their loins filled with heart's blood
Widowed farmers whose hands float under light covers to find themselves
Arisen at sunrise the splendid position of blood unearthly drawn
Toward clouds all feel something pass over them as she passes
Her palms over her long legs her small breasts and deeply between
(italics in original)
From lines 94 to 141 (just before she enters the ground and becomes the earth's creative force), the stewardess's procreative powers lead to a stage of empowerment at which we may call her the "Mistress of All Desires and Joys" or the "Great Maya." Speaking of the Buddhist "mother-goddess or earth-mother" who "signifies the triumph of the feminine principle over the masculine," Heinrich Zimmer says,
The goddess, who "consists of all the beings and worlds" is herself the pregnant salt womb of the life sea, holding all forms of life in her embrace and nourishing them; she herself casts them adrift in the sea and gives them over to decay, and in all innocence rebuilds them into forms forever new….
She is the agreeable side of the hideous Indian goddess Kali, who after she drinks blood, changes faces and becomes "The world mother"; she bestows "existence upon new living forms in a process of unceasing procreation." In "Hinduism," Zimmer says, "The male looks upon all womanhood … as the self-revelation of the goddess in the world of appearances." And "in the secret orgiastic ritual of the Tantras, reserved to the initiate, the erotic sacrament of the sexes stands above the enjoyment of meat and drink as the supreme intoxicant by which men can attain redemption in their lifetime." She has a "magic power, which fulfills and hallows, is embodied in everything feminine…. [A]ll [women] have a shimmer of superhuman dignity, as vessel and symbol of the supreme natural force (sakti) of the mother-goddess, to whom all things owe their existence."
Terms such as "The supreme intoxicant" and "orgiastic ritual" lead to further considerations about the erotic aspect of Dickey's poetic method. This method centers on an intoxicating, dreamlike ecstasy signaled early in the poem as the stewardess falls "with the delaying, dumfounding ease / Of a dream of being drawn / like endless moonlight to the harvest soil / Of a central state of one's country." Both nightmare and adrenaline rush, these dream-states run throughout "Falling," suggesting [Friedrich] Nietzsche's Dionysian and Apollonian forces upon which art depends, "as procreation is dependent on the duality of the sexes, involving perpetual conflicts with only periodically intervening reconciliations." Insofar as Monroe Spears notes in Dionysus and the City that Dickey's poetry is at its best when "basic Dionysian preoccupations … operate in proper balance with the Apollonian elements," we would do well to take a moment to see how these two Nietzschean opposites—in "balance" and "perpetual conflict"—operate in "Falling."
The Apollonian or dream component of the poem can be found in the fantastic stream of explosive celestial images that flow about the stewardess as she falls and in the Olympian point of view from which she has a godlike scope of vision. Nietzsche claims that such dreamstates conduce to extraordinary modes of holistic consciousness, a philosophic topic that runs throughout Dickey's poetry and is incorporated in two oxymorons at the end of the elegiac "The Eagle's Mile," where we find Justice William O. Douglas's "death drawing life / From growth / from flow" so that, in the poem's last line, he may "Splinter uncontrollably whole." Of this kind of ecstatic dream vision, Nietzsche says:
In dreams, according to the conception of Lucretius, the glorious divine figures first appeared to the souls of men, in dreams the great shaper beheld the charming corporeal structure of superhuman beings…. [F]or Apollo, as the god of all shaping energies, is also the sooth saying god…. The higher truth, the perfection of [the inner world of fantasies] … in contrast to the only partially intelligible everyday world, ay, the deep consciousness of nature, healing and helping in sleep and dream, is at the same time the symbolical analogue of the faculty of soothsaying and, in general, of the arts, through which life is made possible and worth living.
In Dickey's poem, what is prophetic (and "healing") about the stewardess's visioning powers is not that she attains a truth that can be put in the form of an oracle or conceptual proposition but, rather, that the panoramic faculty of her eye and its streaming "openness"—that of Apollo, Nietzsche's "sculptor-god"—resultin her "accessibility" to the Dionysian powers of the "more than human," to "metamorphosis and transfiguration." That is, though she faces certain death, the energy from her Apollonian rush of consciousness and its Dionysian content "prophesizes" (i.e., foretells and foreshadows) an ecstatic, life-affirming reversal of her fate; for, not only are "Her eyes opened wide by wind" so that she sees the earth approaching, but also she is "lying in one after another of all the positions for love / Making dancing" in a vibrant Dionysian ecstasy.
The result of yet another of Dickey's monstrous combinations of poetic "good / And evil," the stewardess's drama explodes in power by representing her Nietzschean opposites in a "perpetual conflict" that produces a stunning kind of frenzy (or ecstasy). The dramatic method involved here is, as Nietzsche says, "The Apollonian embodiment of Dionysian perceptions and influences," which produces "enchantment" as a kind of reverse irony. Instead of the audience distancing itself from the central action by knowing more than the performing character, the end of this ironic frenzy is
to see one's self transformed before one's self and then to act as if one had really entered into another body, into another character…. [H]ere we actually have a surrender of the individual by his entering into another nature…. In this enchantment the Dionysian reveller sees himself as a satyr, and as satyr he in turn beholds the god…. [In] his transformation he sees a new vision outside him as the Apollonian consummation of his state. With this new vision the drama is complete.
The stewardess becomes a goddess—as does the reader, participating emotionally with her—precisely through this Dionysian state of intoxicating new vision, itself a delirious peripety. Her frenzy is a "rapturous transport," a "narcotic potion," which, like certain varieties of mysticism, erases "all sense of individuality in self-forgetfulness," or, we might add, like a mystical transport that produces movement transfiguring the vulnerable self into a greater power, when, for example, one feels the sensation of being intoxicated by speed:
She is watching her country lose its evoked master shape watching it lose
And gain get back its houses and peoples watching it bring up
Its local lights single homes lamps on barn roofs if she fell
Into water she might live like a diver cleaving perfect plunge
Into another heavy silver unbreathable slowing saving
Dickey's technical virtuosity in "Falling," as seen in the long, Whitmanesque lines punctuated by caesura, his terraces of spectacularly ascending rhythm, his striking image groups conveying the impression of a free fall, produce in the reader the sensation that his Dionysian deity of motion, like Nietzsche's, is "on the point of taking a dancing flight into the air." Nietzsche continues: "His gestures bespeak enchantment…. [S]omething supernatural sounds forth from him: he feels himself a god." Of such frenzy, the German philosopher writes:
The essential thing in all intoxication is the feeling of heightened power and fullness. With this feeling one … compels [things] to receive what one has to give….
One enriches everything out of one's own fullness: whatever one sees, whatever one wills, is seen swelled, taut, strong, overloaded with strength. The individual in this state transforms things until they mirror his power—until they are reflections of his perfection.
The frenzy in "Falling" is not simple escapism; it is entrance into an archetypal mode of motion that features the cycle of desire and death (Eros and Thanatos) but transcends death by participating fully in this eternal cycle. Whereas Dickey's stewardess-goddess fills boys' "loins with heart's blood," she will also soon become part of "The loam where extinction slumbers in corn tassels thickly." This concept of life-in-death fits Nietzsche's conception of the "orgiastic," which underscores the fabulous life-affirming impulse of the stewardess even in the face of her own death:
[T]he orgiastic [is] an overflowing feeling of life and strength, where even pain still has the effect of a stimulus…. Tragedy is … [the] repudiation and counter-instance [of pessimism]. Saying Yes to life, even in its strangest and hardest problems, the will to life rejoicing over its own inexhaustibility even in the very sacrifice of its highest types—that is what I called Dionysian…. [One does not experience tragedy] to be liberated from terror and pity, not in order to purge oneself of a dangerous affect by its vehement discharge—Aristotle understood it that way—but in order to be oneself the eternal joy of becoming,… that joy which included even joy in destroying…. Herewith I again stand on the soil out of which my intention … grows—I, the teacher of eternal recurrence.
In "Falling," this Yea-saying Dionysian power features a matriarchal component that is reflected in Nietzsche's own metaphor; he claims that this is a world in which "nature speaks to us with its true undissembled voice: 'Be as I am! Amidst the ceaseless change of phenomena the eternally creative primordial mother, eternally impelling to existence, self-satisfying eternally with this change of phenomena!'"
This orgiastic power is not the power of domination or control. Rather, it is what Herbert Marcuse calls an erotic stance that reconciles Eros and Thanatos in "a world that is not to be mastered and controlled but to be liberated." In such a realm, the "opposition between man and nature, subject and object, is overcome. Being is experienced as gratification." The stewardess's shedding of her clothes is, thus, an enabling ritual or dance, designed to affirm a social "order without repression" and to amplify her basic bodily powers, as Dickey says, in a "last superhuman act" that defies the death of the body and expresses what Marcuse calls "a non-repressive erotic attitude toward reality." Instead of the functionary of a commercial airline, the stewardess is, in Marcusian terms, "[n]o longer used as a full-time instrument of labor," for her body is "resexualized" such that "Eros, freed from surplus-repression, would be strengthened" and "[d]eath would cease to be an instinctual goal." This transforming dance and ecstatic vision of sexuality are not limited to gender. Dionysian rapture as a sexual mode of holistic motion transcending death also attracted Theodore Roethke, who reveals this account in his notebooks:
… I got into this real strange state. I got in the woods and started a circular kind of dance…. I kept going around and just shedding clothes. Sounds Freudian as hell, but in the end, I had a sort of circle—as if, I think, I understood intuitively what the frenzy is. That is, you go way beyond yourself, and … this is not sheer exhaustion but this strange sort of a … not illumination … but a sense of being again a part of the whole universe. I mean, anything but quiet. I mean, in a sense everything is symbolical…. [I]t was one of the deepest and [most] profound experiences I ever had. And accompanying it was a real sexual excitement also … and this tremendous feeling of actual power….
The real point is that this business of the dance accompanies exaltation of the highest, the human thing, and it also goes into the Dionysian frenzy, which in modern life hardly anyone even speaks of anymore…. [W]hen Vaughan says, "When felt through all my fleshy dress, / Ripe shoots of everlastingness," well, that's the feeling. You feel … that you are eternal, or immortal…. [F]urthermore, death becomes … an absurdity, of no consequence.
That Dickey should feature this kind of movement in "Falling" comes as no surprise, for the "Delphic trance" and "world of perpetual genesis" are aspects of Roethke's poetic vision that Dickey has long admired.
Third Analogy: Maize Stalk Drinking Blood
It is precisely these Nietzschean opposites in orgiastic combination—joy and destruction, tragedy and inexhaustibility, power and pain—in "Falling" that lead to our third analogy. The stewardess's flight ends abruptly when she enters the earth with a tremendous impact, which Dickey does not show, but represents symbolically with pronouns, "This is it THIS," and which is all the more powerful and tragic for that indirect symbolization. At first glance, this moment exhibits a cataclysmic reversal of the life-force of her flight, for immediately after she lands, she is, terrifyingly
In the soft loam gone down driven well into the image of her body
The furrows for miles flowing in upon her where she lies very deep
In her mortal outline in the earth as it is in cloud
She continues to live for a time after the impact; at the end of the poem, some thirty lines later, her last words are given in capitals: "AH, GOD—." Though she dies, this final poetic space, approximately one-sixth of the entire lyric, exhibits her full goddesslike nature and power in a way more compelling even than her fall. It bears repeating that Dickey does not dwell here on a mutilated woman. It is not her death that is his focus but a circle (or cycle) much wider in scope. In addition to our natural compassion for her death, our feeling for her issues from a deeper recognition of the universal in Dickey's dramatization of the intermingling forces of life and death. For those who find her, the poet says,
can tell nothing
But that she is there inexplicable unquestionable and remember
That something broke in them as well and began to live and die more
When they walked for no reason into their fields to where the whole earth
At this point, this contemporary airline stewardess bears comparison to the great Mesoamerican mother of the gods, Maize Stalk Drinking Blood. In a painting from the Codex Borgia, Mexico (c. AD 1500), called "The Tree of the Middle Place," these striking images occur:
Rising from the body of an earth goddess recumbent on the spines of the … alligator … of the abyss, the Tree, encircled by the World Sea, is surmounted by a quetzal bird of bright plummage. Two streams of blood pour into the goddess, and from her body rise two ears of maize, a yellow and a red…. Personifying the fertile earth, this goddess of life out of death is normally identified by a skull or skeletal jaw…. She is known as the Maize Stalk Drinking Blood…. As noticed by Jill Leslie Furst, treating this goddess in a monograph entitled The Skull as Fertility Symbol: "The … skeletal remains were … regarded as the seat of the essential life force and the metaphorical seed from which the individual, whether human, animal, or plant, is reborn…."
This voracious image of death points to a different aspect of the stewardess and of Great Goddesses in many cultures, namely, their terrible power of destruction. As Erich Neumann says,
The Great Mother as Terrible Goddess of the earth and of death is herself the earth, in which things rot. The Earth Goddess is "The devourer of the dead bodies of mankind" and the "mistress and lady of the tomb." Like Gaea, the Greek Earth Mother, she is mistress of the vessel and at the same time the great underworld vessel itself, into which dead souls enter, and out of which they fly up again.
The power of this goddess, also called the "Terrible Mother," is double-edged, suggesting not only death and destruction but also new life, for out of the body of Maize Stalk grow two ears of corn, signs of regeneration and rebirth. Discussing the story of Demeter and Persephone in the Greek festival Thesmophoria, Joseph Campbell emphasizes this redemptive power in the Great Goddess when he notes that in certain primitive Indonesian cycles
goddesses [are] identified with the local food plants,… the underworld, and the moon, whose rites insure both a growth of the plants and a passage of the soul to the land of the dead. In both the marriage of the maiden goddess … is equivalent to her death, which is imaged as a descent into the earth and is followed, after a time, by her metamorphosis into food….
These redemptive and sexual powers constitute one phase of the cycle of life and death through which humankind passes. Dickey's Goddess is Mother Earth giving birth and death to herself, for the goddess of sex is the goddess of death. Campbell notes that "The death god, Ghede, of the Haitian Voodoo tradition, is also the sex god. The Egyptian god Osiris was the judge and lord of the dead, and the lord of the regeneration of life." And, commenting on the "primitive-village mythology" of certain New Guinea tribes that include the "death-feast" of a "divine maiden" who died by sinking "into the earth among the roots of a tree" to rise later in the sky as the moon, he discusses this dialectical pairing of sex and death:
[T]he plants on which man lives derive from this death. The world lives on death…. Reproduction without death would be a calamity, as would death without reproduction…. [T]he interdependence of death and sex, their import as the complementary aspects of a single state of being, and the necessity of … killing and eating …—this deeply moving, emotionally disturbing glimpse of death as the life of the living is the fundamental motivation supporting the rites around which the social structure of the early planting villages was composed.
A considerably less violent figure than the goddess in "The Tree of the Middle Place" or the New Guinean moon-maiden, Dickey's stewardess nonetheless enters the earth in a way suggesting that she gives birth to a similar cycle of generation and decay and that her death is not, merely, the termination of a single, discontinuous individual:
All the known air above her is not giving up quite one
Breath it is all gone and yet not dead not anywhere else
Quite lying still in the field on her back sensing the smells
Of incessant growth try to lift her
By accretions of these cyclic moments of death-in-life, Dickey often builds his poems out of magical circles, poetic "mandalas" (Sanskrit for "circle"); "Falling" also suggests the transference (and continuance) of the stewardess's fertile powers in the comic totems of "her clothes" which, magically, are "beginning / To come down all over Kansas": "her blouse on a lightning rod" and "her girdle coming down fantastically / On a clothesline, where it belongs." Further proof that her "all-sustaining, all-nourishing" sexual power continues is that it is felt sympathetically in the lives and in the fields of local farmers who perpetuate and participate in her extraordinary energy when the erotic dream sequence impels them to
Their women from houses a walk like falling toward the far waters
Of life in moonlight toward the dreamed eternal meaning of their farms
Toward the flowering of the harvest in their hands
When "Falling" is read aloud, the poem's cumulative energy is so overwhelming by the end of the performance that—although the death of the stewardess is a necessary, realistic outcome of her accident—her death has in it the feeling of a beginning. This beginning resembles the tremendous burgeoning that Kenneth Burke sees as the "frantic urgency of growth" in Theodore Roethke's "greenhouse poems," where "Nothing would give up life: / Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath." What truly animates Dickey's earth is the stewardess's cyclone of energy that is magically transferred to the ground she enters. Rather than a death, her impregnation of the land is the beginning of a new cycle of growth and decay. At poem's end, this cycle has been put in full motion by the poet. The reader's or listener's poetic experience of the stewardess's death is not a sense of cessation but of transformation. Just as the form of the poem is the reversal of the journalistic narrative that begins the action by announcing the airplane accident, the stewardess is never more alive than when she dies into her new life. Yet one more variation on Dickey's favorite topic of poetic motion, the stewardess's death is, as Campbell notes about ritual love-death, a "fresh enactment, here and now" of a "god's own sacrifice … through which … she … became incarnate in the world process"; she is a constant reminder to us that "sudden, monstrous death" is a "revelation of the … inhumanity of the order of the universe." Yet we are also reminded, as Zimmer says of the plague goddesses of southern India, that "[t]o see the twofold, embracing and devouring, nature of the goddess, to see repose in catastrophe, security in decay, is to know her and be saved."
Social and Political Ends of "Falling"
Because it involves an erotic component and the death of a woman, "Falling" has received a considerable amount of negative commentary. By way of completing an inquiry into the form, genre, and value of this poem, we may use the preceding analysis to address a number of statements about this poem and Dickey himself. Some of these statements assess not only "Falling" negatively but also Dickey's work in general.
First, there are the charges of sexual perversion and insensitivity to women. In Thinking About Women, Mary Ellmann states that Dickey's depiction of women is "unnerving":
James Dickey's poem "Falling" expresses an extraordinary concern with the underwear of a woman who has fallen out of an airplane. While this woman, a stewardess, was in the airplane, her girdle obscured, to the observation of even the most alert passenger, her mesial groove. The effect was, as the poem recalls, "monobuttocked." As the woman falls, however, she undresses and "passes her palms" over her legs, her breasts, and "deeply between her thighs." Beneath her, "widowed farmers" are soon to wake with futile (and irrelevant?) erections. She lands on her back in a field, naked, and dies. The sensation of the poem is necrophilic: it mourns a vagina rather than a person crashing to the ground.
Ellmann's charge that Dickey is victimizing women requires some time to sort out. With regard to her claim that Dickey shows an "extraordinary concern with the underwear of a woman," there is little "concern" about underwear that is "extraordinary" at all in "Falling." The stewardess's under-wear, mentioned only twice in a poem of more than 175 lines and even then quite briefly, with no detailed description of the garments or lingering preoccupation whatsoever, emphasizes the transformation of a rigidly and commercially clothed woman who is nonetheless a goddess. In the first instance where "The underwear of a woman" appears, it is mentioned briefly in four lines and is part of the stream of clothes shed by the stewardess not to titillate men but to animate the earth sexually as part of her ritual defiance of mortality so that she may "die / Beyond explanation." When the underwear is mentioned, it is treated comically: "absurd / Brassiere" and "The girdle required by regulations." In the poem's second reference to underwear, it appears in one line only and, once again, in a comic context, with the stewardess's girdle described as "coming down fantastically / On a clothesline, where it belongs."
Second, Ellmann's claim that the stewardess is "monobuttocked" misses the point. The passenger's view of her "monobuttocked" condition is never mentioned in the poem. We scarcely see the stewardess in the plane; she falls out at line 7, and there is not the slightest hint of her being "monobuttocked" until 118 lines later, when the girdle is "squirming / Off her." Rather than stressing the girdle's "obscur[ing], to the observation of even the most alert passenger, her mesial groove," the poem emphasizes the stewardess's act of removing the girdle and revealing herself as goddess. The poem says that the stewardess is "no longer monobuttocked" (italics mine). The poem does not "recall" the view that Ellmann derides; instead, the poem describes the stewardess's liberation from the unnaturally confining, "monobuttocked" condition.
Third, Ellmann offers a brief comment on the stewardess's running her hands over her naked body (while farmers below her have "futile" and "irrelevant" erections) then dying in a field when she lands. Based on this excerpted narrative, Ellmann makes the most astounding claim that "[t]he sensation of the poem is necrophilic; it mourns a vagina rather than a person crashing to the ground." As reductive an example of critical paraphrase as one is likely to find, Ellmann's summary, which most certainly does not conform to Dickey's poem, is the only evidence for her bizarre charge. Ellmann's rewriting of Dickey turns "Falling" into a narrative of punitive reparation for the stewardess's sexuality, independence, and strength, a narrative whose tendency runs totally opposite to the poem's true course; her paraphrase does not admit of the tremendous energy of the poem or the fabulous series of powers that the stewardess acquires. The key point Ellmann misses is, as noted earlier, that Dickey's poem reverses the tragic journalistic narrative (which begins the poem) by converting a mortal stewardess into an earth goddess who lives and dies in the perpetual, natural alternation of generation and decay. Ellmann's omission of the poem's subtext that reverses the "journalistic" text is a disastrous misreading that turns a goddess into an inanimate corpse. To say that the poem "mourns a vagina"—only one four-word phrase in the work, "deeply between her thighs," even remotely mentions this anatomical area—is perverse and preposterous.
Instead of mourning a dynamic woman unfairly reduced to a body part, we do better to conclude with questions centering on the social and political values of Dickey's poem and to address these issues with the ideas of four strong, intelligent women. Does "Falling" challenge our traditional conceptions of divinity as masculine, inherited from a Judeo-Christian religious history? What implications does the metamorphosis of a woman into an earth goddess such as one finds described in so-called "primitive" cultures have for a contemporary Western audience? What does the poem, as an enabling, matriarchal, creation myth with its distinctive conception of nature, say politically to both women and men? And, finally, does Dickey's mythological conception of woman impose any limit on feminine power?
First, with regard to conceptions of divinity as masculine, Carol Christ thinks that the idea of goddesses is revolutionary. Goddesses "are about female power…. This power is so threatening to the status quo that the word Goddess still remains unspeakable even to many of the most radical Christian and Jewish theologians." Joseph Campbell has a similar notion about this traditional image of female power: "There can be no doubt that in the very earliest ages of human history the magical force and wonder of the female was no less a marvel than the universe itself; and this gave to woman a prodigious power, which it has been one of the chief concerns of the masculine part of the population to break, control, and employ to its own ends." That Dickey's matriarchal creation myth in "Falling" is literally a revolution—a reversal or turning around—of our Western biblical tradition of Genesis and its concept of woman can be buttressed by further testimony from Campbell's comments on the Iroquois tale of the Woman Who Fell from the Sky:
The … episode … of the flight of ducks ascending to ease the woman's fall; the earth divers in willing sacrifice of their lives preparing hastily a place upon which to receive her; Great Turtle becoming, also willingly, the supporting ground of a new earth, upon which … a new arrival from the sphere of Air, would rest … while the new earth took form around her … represents a point of view with respect to the relationship of man to nature, and of the creatures of nature to man, that is in striking contrast to that defined in Genesis 3:14-19, where man is cursed, woman is cursed, the serpent is cursed, and the earth is cursed to "bring forth thorns and thistles."… [T]he basic and sustaining sense of the relationship to mankind of the natural world and its creatures in this Native American origin myth, is of compassion, harmony, and cooperation.
Using language from Christine Froula's article "When Eve Reads Milton," we may say that Dickey's goddess is the opposite of Adam's God, "who is a perfected image of Adam: an all-powerful male creator who soothes Adam's fears of female power by Himself claiming credit for the original creation of the world."
The second question centers on current implications of the stewardess's divinity. Summarizing Rita Gross's article "Hindu Female Deities as a Resource for the Contemporary Rediscovery of the Goddess," Christ indicates five lessons that "The symbol of the Goddess" from "ancient mythologies" can "Teach modern Westerners." Analogues to these points can be found in our analysis of "Falling":
First, the Goddess's obvious strength, capability, and transcendence validate the power of women as women that has been denied in Western religion and culture. Second, Goddess symbolism involves the coincidence of opposites—of death and life, destruction and creativity—that reminds humans of the finitude of life and points to its transcendent ground. Third, Goddess religion values motherhood as symbolic of divine creativity, but without limiting female power to biological destiny. Fourth, Goddess symbolism also associates women with a wide range of culturally valued phenomena, including wealth, prosperity, culture, artful living, and spiritual teaching. Fifth, the Goddess requires the explicit reintroduction of sexuality as a religious metaphor in a symbol system where God is imaged as both male and female.
Also addressing the meaning of a primitive goddess for a Western audience, Christ lists four reasons "Why Women Need the Goddess" (one of her chapters is so titled) that may serve us as descriptions of the social ends effected by the enabling, mythic drama in "Falling":
First, the Goddess is symbol of the legitimacy and beneficence of female power in contrast to the image of female power as anomalous or evil in biblical religion. Second, the Goddess validates women's bodily experiences, including menstruation, birth, lactation, and menopause, and validates the human connection to finitude, which has been denigrated in Western religions. Third, the Goddess symbol in the context of feminist goddess worship values the female will, which has been viewed as the origin of evil in biblical mythology. Fourth, the goddess points to the valuing of woman-to-woman bonds[,]… which is celebrated in the story of Demeter and Persephone…. The symbol of Goddess … legitimates and undergirds the moods and motivations inspired by feminism just as the symbol of God has legitimated patriarchal attitudes for several thousand years.
Third, speaking of "The ritual poem in feminist spiritual circles," Alicia Ostriker offers a suggestive conception of "ritual" that articulates the kind of potential political effects we sense in Dickey's ritualized form:
For poet and reader-participant alike, ritual poetry implies the possibility of healing alternatives to dominance-submission scenarios. It suggests nonoppressive models of the conjunction between religion and politics, usually by re-imaging the sacred as immanent rather than transcendent, by defining its audience as members of a potentially strong community rather than as helplessly lonely individual victims, and by turning to nature (seen as sacred and female) as a source of power rather than passivity.
Finally, to those who argue that Dickey's treatment of the Great Goddess confines female power to maternity, we counterargue by offering a summarizing definition of the stewardess in terms of the active powers she employs. Ranging from emotional to athletic to perceptual, these capacities far exceed nourishing or bearing only. Her dramatic character may be briefly outlined in a series of gerunds that disclose the plot of her transformation from that of victim to Energized Woman: falling out of the plane; blacking out; screaming; despairing; developing interest in her fall; dreaming; slanting; tumbling; diving; flying, seeing, and tasting like a bird; controlling her fall; arranging her skirt like a bat and thus changing the shape of her fall; energizing and watching the earth magically grow below; being born out of "chaos"; planing superhumanly; using her fall; feeling the Goddess in her and other women emerge; affirming her fate; shedding her clothes "To die / Beyond explanation"; sexually animating herself and those below; landing; living into her dying; breathing "at last fully / … AH, GOD—"; and, finally, dying into a new round of living. In "Falling" Dickey's Energized Woman, like his "Energized Man," acquires, in his own words about the power of poetry, "an enormous increase in perceptiveness, an increased ability to understand and interpret the order of one's experience … bringing only the best of oneself: one's sharpest perceptions, one's best mind, one's most hilarious and delighted and tragic senses." Exchanging electrifying traits of goddesses from a plurality of cultures and religious traditions, "Falling" is James Dickey's exhilarating, mythopoeic celebration of tragedy transformed into delight and ecstasy, with a woman at the center of creation.
Greg Johnson (review date 19 September 1993)
SOURCE: "A Walk on the Dark Side," in Chicago Tribune, September 19, 1993, p. 5.
[In the following review, Johnson asserts that Dickey's To the White Sea "is less ambitious and in some ways less accomplished than his previous novels."]
Only a handful of writers have managed to excel at both poetry and the novel. The fiction of major poets—Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, for example—is often simply an autobiographical coda to their collected poems; and while such tireless novelists as John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates write an abundant quantity of poetry as well, the results are decidedly minor, at least when compared to their most important achievements in fiction.
Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence and Robert Penn Warren are among the select group of writers who have produced, in both forms, undeniably first-rate work, and to this short list many critics would add the name of James Dickey. Long acknowledged as one of our finest contemporary poets, with Deliverance Dickey produced one of the most celebrated novels of its decade. Although his hefty second novel, Alnilam, garnered a mixed response, its ambitious scope and often dazzling use of language furthered his reputation as a novelist of considerable powers.
Dickey's new work of fiction, To the White Sea, probably will not harm that reputation, though it is less ambitious and in some ways less accomplished than his previous novels. The first-person account of an U.S. Army Air Force gunner forced to parachute into Japan during World War II, this book has the structure and pacing of an extended short story. It features a relatively meager plot, virtually no dialogue and a technique that depends largely on such poetic devices as symbolism and tone rather than the more prosaic conventions of narrative fiction.
To the White Sea does, however, have its antecedents in the novel form. The story of one man confronting an alien environment, it occasionally recalls such epics of survival as [Daniel] Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. Dickey's story, however, lacks the human element provided in that novel by the appearance of Friday; here the focus is almost exclusively on the hero, Muldrow, who gradually becomes one with his increasingly primitive surroundings.
Muldrow is an intriguing character, though few readers will find him sympathetic. Unreflective, wholly self-centered, he undertakes a violent journey out of war-ravaged Tokyo and toward Japan's northern wilderness. Along the way, he commits a series of killings: A woman who recognizes his nationality is quickly knifed to death; he shoots one man for his clothes, stabs another for his shoes.
Proceeding northward, Muldrow becomes a human chameleon: "If I took my time—and I had plenty of it—I should be able to fit the color of some of my situations—hillsides, fields, woods—and tune to them: tune myself to them by color."
But as he relishes the sensation of becoming one with nature, human beings keep getting in the way. Soon after he enters a populated valley, an old woman sees him: "I had the knife through her before she could even blink, and then pulled it out and put it through her again."
Dickey makes clear that Muldrow's conscience, his sense of human compassion, is not merely suspended because of the exigencies of war and survival; rather, he seems from the beginning a man without pity, a natural predator who has always been myopically focused on gratifying his own needs.
Even for an American male in the 1940s, Muldrow is notably sexist and racist. He recalls his American girlfriend, "a college girl from Kansas…. She was a good enough girl in some ways, strong and smart, with calves like a couple of kegs." As for the Japanese, they "love machinery, and they try their damnedest to be like white people, especially Americans. If it weren't for us they wouldn't have any factories, any cars, much less any airplanes."
Dickey's hero, and occasionally even his prose style, is clearly derived from Hemingway. Muldrow's identification with primitive nature comes directly out of Hemingway's Nick Adams stories, and his clashes with other people recall the self-centered, ironic posturing of other Hemingway heroes.
What is original in To the White Sea, however, is the intimate identification with natural creatures, a theme that often marks Dickey's poetry as well. Thus Muldrow's admiration for the fish he catches and eats along the way:
A fish's eye cuts things into clean outlines and then lets them go back to being dim when he's through with them, when he goes on past. And there's always the feeling of slotting through, but you never touch the sides of the slot. As I say, there are a lot of good things about it, but hard to talk about.
The farther Muldrow progresses into the wilderness, the more his experiences seem a pleasure rather than a hardship. At one point he realizes he is "having fun": "There was no friend anywhere, only thousands of people who wanted to cut off my head, castrate me, do anything they could to me. But fun it was, anyway." He looks forward to his final trek up into the rugged mountain country "like I was going on a vacation."
Eventually the reader loses count of the people, mostly civilians, whom Muldrow runs through with his knife; he is no more bothered by these killings than are the predatory fisher martens and other wild creatures he admires so much in the Japanese wilderness. And unlike Crusoe, he never feels any longing for human companionship. Instead, he relishes his increasing primitivism ("Don't let anybody ever tell you blood is not good to drink").
Muldrow's final surge into the wilderness gives the poet in Dickey an opportunity for some climactic, apocalyptic passages of searing beauty. By the time it concludes, however, To the White Sea has ceased to be a novel, just as Muldrow is no longer a "character." The book has become a prose poem, celebrating the darker side of man in nature, with Muldrow as its disembodied lyric voice.
Any reader approaching To the White Sea in the hope of finding a traditional war story or an adventure novel will be sharply disappointed. But the book will surely please admirers of Dickey's poetry and of his harsh, unsettling vision of natural savagery.
Richard Wiley (review date 19 September 1993)
SOURCE: "The Fittest Survive, but Fit for What?" in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 19, 1993, pp. 2, 8.
[In the following review, Wiley discusses the main theme of Dickey's To the White Sea.]
James Dickey makes novels out of ideas. In Deliverance, 23 years ago, the idea was to take four men, each representing various degrees of self-reliance, and see what happens to them when, during a canoe trip down a wild river, the laws of civilization break down. As it turned out, the toughest of those men, a character named Lewis who must have had a bomb shelter full of weapons and canned goods in his back yard, was the prototype for Sgt. Muldrow, the narrative voice driving James Dickey's new novel, To the White Sea.
As this new work opens it is early March of 1945, and Muldrow, a tail gunner, is preparing for one of the last missions over Tokyo before the great fire bombings that preceded the end of the war. Muldrow is a man of precise preparations, attention to every detail. He shaves before each mission so that his oxygen mask will fit more tightly on his face, he secures his survival kit to his abdomen under his uniform, he conceals a bread knife down by his boot and he tapes one of the crew's parachutes to the inside wall of the airplane. It is because of this last preparation that Muldrow survives.
Almost as soon as the mission begins his plane is shot out of the air, unsecured parachutes and unprepared men fly out into the night, and while the plane is twirling through the air, Muldrow rips the one remaining chute from the fuselage, bullies himself into it, and floats down into wartime Tokyo unseen, where his parachute hangs up on a dockyard crane. The ongoing bombing allows Muldrow to get down off the crane and find a sewer in which to hide. He tells us, "The smell put my eyes out, I mean it hit my eyeballs like the worst light … but it was a hole and I could go into it if I wanted to. I took another match and lit it, though I knew that sewers could blow up. That would be something, I told myself…."
Since Muldrow was raised on the slopes of the Brooks Range in Alaska and knows how to survive in freezing weather, he decides that he will make his way from Tokyo all the way up to Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, where, if he can find similar terrain to that of the Brooks Range, namely ice and snow, he knows he will be safe.
What a fine beginning this book has! It is exciting and precisely written. Lucky for Muldrow the fire bombing starts almost immediately after his descent, so he is able to take advantage of the wild confusion to begin his run. And his sense of observation is as detailed as his preparation had been. He notices that the Japanese walk bent over with their eyes on the ground so he blackens his face with ash from a burning wall and walks the same way. He is so wily and his senses are so well-tuned, in fact, that just watching him get out of Tokyo makes us understand that even Lewis from Deliverance would be dead in the first half-hour or so.
It is when the killing starts that Dickey shows us that this is no mere adventure novel. It is not about one man's escape from the land of his enemies, but is a kind of treatise on the nature of modern humankind. Muldrow kills a lot of people. He kills one man for his shoes and a couple of others for the clothing they wear. He kills a gentle man for the feathers of the swans he tends, and he battles an old blind Samurai for the food and other items that he might be able to find in the old man's house.
As the journey north progresses, however, we begin to see that the central question of the novel is not, "How will this man survive?" but "What kind of man is this who is surviving so well?" This is what Muldrow says about the rest of us: "I will tell anybody who hears me say this, look around you and be honest with yourself. For most of you fight is not in you, and never has been."
Fair enough. Most of us know that the ancient torch that illuminated the cave wall and showed us the words, survival of the fittest written there has died within us. And Dickey uses great skill to keep us off balance where the nature of Muldrow's character is concerned. Each time he kills, the killing is arguably necessary. He shows absolutely no compassion, except where animals are concerned, but he isn't gratuitously mean or overly violent either.
In one of his many dreams about the Brooks Range Muldrow says, "It was night now, another night. Snow again, a slope down to a long valley almost like a tunnel. Caribou were in it again, moving through the valley, but I was not one of them. I was on a hill with some others like me, watching them, waiting for the time to move … going down in twos and threes when the stragglers fell back, and when we knew enough."
Muldrow, then, is a wolf, a predator in Japanese clothes, and let loose in peace time, anywhere on the earth, he would surely have been a murderer, an animal with a calculating and uncompassionate mind.
When I began this book I expected that it would be about Japan, but it is not. Dickey could have set the book in a wide variety of places with the same result. And by the end of the book the questions concerning Muldrow are answered, the balance is broken—the break is right there in the story for us to find if we can—and I, at least, found myself not so much rooting for Muldrow's success, as for his failure, which would then leave room for the evolution of civilization and thus for ordinary people like me.
John Melmoth (review date 11 February 1994)
SOURCE: "A Man in the Wilderness," in Times Literary Supplement, February 11, 1994, p. 20.
[In the following review, Melmoth calls Dickey's To the White Sea "a bitterly cold novel" that "is not for those of a nervous disposition."]
To the White Sea is a bitterly cold novel that seals the outback gothic of Deliverance in a crust of permafrost. As in the earlier book, James Dickey's milieu is wilderness, his concern less with the struggle against the elements, more with the way men's relations with other men can deteriorate in extreme situations. At the same time as admiring the human capacity for survival, it takes a dim view of human nature.
As if to pre-empt its being read as another allegory about the nasty, brutish and short thing we call life, the novel's opening is clearly located in space and time: Tinian Island, March 8, 1945. Muldrow, a tail gunner in the US Air Force, preparing for a bombing raid over Tokyo, is preoccupied with his kit. It soon becomes plain that this is not going to be a standard-issue war story. Muldrow is a man alone, short on conventional emotional responses. His mother died when he was a child, his father the year before he joined up. He was raised in Alaska, on the north face of the Brooks Range, "which is away from everything". He never went to school—his father taught him to read and write, and also how to hunt. This is someone on whom civilization has made little impact: "Out on the Range … I had got where I was scared of the human voice."
Muldrow's plane is shot down, the rest of the crew killed, and he parachutes into the burning dock area, where the only place he can find to hide is in one of Tokyo's sewage outlets. The city itself scarcely exists for him, reduced as it is to the accumulated filth that flows around him. His strategy is to head north and attempt to cross to the island of Hokkaido, where the snow and ice will be familiar territory.
To the White Sea tracks Muldrow on his journey and watches impassively while he kills without compunction for the things he needs—clothes, food, shoes. The longer his flight continues, the more complex his sense of self becomes. On the one hand, nothing is allowed to stand in the way of his continued existence; yet that personal essence which he will do anything to preserve is dwindling. He becomes taken up with camouflage, with blending in, becoming nothing. At one point, he dreams of walking in the snow—"my marks were like a ghost had made them". Success, in his eyes, is to move in silence and to leave behind not a suspicion of his passing.
Muldrow may represent some kind of bleak prelapsarian innocence, but he is far from comfortable. He is obsessed with death and killing, ponders endlessly the way the light catches the edge of his knife, alternating between a kind of dull placidity and alarming surges of adrenalin. He comes to realize that "the most satisfying thing that ever happened" to him was killing a Japanese soldier by jumping on him from the roof of a truck. If he calmed down a bit, he might pass as a psychopath. He eventually makes it to the frozen spaces he has been imagining and, when not living with the forest people or tending to an old falconer, composes eulogies to life in the freezer, where the cold "threads down through your nose like steel that gives you life". Nevertheless, his "heart of ice" proves to be another heart of darkness. Things take an apocalyptic turn and end in a welter of blood and feathers.
The language of To the White Sea is poetic and highly charged. Dickey takes language as far as it will go and sometimes overdoes it, even attempting to find words for things for which, Muldrow insists, no words exist. Some of the writing has an eerie brilliance; in one remarkable scene, Muldrow slaughters and plucks a flock of terrified swans in the moonlight, then gorges on raw flesh. "I was left with the long neck in my hands and the wings down limp: all that power, and the thing so light."
Like Deliverance, To the White Sea is not for those of a nervous disposition. Muldrow is so alarming because his instincts are so diametrically opposed to anything we think of as normal; he moves away from society, warmth and domesticity, and towards solitude, cold and having to kill for a living. Ultimately the reader's response to the book is likely to be determined by whether one believes that there is something of Muldrow in all of us, or that he is an isolated phenomenon, profoundly alienated, a freak.
William G. Tapply (essay date May 1994)
SOURCE: "Because It's There: James Dickey and Deliverance," in The Armchair Detective, Vol. 27, May, 1994, pp. 342-45.
[In the following essay, Tapply argues that Dickey's Deliverance is among the great novels of American culture.]
When my friend Mike McGill gave me a book for my thirtieth birthday in 1970, he said, "Don't be put off by the fact that the author's a poet. I think you'll like it. It's got bowhunting and white-water canoeing in it." I devoured Deliverance. James Dickey's prose swept me along the way the river in the story carried the four men in canoes. It accelerated as I read, tossing and twisting and tumbling me so that I could no more put down the book than Ed and Lewis and Bobby and Drew could step out of their canoes in the rocky rapids of the Cahulawassee River in the middle of the Georgia wilderness. When it finally ended, I was exhausted. It had been quite a ride. I couldn't remember reading a more gripping, suspenseful story.
I was vaguely aware, even while reading it for the first time, that Deliverance explored the Important Themes that I had been taught in Mr. Cheever's high school English class—Man versus Nature, Man versus Man, Man versus Himself. I knew that I identified with the characters in ways that I had never connected to fictional men before. I liked the fact that Dickey's writing submerged itself in the story. From an award-winning poet I had expected extended, self-conscious figures of speech, convoluted symbols, fancy language. Instead I got a story so smoothly and clearly written that I was unaware of a writer at work.
It was a helluva book, and there it might have remained in my memory, one of those stories you hate to see end—but it finally does—and then you go looking for another one to read. Except soon afterwards Deliverance became a film. Dickey wrote the screenplay, and Burt Reynolds played Lewis in his finest performance (perhaps the only fine performance of his career), and I decided to try the book again.
Normally suspense stories don't work the second time around. After all, the essence of suspense lies in not knowing what's going to happen. Yet this time through the book, even with the movie's faithful story line fresh in my memory, I had to work against being swept along again on the story's momentum. I began to notice the themes and meanings that were woven so naturally into the plot that they had eluded me the first time through. And when I finished this second read, I did something I had never done before: I turned back to the first page and read it again.
And I decided that Deliverance deserved to be ranked with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as one of the great novels our culture has produced. It was not, I believed, simply a genre book, an "adventure" or a "novel of suspense," anymore than Huck Finn was a "young adult." It should be read and studied and admired—for the quality of its writing, for the insights it gives us into human nature, for the American themes it explores, for the absolute seamlessness of the story line.
Of all the books I have read, this is the one that makes me jealous. It's a perfect book. I wish I'd written it.
Deliverance, like Huck Finn one hundred years earlier, proves that great literature need not be "literary." At the beginning of his masterpiece, Mark Twain penned a caution: "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot." I read Huck as a kid and found it a rollicking good yarn. When I got older and reread and studied Huck, I risked the author's wrath by finding plenty of motives and morals in it.
It has always seemed to me that the morals and motives in books work best when they are so tightly entwined in the story line that we are unaware of them. But they stick with us. Most kids, with minimal prodding, can talk about what freedom meant to an abused boy and a slave, and how all of us at certain stages in our lives share Huck's and Jim's need to climb onto a raft and go floating down a river.
Go floating down a river is what the four middle-aged city men in Deliverance decide to do. All men, figuratively, long to do the same thing. Years before midlife crises became fashionable and males began to talk about "bonding," Dickey captured perfectly the angst of men at a certain age. Ed, the story's narrator, muses on his discontent:
The feeling of the inconsequence of whatever I would do, of anything I would pick up or think about or turn to see was at that moment being set in the very bone marrow. How does one get through this? I asked myself. By doing something that is at hand to be done was the best answer I could give; that and not saying anything about the feeling to anyone. It was the old mortal, helpless, time-terrified human feeling, just the same.
The canoe trip is Lewis's idea. He understands how middle-aged men can find themselves sliding through life, trying to ignore their discontent, riding a placid river toward old age and death. "Sliding is living antifriction," he tells Ed. "Or, no, sliding is living by antifriction. It is finding a modest thing you can do, and then greasing that thing. On both sides. It is grooving with comfort."
Like the Mississippi in Huck Finn, the Cahulawassee River represents a kind of freedom for the four men, a brief weekend escape from the enslavement of middle class city life, what Robert Frost called "a momentary stay against confusion." The irony in Deliverance is that the river is being dammed. Within a few years the wild valley where white water flows will be buried under a man-made reservoir. So when Lewis says they must go down the river "because it's there," he is not speaking glibly. The men must go now—while the river still flows wild—and before their lives become so "grooved with comfort" that they will be unable to get away.
The Cahulawassee, like the Mississippi in Huck, is the frontier, the "safety valve" that has left its imprint on American history and American literature. Like all frontiers, it will close. The dam—the implacable force of American civilization—will destroy the river. Man will conquer Nature.
Ed, Lewis, Drew and Bobby are not close friends. They have not "bonded." They are middle-aged men, caught up in the private, deadening sameness and high-pressure demands of their day-to-day lives. But the challenges and dangers of the river force them together—not out of comradeship, but out of necessity. "I bound myself with my brain and heart to the others," says Ed. "With them was the only way I would ever get out."
They drive from the city into the hills, leaving civilization behind, and launch their canoes. At first the river flows placidly. Occasional rapids hint at its power, and the men feel exhilarated and liberated when they conquer them. The river carries them ever deeper into the wilderness. Then a violent confrontation with two mountain men transforms the story from a white-water adventure into a life-and-death struggle. Bobby is humiliated and brutally sodomized at gunpoint, and it's clear that when the hillbillies are done with the city boys, they will murder them. Lewis stalks the mountain men as if they were deer and kills one with an arrow, while the other flees into the forest.
The four canoeists are left with the question of what to do with the dead man's body. James Dickey, like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, postulates a "state of nature," a condition without government or law. The men's dilemma forces them to consider age-old questions of right and wrong, manmade versus natural law.
Drew, who represents the voice of civilized reason, insists that they abide by man's law and "do the right thing" by bringing the body down the river with them and reporting the incident to the authorities.
"We just ought to wait a minute," replies Lewis, "before we decide to be so all-fired boy scoutish and do the right thing. There's not any right thing."
"You bet there is," says Drew. "There's only one thing … Lewis, I mean it…. This is not one of your fucking games."
"It may be the most serious kind of game there is," answers Lewis, "but if you don't see it as a game, you're missing an important point."
"I can't go along with this," insists Drew. "It's not a matter of guts; it's a matter of the law."
And Lewis, the man of nature, answers, "You see any law around here? We're the law. What we decide is going to be the way things are."
Bury the body, says Lewis, and all but Drew agree. The killing was a simple matter of survival. It was kill or be killed. Nature's law, not civilization's version of justice, applies in this wilderness. Bobby, the crudest and least sensitive of them and the victim of the incident, goes along simply because it's the only way to hide his shame. Ed, the narrator, is neither noble nor philosophical. He reduces the debate to his own self-interest. "I was ready to gamble," he tells us. "After all, I hadn't done anything but stand tied to a tree, and nobody could prove anything else, no matter what it came to. I believed Lewis could get us out. If I went along with concealing the body and we got caught it could be made to seem a matter of necessity, of simply being outvoted."
So what begins as a temporary escape from the pressures of family and business becomes an elemental struggle against the dual forces of a powerful river and a vengeful, lawless backwoodsman. Each of the four men must confront his own nature to find the limits of his strength and courage. Drew, inevitably, does not survive. The gentlest and most socialized of the four, he is shot by the surviving hillbilly from atop the cliff that borders the river. "The best of us," eulogizes Ed. "The only decent one; the only sane one." In the state of nature, Drew is the man who must die.
Lewis, on whose strength and courage the others have depended, fractures his leg when the canoe crashes in the rapids. Bobby remains weak and untrustworthy. "I ought to take this rifle and shoot the hell out of you, Bobby, you incompetent asshole, you soft city country-club man," thinks Ed.
With Drew dead, Lewis critically injured, and Bobby incompetent, it's left to Ed to save the three of them. He is an ordinary man challenged to perform extraordinarily, to climb a sheer cliff at night, to ambush an enemy on unfamiliar terrain with a primitive weapon, to steer a canoe through treacherous white water, to bring himself and his companions out alive, and to devise a coverup so that the law will not prosecute them for murder.
It's the stuff of adventure, suspense and mystery. Buried in the story's heart, however, is the complicated stuff of philosophy and religion.
When they finally return to civilization, one of the locals asks Ed, "How come you to be doing this, in the fust place?"
Ed's answer, which would have been the simple truth before the adventure, now drips with irony: "Oh," he says, "I guess we just wanted to get out a little. All of us work in the city, and it gets pretty tiresome, just sitting in an office all the time…. That's all. No really good reason, I suppose. Just boredom."
When I first read Deliverance I had not yet entered the difficult time that, I'm convinced, all men encounter at midlife, when we cannot avoid such questions as, "What does it all mean?" and "What am I doing here?" Ed, Lewis, Bobby, and Drew are four very different men. Each confronts the conflicts and disappointments of his own life in his own way. When I was thirty, the book spoke to the midlife crises that awaited me. As I reread it through the years, I gained understanding—though no simple answers—to what I was feeling. Each of the four characters represented contradictory pieces of me.
I've given Deliverance to women of my acquaintance. They agree that it's a gripping adventure story. "But there are no significant women in it," they tell me. "It's a guy's book." Maybe they're right, although I'm tempted to point out that Moby Dick and Huck Finn and The Old Man and the Sea are, by the same standard, "guy's books."
When I taught high-school English, I asked several times for permission to assign Deliverance to my classes. "I want to study this book with my kids," I pleaded. "They'll love it. It will make them like to read. It's beautifully written, and it's important, and it's got all the themes…."
My superiors frowned. Few of them had read it. "That's the Burt Reynolds movie, right?"
"Yes. A good film. But the book's a masterpiece."
Alas. We cannot, I was told, assign high-school kids a book in which the plot pivots on a scene where a man is sodomized at gunpoint, in which the heroes "get away" with murder, in which verboten vocabulary words appear. We've got to think of our students' moral development. And what would their parents think? Better stick to Ethan Frome and The Red Badge of Courage.
I take small consolation from the fact that for years The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was widely banned from schools and libraries. I remain hopeful that one day Deliverance will be recognized as an important novel, a classic. It may not be The Great American Novel. But it is a great novel, and distinctly American.
Ronald Curran (review date Autumn 1994)
SOURCE: A review of To the White Sea, in World Literature Today, Autumn, 1994, pp. 809-10.
[In the following review, Curran states that Dickey's To the White Sea "becomes a quest for the pure ecstasy that identification with nature will grant Muldrow."]
In the early going To the White Sea appears to be an adventure tale on the order of Deliverance. Ball-turret gunner's B-29 downed over Tokyo. The only survivor is Muldrow, a Lewis Medlock figure in wartime Japan instead of the north Georgia woods. His life as the son of a wifeless "loner of all loners" on the north face of the Brooks Range in Alaska provides the survival skills to escape from Tokyo to the northern island of Hokkaido. There he will find an environment comparable to where you encounter "cold that cleans out your insides like fire," the one he shared with Eskimos. Once again Dickey is working a variation on the stock adventure novel's structure and dynamics.
Caught initially in the thrall of what happens next, the reader connects with the survival conflict and its complications. So positioned by the conventional trappings of the escape drama, he is engaged more by the personality of Muldrow, whose Alaskan metaphysics suggest a transcendent dimension that points beyond mere physical survival. Escape in To the White Sea then becomes an opportunity to identify with the animal adaptations on the tundra and to access a form of consciousness that involves the limbic system as much as it does the higher functions of the cerebrum.
The escape-to-Hokkaido narrative soon entwines the reader's attention in the web of a far more subtle tale. This collateral narrative breathes its way into the novel like an incipient "fairy tale." To me it suggested [Conrad] Aiken's "Silent Snow, Secret Snow" or [Hans Christian] Andersen's "Snow Queen." Like To the White Sea, both are journeys into kingdoms of snow and ice. In similar fashion, Dickey's novel suggests radical forms of retreat from society and the use of nature in the service of personifying states of purity, fulfillment, and transcendence. The novel's final scene portrays an ecstatic death reminiscent of the martyrdom of many Christian saints, although Dickey's perspective is purely secular.
Muldrow's predicament and the war encompassing it function more as fortuitous opportunities for an escape into nature. Their powerfully engaging concrete sides seem almost secondary. However, while the surviving gunner struggles with the logistics of his escape from the city as well as his survival in the countryside, the novel often digresses on equipment and technique more to pleasure hunters than the average reader. Its mystical element eventually supersedes the concrete struggle going on to the point that it competes with the narrative of transcendence and becomes potentially more intrusive than engaging.
Once the mystical level engages, the novel becomes a quest for the pure ecstasy that identification with nature will grant Muldrow. He can move through physical death and into a state of being beyond the corporeal. In that state human beings do not face the conventional Judeo-Christian options. Neither do they become part of the earth's memory, as Lewis Thomas conjectured shortly before his death. In Dickey's view, Muldrow becomes part of its weather immediately after identifying with a swan: "A voice in the wind: a voice without a voice, which doesn't make a sound. You can pick it up anytime it snows … or even just when the wind is from the north." How Muldrow gets to this point makes or spoils the novel. It ends with his execution in the mountains of Hokkaido. As he spins in a hailstorm of Japanese bullets, he is contained in a moment of joyous release and transformation. Having smeared himself with his own blood and that of his fellow mountain recluse, Muldrow then rolls in a pile of swan feathers. Riddled with the bullets of his pursuers like famous American criminals of the twenties and before, he recounts his last moments of life, saying: "In the wind the swan feathers fluttered on me, and I could have flown. I could have flown with the hawks and the swans."
The reader's appreciation of this final ecstatic moment relies heavily on the portrayal of Muldrow. In his development of the B-29 gunner Dickey could have shown the reader a source of human longing and transcendence that the myopia of social adaptation blurs for us all. He could have moved beyond the relational energies which bind the characters in Deliverance and which link them to the world of persons with whom they share present and future. But the main character in To the White Sea has hardly any emotional connection to anyone. He seems to be without any kinship libido whatever. Muldrow's detachment puts considerable strain on empathy. The reader must seek and love ice as much as he does: "I didn't belong anywhere, really, but above seventy degrees north." He is, in his father's words, "half snow goose and half wolverine," like a figure in the literature of the Old Southwest.
In Muldrow's pursuit of shoes, clothing, food, and invisibility, he blows people's heads off, slits throats, guts, decapitates, and, in one instance, removes and cracks the arm bone of an old man he has killed in order to smash it into splinters suitable for making sewing needles. To be squeamish about his killings seems precious—unmasculineeven—given the conditions of war and the inevitable castration and decapitation he himself faces if captured. Still, his killings, however justified, turn ugly, as he stabs an old woman who accidentally catches sight of him near a water wheel. The wheel itself gives him a notion of what to do. He saws off her head and fits it into one of the revolving buckets as it comes past him on its circular route.
Whatever his motives or state of mind, Muldrow can begin to recede as empathy erodes in the face of his schizoid character that is alienated from everything but the mountains of Hokkaido, Alaskan animals, the ice, and the snow. At times it is difficult not to adopt the attitude of his fellow gunners: "Don't fool with him." Often it is hard to determine whether he is moving toward higher levels of human consciousness on the way to self-transcendence, or if he is simply going mad. However the reader conceives of Muldrow's musings about his adaptive identifications with animals or his eventual transcendence into weather itself, the success of To the White Sea depends upon whether or not empathic identification can be fostered. If not, authentic involvement can turn into a combination of natural curiosity and frustration over Muldrow's arctic hysteria and its intrusion into an otherwise engaging tale of adventure.
Robert Kirschten (essay date Spring 1995)
SOURCE: "The Momentum of Word-Magic in James Dickey's The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy," in Contemporary Literature, Spring, 1995, pp. 130-63.
[In the following essay, Kirschten asserts that Dickey's The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy "constitutes one of the central transitional texts in Dickey's poeticcanon."]
In the late sixties, when he collected his first five books of poetry into one volume, James Dickey had reached such a considerable level of literary success that Louis Untermeyer claimed that Poems 1957–1967 "is the poetry book of the year, and I have little doubt that it will prove to be the outstanding collection of one man's poems to appear in this decade." While Peter Davison and James Tulip ranked Dickey and Robert Lowell as the two major poets in the country, John Simon was even more enthusiastic when he declared, "I place Dickey squarely above Lowell." However, in 1968, with the appearance of Dickey's very next book, The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy, critics seemed annoyed, even dismayed, at the new direction of his highly experimental collection of verse. Herbert Leibowitz noted that the "balance of pure abandon and meticulous observation breaks apart in Dickey's latest volume," and further, that a "stagy, unpleasant hysteria enters the poems." Benjamin DeMott charged that the "poet runs on unrestrainedly," giving "no shapely object to delight in, little refinement of feeling or subtlety of judgment, no intellectual distinction, no hint of wisdom." Even as staunch an early supporter as Richard Howard lamented that "The look of these poems on the page is disconcerting: forms are sundered, wrenched apart rather than wrought together." Howard then concludes with a statement of considerable strength: "The cost to [Dickey's] poetry is tremendous, for it has cost him poems themselves—there are not poems here … only—only!—poetry."
Despite the severity of these appraisals, Eye-Beaters contains at least seven of Dickey's major poems and constitutes one of the central transitional texts in Dickey's poetic canon. During this period, Dickey's experiments in two basic areas, form and diction, opened a number of technical, poetic doors that propelled him through his remarkable and controversial book-length poem The Zodiac in 1976 to major achievements in the eighties in Puella and The Eagle's Mile, two of his best volumes of verse. In The Eye-Beaters, Dickey still kept his eye at times on a classical sense of narrative—the story-based poem on which he built such a wide following of readers; however, he also began to highlight word groups that radically altered his techniques of telling and gained him especially dramatic entrance to the world of darkness and terror that strongly unsettled Leibowitz, DeMott, and Howard. These word groups reveal fundamental methods in Dickey's word-magic and the subsequent momentum of his poetic thought, which, to my mind, has been misrepresented by many of his negative critics. These critics look for intellectual or discursive thinking in a poet who is not understandable only to the rational mind, and, as a result, they find Dickey's poems lacking in elements that are completely irrelevant to his poetic program. Dickey's best poems in this book are not hysterical, unrestrained, unshaped, unsubtle, or wrenched apart but are intricately constructed forms generated by a mode of thinking that is rooted in anthropological and mythopoeic criticism, namely, contagious magic.
Presupposing an ancient, universal law of contact between animate and inanimate objects, even those which are geographically distant such as the moon and stars, contagious magic seems, at first primitive, simple, or scientifically mistaken. However, when developed through the complex combinations within his extraordinary diction, Dickey's version of this practical causal principle allows him to reinvent a world in which magic not only seems plausible but natural and even necessary. For out of his animated series of "natural" connections, Dickey constructs a diverse range of rituals, ranging from sacrificial rites to linguistic acts of creation, which, reflexively, depend on his magical ontology for their effectiveness. When properly constructed, these rites reveal special, therapeutic powers designed to bring some measure of human control to the catastrophic, real worlds of "blood" and "madness." The plausibility of Dickey's word-magic takes its authority from its appeal to deeper reaches of the human mind that are closed to more discursive modes of lyric action. Not "deep-image poetry" exactly, his poetry operates through archetypal images within a deeply appealing and personal mode that also engages and alters the social self, especially the self traumatized by war. While his verbal and formal magic has distinguished precedents in the work of Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas, Theodore Roethke, and even Samuel Taylor Coleridge, critics often fail to judge Dickey by those principles that have been used to canonize these writers. To establish critical criteria—especially those in a mythopoeic mode—more accurately attuned to Dickey's true poetic vision in The Eye-Beaters, we need to focus on a number of issues that preoccupied the poet at this point in his career: his construction of poetic form in relation to word-magic, the subsequent shift of formal momentum in his poetry from action to image, and the shaping elements in at least one of the historical genres in which he was writing.
To initiate his keynote speech to the South Atlantic Modern Language Association in November 1982, Dickey borrowed a distinction from the Notebooks of poet Winfield Townley Scott. Centering on two kinds of poetry, or, rather, two kinds of poetic diction, this distinction is simple enough yet reveals much about Dickey's own poetic practice. The first type of poetry is, according to Scott, literalistic and marked by its capacity for moving, external reference. It is "a commentary on human life so concentrated as to give off considerable pressure." Two of its central practitioners are [William] Wordsworth and [Thomas] Hardy, and it "is represented by [Edwin Arlington] Robinson's [line]: 'And he was all alone there when he died.'" The second and opposite type, less literal and more evocative in character, "is a magic gesture of language," among whose proponents are Poe and Rimbaud; this second type is illustrated by lines from Hart Crane's poem "Voyages":
O minstrel galleons of Carib fire,
Bequeath us to no earthly shore until
Is answered in the vortex of our grave
The seal's wide spindrift gaze toward paradise.
For Dickey, the key word in these lines is "spindrift," whose peculiar qualities place Crane among what Dickey calls, following Scott, the "Magic-Language exemplars" of poetry. Instead of a literal or essential component of the seal's manner of seeing, "spindrift" belongs less to the "reality-world" of animal vision than to the "word-world" of verbal association (or what Crane calls, in his well-known phrase, the "logic of metaphor"). Dickey explains that "'Spindrift' is sea-foam, wave-foam, usually wind-blown along beaches, and, though the seal's eyes may be wide, and his gaze toward Paradise, 'spindrift' is really not, cannot be, part of his vision: the word is word only, associational word, and in its way beautiful, but word."
Instead of inventing poems characterized by statements that have an empirical or external referential direction, the poets of word-magic work from inside a reverberating, self-generating world of linguistic interplay. According to Dickey, these writers are less interested in realistic narratives or personal anecdotes which convey maxims about the world of human action and ideas than in the evocative powers and suggestions of words themselves. This wordplay may be further understood by considering its opposite, namely, that kind of diction that belongs to poets whom Dickey calls "the literalists." Unlike the "magic-language practitioners," "literal-minded poets" believe "in words as agents which illuminate events and situations that are part of an already given continuum." For example,
The Robinson line … is simply factual. There are only plain words in it: a statement. Plain words in ordinary order; nothing unusual, much less exotic. The line puts the reader into contemplation of something that happened to someone, and the condition of the happening: it is the clear pane of glass that does not call attention to itself, but gives clearly and cleanly on a circumstance.
On the other hand, word-magicians do not give primacy to plot or to the discursive revelations of character, but to a dream mode or some kind of surrealistic space in which the powers of reason have little importance. Although Dickey's remarks were made with Puella in mind, the book with his fullest use of word-magic and to which this article is a preliminary study, these observations reveal much about his own magical approach throughout his poetry. This approach is evident as far back in Dickey's work as the opening poem, the magical chant "Sleeping Out at Easter," in his first collection of poems, Into the Stone. Of word-magicians, Dickey said in 1982:
For the Magicians, language itself must be paramount: language and the connotative aura it gives off…. The words are seen as illuminations mainly of one another; their light of meaning plays back and forth between them, and, though it must by nature refer beyond, outside itself, shimmers back off the external world in a way whereby the world—or objective reality, or just Reality—serves as a kind of secondary necessity, a non-verbal backdrop to highlight the dance of words and their bemused interplay.
However magical Dickey's interests became at this point, he never fully divorced himself from his commitment to literal-mindedness or his belief in the necessity of basic storytelling. For in the same essay, he criticizes purely magical poetry for its considerable limitations. In magical poetry divorced from public concerns, Dickey says, "the world is lacking, and the buzz of language and hit-or-miss-metaphor-generation is everything; the poem itself is nothing; or only a collection of fragments." Although he admits to being "profoundly interested" in "the absolute freedom" that the magical making of metaphors offers the poet, Dickey also wants lyrics "bound into one poetic situation, one scene, one event after the other." A further problem with the magical method, especially in the surrealistic school, is that it invents without discovering, as Wallace Stevens noted. It does not reveal the contents of the unconscious but mere phantasms. Nor does it have "drama," for it "cannot build." Of poems in this style, Dickey observes that they have no narrative, no logic, no idea development, no transformation, no "publicly available" themes.
If one wonders in which camp Dickey places his own poetic language, he provides what appears to be a decisive response earlier in his address. Although he greatly admires the best of them, he claims, "I am not of the party of the magic-language practitioners." At first glance, this self-classification seems true. Because so much of Dickey's early poetry depends on anecdotal narrative and extrinsic reference to topics and events from his own life (world war, family, animals, even a Southern Baptist preacher), he seems justified in placing himself among those poets whom he calls "literal-minded," for example, Robert Frost, Edgar Lee Masters, and Randall Jarrell. From a stylistic or linguistic point of view, however, Dickey's poetry also suggests an extremely strong magical orientation. In the mid and late sixties in particular, Dickey began to experiment with word groups bunched together by means of techniques such as the "block format" and the "split line." At this time, words themselves and their "connotative aura" became singularly featured on the pages of his lyrics. In "May Day Sermon," "Falling," "The Shark's Parlor," "The Fiend," and to some extent in "The Firebombing," he built "wall[s] of words" out of distinctive visual and semantic combinations that were not only striking to behold but, more importantly, approximated, as Dickey says, "the real way of the mind as it associates verbally … in bursts of words, in jumps."
One major effect of the method (or "real way") of these mental word "bursts" and "jumps" is the construction of an emotionally immediate, if not obsessive, universe in which the magical contiguity of natural forms of life and death is conveyed by Dickey's imagistic contiguities. Dickey calls the semantic aspect of this magical contact "apparently unjustifiable juxtapositions" and "shifts of meaning or consciousness." These juxtapositions may be rationally "unjustifiable" but, from a poetic and emotional point of view, they enable the objects inside his visually bracketed word groups to exchange (or share) properties in an especially dramatic and vivid manner. These stylistically fused traits build scenes so rich in texture that they constitute the animating ground of the poem's action and thus possibility for Dickey's characters. "May Day Sermon" provides an especially vivid example of how the poet's word-magic "jumps" across the page with a stunning momentum that energizes the woman preacher who delivers the lines. This momentum also animates the objects of nature in Dickey's universe and reveals how he thinks magically through them:
Sisters, understand about men and sheaths:
About nakedness: understand how butterflies, amazed, pass out
Of their natal silks how the tight snake takes a great breath bursts
Through himself and leaves himself behind how a man casts finally
Off everything that shields him from another beholds his loins
Shine with his children forever burn with the very juice
In this section, Dickey's word-magic builds the poem's (and nature's) momentum by means of his striking grammatical strategies of predication, strategies that, as we will see, are also central to his magical method in "Pine." In the arrangement of word blocks in "May Day Sermon," nouns such as "butterflies," "the tight snake," "man," and "his children" share the ejaculatory, universal motion of sheaths and nakedness which "pass out," breathe, burst, "shield," behold, "[s]hine," and "burn with … resurrection." This sharing is effected by an elaborate series of delayed predicates in parallel constructions in which the poet omits punctuation and connectives in favor of breath spaces. By keeping mechanical interrupters and conjunctions to a minimum, Dickey creates an oratorical and ontological momentum marked by "fluidity and flux" that is his own specification of William James's famous stream of consciousness. Dickey's poetic flow—more like a tidal wave in this poem—makes objects exchange attributes by making the mind "jump" between nouns and predicates such that a verb (and its textural traits) in one clause may be plausibly predicated of two or more preceding subjects. In the lines cited above, the subject of "burn" is "loins" but may as well be "children," for both "loins" and "children"—albeit in different modes—"burn with the very juice / Of resurrection." Dickey does not use this technique only for single terms. Because he begins his word blocks with dynamic verbs, gerunds, and present participles, he drives these blocks forward in a stream of sexual, natural, and grammatical motion while simultaneously allowing the eye to linger upon visually separated word groups so that entire groups of words appear to serve as nouns for several series of subsequent verbals. Several lines later in "May Day Sermon," it is a trout which flows and slides upstream, but Dickey's spatial arrangement of his word groups makes it appear that the trout's "cold / Mountain of his birth" does the same, for the trout "heads upstream, breathing mist like water, for the cold / Mountain of his birth flowing sliding in and through the ego- / maniacal sleep of gamecocks." The metaphysical mechanism behind these shared predicates is a mode of connection that Sir James Frazer calls "contagious magic" in The Golden Bough, namely, "that things which have once been in contact with each other are always in contact." In Dickey's poetic universe, these grammatical and ontological connections produce a magical animism, in which, to use Joseph Campbell's phrasing, "there is no such thing as absolute death, only a passing of individuals back and forth, as it were, through a veil or screen of visibility, until—for one reason or another—they dissolve into an undifferentiated ground that is not of death, but of potential life, out of which new individuals appear."
Not only objects and groups of objects are animated by mental word-magic in Dickey's world. Dickey's word-magic also drives the emotionally animating end of "May Day Sermon," which is nothing less than the resurrection in springtime of nature, sexual instinct, and the vocalized anima (or soul) of the victimized daughter, all under the aegis of the oratorical triad of energized women: preacher, audience, and subject of the sermon (the daughter). The daughter of the abusive, backwoods, Bible-reading father is able to return from the dead each year precisely because, in Dickey's lyric universe, "there is," in Campbell's words, "no such thing as absolute death." Dickey's is a world in which life and death cyclically and magically dissolve into and out of each other and in which the animating power of the woman preacher's eternal logos—like "men" and "nakedness"—also "bursts," "[s]hine[s]," and "burn[s] with the very juice / Of resurrection." The daughter does not die for her sexual freedom but dies as a fertility goddess who transcends death each spring, like the earth itself, by riding the eternal continuum of decay, regeneration, and rebirth, empowered in Dickey's worldview by the words of women and the poet's magical modes of "resurrection." The very possibility of the daughter's archetypal transcendence is thus rooted in a magically empowered and conceived setting which eternally energizes her.
If the ritualized methods and the ground of action in Dickey's lyrics take on a special primitive power in the mid sixties, the effects of his word-magic and its reverberating linguistic momentum become even more pronounced in the late sixties and the early seventies. His magical diction is primarily effected through catalogues of tactile, concrete metaphors, hyphenated word combinations, and explosive, staggered groups of action-packed gerundives. When working in a distinctively surrealistic or hallucinatory dream mode, Dickey distances himself even further from his earlier formal strategies, realistic anecdotes, and the relatively sober revelations of romantic perception, in favor of an exuberant emphasis on magical imagery. For instance, in "The Eye-Beaters," the narrator does not go inside the minds of blind children for internal revelation when he visits a home for the children in Indiana, but instead externalizes his imagined vision of what they see as he addresses himself:
Smudge-eyed, wide-eyed, gouged, horned,
in, they are silent: it is for you to guess what they hold back inside
The brown and hazel inside the failed green the vacant
eyed floating of the soul.
At first, there appears to be little here of what could be traditionally called a complicated plot which changes the fortunes of its characters. Neither the children nor the narrator can change. Try as he may, the speaker cannot alter the condition of the blind children who beat their eyes in frustration. In a sense, then, the animating end of this poem is the realistic failure of the poet's magical, elaborate techniques of animation. This failure, however, is only half the equation. After acknowledging the therapeutic limits of his poetry, the speaker frantically continues to build his fictional wall of mythic images for his own sake and for that of the real "vision" of the children. He argues rationally that in spite of their blindness, these children are still important, and that "what they see must be crucial / To the human race." Despite his claim to reason, Dickey's magic produces nothing more than a semihysterical nightmare of his own darkness and rage as the poet tries to see what is "under their pummeled lids."
His word-magic is thus closer to word-madness than magic. Yet this madness has its own peculiar visioning power. In "May Day Sermon," while partially maddened by her belief system, by abuse to the farmer's daughter, and by Dickey's inflamed rhetoric, the woman preacher nonetheless effects an optimistic, mythopoeic reincarnation of the victimized girl. In The Eye-Beaters, Dickey's word-madness seeks a magic that at first appears ineffective. This magic is built out of nothing but the "sheer / Despair of invention" in the real world where the narrator's poetic powers cannot heal. However, what comes most alive in this world—even more than plot and character—is the poet's mental cave of magical images, that is, the cave of "perversity" and "madness," constituted by Dickey's wall of words. It is as if he has taken us inside Plato's cave of illusions or inside one of the Paleolithic caves at Montesquieu-Avantesin the Pyrenees and left us in the dark. In such a world, "Half-broken light flickers" briefly and shows us partial images of "ibex quagga … cave bear aurochs [and] mammoth." However, this is a mental world which is even darker and more claustrophobic, where the poet's "reason" has "gone / Like eyes," and only his primal images offer him solace. We thus come closer to experiencing the dark world of these children than we ever would have without Dickey's disturbing and dazzling poem, at the heart of which is yet another of his extraordinary, primitivistic exchanges. This exchange transforms speaker and reader by linking sighted readers to blind children, even though the mode of shared "vision" is only—or, to use Richard Howard's exclamation, "only!"—poetic.
As we trace the evolution of Dickey's use of magical language, what is important to note in "The Eye-Beaters"—as well as in "Mercy," "Victory," and "Pine" in the same volume—is that Dickey's walls of words are so powerful that their contagious, magical energy appears to displace plot, character, and revelation as emotionally central parts of his poetic action. These traditional shaping elements are, of course, still prominent in his work of this period. However, we may well be able to claim—using Dickey's own description of poetic word-magicians—that, in these boldly experimental poems, he has gone further than ever toward giving primacy to "language and the connotative aura it gives off." This new primacy of parts enables him to invent a new poetic "Reality [which] serves as a … backdrop to highlight the dance of words and their bemused interplay." To put it another way, Dickey's radically magical walls of reality establish settings which not so much displace thought and character as they take on the functions of character, revelation, and the solution (or opposition) to the protagonist's driving needs. In "May Day Sermon," magical word groups not only create the physical setting but also the animating ground of change and motivation for the woman preacher. Yet they also constitute a formal revolution, what would in contemporary criticism be called a "deconstruction," in which Dickey's word-magic achieves a parity of power with the classic, Aristotelian elements of thought and action, and even becomes the central pattern of thought and action. By focusing on "[the] action of words upon each other, for whatever meaning or sensation they may throw off, evoke," Dickey uses these networks of "meaning or sensation" not to remain mired in sensation but to invent what is for him a new kind of poetic form. Insofar as his new diction produces a "connotative aura" that radically alters his speaker's fundamental mode of perception while also shaping and guiding the reader's point of view, Dickey's mythical language becomes both his poetic action and his basic method of representation. This collapse—or fusion—of analytic distinctions is true for all poetry insofar as poetry's shaping causes are synthesized within its verbal materials. But for Dickey, his distinctive change in emphasis yields especially vivid insights into a new way of thinking through words which themselves revolutionize his poetry.
If, in this middle period of his career, Dickey begins to think in a radically mytho-magical mode while quite consciously moving away from anecdote and narrative, we see yet another reason why his poetry upsets the Aristotelian causal hierarchy which privileges plot the way Dickey did in his early work. The very nature of thought manifested in Dickey's word-magic demands this formal shift. For, as Ernst Cassirer notes, "mythical consciousness … knows nothing of certain distinctions … it lacks any fixed dividing line between mere 'representation' and 'real' perception, between wish and fulfillment, between image and thing." Further, by using a mode of thought which burkes classical logical axioms and assumes instead magical principles—such as "the part not only stands for the whole but positively is the whole"—Dickey confounded many critics in the late sixties and early seventies by inventing an "aura" that baffled them when they applied discursive or meditative criteria. For when Dickey's linguistic "aura" became a dominant force, it produced a dreamworld like that of the undifferentiated reality of primitive consciousness; thus many readers dismissed the poems in The Eye-Beaters as formless or poorly constructed. On the contrary, these poems are intricately constructed, and further, they are designed to convey the atmosphere of nightmares or dream consciousness, the very nature of which is cloudy or phantasmic.
One magical mode, the conversion of properties or attributes of objects into bodies, appears in the scenic imagery of "Mercy," a nightmare poem about the narrator's lover Fay, a nurse at a hospital in "slum Atlanta," whom he picks up at the nurses' dormitory called "Mercy Manor." By mixing hypostatized, imagistic traits of love, mortality, blood, and banal pop culture in a dazzling scene of surrealistic transformation, Dickey converts Fay into a contemporary Persephone, macabre yet heroic. While "perfume and disinfectant battle / In her armpits," she straddles the worlds of life and death, goddess-like, when, in the poem's conclusion, the speaker imagines himself "Collapsed on the street," having a kind of heart (or love) attack: "I nearly am dead / In love." Herself a stark contrast in the colors of healing and of death, Fay leans over him as he calls for her kiss to silence the cry of mortality from his lips and to bear him safely from the world of darkness into the "mercy" of St. Joseph's hospital:
She would bend
Over me like this sink down
With me in her white dress
Changing to black we sink
Like television like Arthur Godfrey's face
Coming on huge happy
About us happy
About everything O bring up
My lips hold them down don't let them cry
With the cry close closer eyeball to eyeball
In my arms, O queen of death
Alive, and with me at the end.
If Fay, like Persephone, possesses a goddess-like power of healing and renewal, she does so because the poet rescues her from a convincing technical, pop cultural hell that enervates yet simultaneously animates her. As he does in "The Eye-Beaters," Dickey builds another dynamic wall of words—this time, down the middle of the page—that makes the night world of hospitals come alive in a sensuously dark dream scene. This scene is not static. As the drama develops, the setting not only gains emotional power by means of the affective accumulation of Dickey's detail; it propels the action forward by providing an overwhelming opponent of "night" and "mortality" against which the speaker battles for "care" and "love." In the night world of this hospital, "love," if not life, has never felt more vulnerable. One cause of this vulnerability is the massive sense of indifference that the setting, indeed, the world, evinces toward the speaker. This anomie is reflected in Dickey's magical, imagistic hypostatization of Arthur Godfrey's smiling television face, whose mind-numbing, "happy" countenance benignly smiles over the night world of pain and death with the comic indifference of a plastic Halloween mask. Ernst Cassirer says that in magical thought, "The 'image' does not represent the 'thing'; it is the thing; it does not merely stand for the object, but has the same actuality, so that it replaces the thing's immediate presence." We do not confuse Arthur Godfrey with his image. Rather, Dickey so animates the banality of the image that its preposterous happiness becomes an oppressive, real, actual body. In this animated, surrealistic space, the poet turns a complex of cultural and technological relations into "a pre-existing material substance" in which, in Cassirer's words, "all mere properties or attributes … become bodies." By magically making banality a substance, Dickey provides one element in the poisoned substratum of a contemporary, urban scene against which the energized passion of a goddess-woman offers temporary redemption from the speaker's hysterical "wail" and the dark, cold world of mortality and indifference.
In this stage of Dickey's poetic career—which may be labeled a magical period in which he makes a radical move from action to image—voice, points of view (reader's and speaker's), and plot seem less like specific, separable literary devices than undifferentiated aspects of the dreamy aura of his word selection. These strategically constructed word groups reveal the movement of his mind from linguistic block to block in modes of nondiscursive, non-analytical thought that Cassirer discusses in his chapter "Word Magic" in Language and Myth:
mythic ideation and primitive verbal conception … [involve] a process of almost violent separation and individuation. Only when this intense individuation has been consummated, when the immediate intuition has been focused and … reduced to a single point, does the mythic or linguistic form emerge, and the word or the momentary god is created … the process of apprehension aims not at an expansion, extension, universalizing of the content, but rather at its highest intensification…. The conscious experience is not merely wedded to the word, but is consumed by it. Whatever has been fixed by a name, henceforth is not only real, but is Reality.
In the momentum of Dickey's thought in the best poems from The Eye-Beaters, objects and events are individuated through narratives that antagonize and separate agents. Things and acts are also individuated through strategic spatial separations (different from the split line but an off-shoot of it) and through emphases of the arrangement of words on the page. Dickey's word blocks isolate images in focused impressions that, when grouped in his distinctive series of sequences, give the sense that a name and its referent are magically connected—indeed, that reality is built out of momentary bursts of tangible, tactile names. These names not only share the properties of what they signify but feel as if they are some essential part (or the whole) of their referents while simultaneously amplifying the emotional impact of those parts. At times, Dickey's focused images give us an animal's surrealistic, enlarged perspective of heads and eyes in word groups that themselves enlarge the objects represented. For example, in "Madness," a family hound is bitten by a rabid female fox, and the experience of sound and pain is conveyed and enlarged in a poetic form marked by the isolation of intensified moments from the story:
she bit down
Hard on a great yell
To the house being eaten alive
By April's leaves. Bawled; they came and found.
The children cried
Helping tote to the full moon
Of the kitchen "I carried the head" O full of eyes
Heads kept coming across, and friends and family
The spirit of the household, on the kitchen
Table being thick-sewed
To no small degree, the basic representational device in this poem progressively becomes the form of the poem. That is, the strategic isolation of the names of fragments of events results in a magic pointillism that fixes as its primary patterned reality the surrealistic aspects of the core event that pattern depicts. Summarized under the title of "Madness," the basic narrative is simple: a family dog is bitten, becomes rabid, is hunted down, then beheaded. However, the stylized, magical story is considerably more complex, primarily because of the way it is told: the conversion of a family hound into an energized, manic god of the hunt and kill, who, through a narrative of hallucinatory frenzy marked by the contagious, explosive escalation of sexuality and violence, dies a divine death as a nonretaliatory scapegoat; the humans in the poem project their own mimetic desire for violence upon this sacrificial monster who is expelled from the circle of domestic safety and then closes the poem's process of overflowing violence with his own execution. Dickey's verbal methods of separation, individuation, and amplification are essential to the monster-making process because they amplify the dog's bizarre and dangerous traits into monstrous proportions, so that his sacrificial death, dramatically mandated, purges the stable world that he himself has infected and threatened. One instance of this amplification process occurs after the dog is bitten. It is carried into the family kitchen, and the phrase "O full of eyes" floods the moment with what Dickey construes to be the animal's vision, yet also isolates that moment with an image in which eyes seem disembodied and bizarre, as would befit a being which is in the process of transgressing normal social boundaries. That the poem is so effectively disturbing and dark reveals that Dickey's vibrant word-magic makes fully tangible the traits of surrealistic monstrosity which the poem requires for its sacred drama.
Although there is none of the archetypal pairing of the intensely dramatic mythopoeic opposites of sex and violence in the three-page lyric "Pine," this poem reveals several other aspects of Dickey's remarkable—and difficult—mode of magical meditation. Cast in a sequence of "successive apprehensions" (or "four ways / Of being"), with a fifth, concluding, single-word section ("Glory"), "Pine" examines a pine tree by means of four senses: hearing, smell, taste, and touch. At first glance, the poem's process of thought appears to be built out of compounds—or, to use Dickey's own term, "a dark / Flood"—of traits which the speaker is "Opening one by one." Each section features, though not exclusively, one sense which Dickey examines by means of a series of percepts, analogies, intuitions, and visceral experiences of the body. This flood of synesthetic experience combines to form a whole of some kind, when, at the end, Dickey claims:
A final form
And color at last comes out
Of you alone putting it all
Together like nothing
Here like almighty
To some extent, Dickey's mode of perception resembles the kind of accumulation that, according to Denis Donoghue, constitutes "the self" in Walt Whitman's lengthy catalogues:
he begins by saying, Let x equal the self. Then x equals A plus B plus C plus D plus E … where each letter stands for a new experience contained and possessed, and the self is the sum of its possessions. This is the law of Whitman's lists. If you say that the self—x—is the sum of its possessions … then the more you add to the right-hand side of the equation, the more you enrich the left, and you do this without bothering about the "nature" of the x. You assume, as most Romantic poets did, that the self is not at any moment fixed, complete, or predetermined, and then you are free to develop or enlarge it at any time by adding to its experience.
The Romantic aspect of Dickey's poetic identity certainly coincides with the latter part of Donoghue's observation about flow and indeterminacy. However, Dickey's mental method of accumulation—and, consequently, his conception of his poetic "self"—does not depend on a mere unity that is the "sum of its possessions." Dickey does not build his perceptual objects out of discrete properties only, but, instead, conceives a different kind of whole constituted by an empathic mode of consubstantiality. One may best see the method in his word-magic in the Melanesian concept of "mana," which is a general, undifferentiated power that appears in different forms and different objects in a sacred, rather than a profane, world. In such a realm, not every animate thing possesses "mana," only certain objects that evoke a sense of wonder and delight. Sacred wonder and delight in the world of physical sensation and magical things (especially animals and natural objects in motion) are constants in Dickey's lyric universe, the various elements of which are bound together by a principle of shared power that Cassirer calls the "law" of "concrescence or coincidence":
Mythical thinking … knows such a unity neither of combination nor of separation. Even where it seems to divide an action into a number of stages, it considers the action in an entirely substantial form. It explains any attribute of the action by a specific material quality which passes from one thing in which it is inherent to other things. Even what in empirical and scientific thought appears to be a mere dependent attribute or momentary property here obtains a character of complete substantiality and hence of transferability.
Even though the major parts of "Pine" are divided by individual sense, Dickey builds the poem's progression out of a fluid "merging of properties" which is effected by collections of hyphenated compounds and jammed fragments of thoughts and feelings. These compounds—especially Dickey's phrase "sift-softening"—and his fragmented, syntactic shorthand recall the opening lines from the fourth stanza of Gerard Manley Hopkins's "The Wreck of the Deutschland":
I am soft sift
In an hourglass—at the wall
Fast, but mined with a motion, a drift,
And it crowds and it combs to the fall[.]
Hopkins's "soft sift / In an hourglass" serves to remind him that his body decays with time and that he can achieve redemption only by "Christ's gift" of eternal salvation, "proffer[ed]" in the gospel. In "Pine," Dickey's "sift-softening" does not stand for the "motion" and "drift" of a heightened sense of personal mortality. Rather, "sift-softening" is one stage in his poetic process of rendering both sensible and transferable the motion of the wind through pine needles. If yet another mark of magical thinking is that substance and force are not sharply distinguished, then Dickey's fusion of force and thing demonstrates even more fully his mythopoeic mode of transforming relations between objects into tactile, living presences which he offers to perception. For instance, here is Dickey's flow of compounded properties that he unifies—or, in his own word, "assign[s]"—as he makes the force of the sound of pine sensuous and, therefore, substantial:
Low-cloudly it whistles, changing heads
On you. How hard to hold and shape head-round.
So any hard hold
Now loses; form breathes near. Close to forest-form
By ear …
Overhead assign the bright and dark
Heels distance-running from all overdrawing the
Of this sound sound of a life-mass
Drawn in long lines in the air unbroken
Sound merely soft
And loudly soft just in time then nothing and then
Soft soft and a little caring-for sift-softening
Because the form of the sound of pine is difficult to grasp—as Dickey says, "any hard hold / Now loses"—he hypostatizes the pine's "sound of a life-mass" by inventing a sequence of modes of motion, each of which is assigned a distinctive trait such as sifting, soaring, and whistling. By giving even the softest sound a tangibility, Dickey makes his own poetic process of perception—and thus his poetic form—substantial. What was "hard to hold" now has elements that can be held, and can be held in a discernible sequence or form. Further, by making sound a mode of motion shared among the fragments of his "apprehension," Dickey also makes these substantial traits transferable from one part of the apprehension to another, and thus to the whole percept. The form of the stanza is the flow of the traits of felt motion commingling and building toward a whole. This process of substantiation and consubstantiation begins to culminate in the phrase "O ankle-wings lightening and fleeing," which represents the magical fusion of the substantiated properties of the "sound" of pine; these properties include speed, lightness, evanescence, alternation, and texture. A few lines later, in its conclusion, the stanza reveals one whole, unified aspect of pine in terms of hearing. Pine's basic properties merge in the figure of "footless flight," which the reader understands can be heard yet is difficult to hear—like the sound of pine—for it is "coming and fleeing / From ear-you and pine, and all pine."
Another way to examine the poem's formal momentum is to think of Dickey's cataloguing and combining of properties as a mythopoeic mode of predication, that is, as a preliminary process of naming—and thus dividing—an undifferentiated subject into specific predicates from which he builds a differentiated reality. As an analogue of this preliminary, linguistic stage of cognition, Dickey's poem makes pine feel like "mana," in that it emerges through his word groups with what feels like its own mysterious energy and power. Like the Sioux conception of Wakanda ("Great Spirit," or world creator, or mystery, or grandeur, or sacredness—the term is nearly untranslatable in English), the spirit-force of pine grows magically through animated substances and, in Dickey's case, toward an ultimate, imaginatively conceived unity that differentiates it from its ground of perception. In his primitive predication of properties and in his conception of an animated whole, Dickey's poetic method is radically perspectival. As Cassirer notes, "for mythical thinking[,] the attribute is not one defining the aspect of the thing; rather, it expresses and contains within it the whole of the thing, seen from a different angle." Not only is each perceptual sense in each major part of "Pine" "a different angle"; each tangible attribute of each sense is also "a different angle." Further, as we saw, each "angle" reveals and incorporates the whole by means of Dickey's complex movement of concrete imagery. These new angles are themselves new views, new names of aspects of pine rendered plausible, determinate, and separable from the preconscious welter of sensation out of which pine reveals itself to consciousness.
In his verbal act of distinguishing perspectives, Dickey calls pine into being through the magical power of naming. With regard to this constitutive, predicative dimension, Dickey's perspectival form is a linguistic act of creation. Like the narrative thrust in many primitive creation myths, the direction of Dickey's mythic speech moves a differentiating human preconsciousness away from the chaotic condition of heaven and earth before things had names and thus could be verbally distinguished. What is magical and sacred about this naming is that, in Dickey's poem, names do not merely signify but convey the potential powers of the things named and thus symbolically created. In "Pine," Dickey's series of imagistic potencies—for example, "Your skull like clover lung-swimming in rosin"—literally become the poetic essence of the identity of pine as the speaker's whole being, not just the rational component of the human mind, engages the world of nature and its emerging objects through his nascent language. No better description of the epistemological implications of Dickey's unity-effecting word-magic can be found than in an analogy between the primitive process of object formation and its relation to language, taken from the biblical narrative of creation. Cassirer recalls that after the word of God separated darkness from light to produce heaven and earth, the distinctively human element then entered the linguistic process of genesis:
the names of earthly creatures are no longer directly given by the Creator, but have to wait their assignment by Man…. In this act of appellation, man takes possession of the world both physically and intellectually—subjects it to his knowledge and his rule…. This unity, however, cannot be discovered except as it reveals itself in outward form by virtue of the concrete structures of language and myth, in which it is embodied, and from which it is afterward regained by the process of logical reflection.
Dickey's one-word conclusion to "Pine" thus signals his sacred finale to the linguistic process of inventing a "momentary god." In this kind of "holy" and "mythico-religious" atmosphere, the unity-effecting name and the god's nature (or power) are thus felt, however evanescently, to be one: "Glory."
Another formal achievement derived from the momentum of word-magic and magical thinking in The Eye-Beaters is the most dramatic aspect of Dickey's neo-Romanticism, namely, his reinvention of the ode of terror. To be sure, Dickey has explored the world of nightmares and dream consciousness from the very beginning of his work in poems such as "The Vegetable King" and "The Firebombing." However, in "Mercy" and "Madness," his word-magic in this volume signals his fullest and most frightening contribution to a genre of poetry that was extremely popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Represented on Coleridge's dark side by "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Dejection: An Ode," this genre took its criteria for excellence from Longinus's classic treatise "On the Sublime," especially that aspect of the sublime that focuses on "the most striking and vehement circumstances of passion." Because, in Edmund Burke's opinion, the sublime produces "the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling," and because terror was felt to be an emotional corollary of the feeling of religious dread occasioned by nothing less in importance than "the supreme evil," the ode of terror was held by many to be the highest form of lyric. Although there is no explicit theodicean component in "Victory," this historic genre—"so wildly awful, so gloomily terrific," as the eighteenth-century critic Nathan Drake enthusiastically put it—combined a number of traits that bear directly on Dickey:
To excel in this species of Ode demands a felicity and strength of genius that has seldom been attained; all the higher beauties of poetry, vastness of conception, brilliancy of colouring, grandeur of sentiment, the terrible and the appalling, must combine, and with mysterious energy alarm and elevate the imagination. A lightning of phrase should pervade the more empassioned parts, and an awful and even dreadful obscurity, from prophetic, or superhuman agency, diffuse its influence over the whole.
"Terrible" and "appalling," with a "mysterious energy" that appears to issue from a "superhuman agency," "Victory" is Dickey's striking nightmare poem about one of the most "supreme evil[s]" of human experience: world war. The poem recounts the story of a GI in the Pacific theater who anticipates the surrender of the Japanese on V-J Day (September 2, 1945) two years before the actual fact. "[T]wo birthdays // Back, in the jungle, before [he] sailed high on the rainbow / Waters of victory," the soldier drinks whiskey sent by his mother as a present, then explains to her—apparently, in a letter—how he later found himself drunk in a tattoo parlor in Yokahama, with "four / Men … bent over me," who tattoo his entire torso with a brightly colored snake that follows the contours of his body:
it was at my throat
Beginning with its tail,…
My armpit like a sailor's, scale
I retched but choked
It back, for he had crossed my breast….
Oh yes and now he lay low
On my belly, and gathered together the rainbow
Ships of Buckner Bay. I slumbered deep and he crossed the small
Of my back increased
His patchwork hold on my hip passed through the V between
My legs, and came
Around once more all but the head then I was turning the snake
Coiled round my right thigh and crossed
Me with light hands
The soldier's experience with this all-devouring, demonic snake warrants immediate comparison with two turbulent moments from Coleridge's odes of terror. Dickey's snake-filled, nightmare world in "Victory"—especially "the dark side / Of the mind"—recalls Coleridge's "viper thoughts, that coil around my mind, / Reality's dark dream!" from "Dejection: An Ode." When Coleridge turns from these viperous thoughts to "listen to the wind," he hears, with greater terror, the "groans, of trampled men, with smarting wounds—/ At once they groan with pain, and shudder with the cold!" Likewise, Dickey's world of war is filled with the pain of men, that of his living "buddies," "ready," as he is, "to sail … toward life / After death," along with the memories of "others long buried / At sea." Even more important, the retching and choking of Dickey's soldier in a time of war suggest the sixth stanza from "Ode to the Departing Year," which records Coleridge's rage and shock at human slaughter carried out in the name of liberty during the French Revolution and at the massacre of Ismail in 1770. After experiencing, "on no earthly shore," a nightmare vision of the Departing Year, whose past events and "robe [are] inscrib'd with gore," this Romantic poet awakes to find that his predatory dream continues to flood traumatically through his soul, to the same degree that World War II traumatically pervades Dickey's poetry and fiction (even half a century later in Dickey's best and most recent novel, To the White Sea). One has only to place sections from "Victory" and "Ode to the Departing Year" side by side to note the emotional frenzy and pain shared by the two writers. Here are Coleridge's words, still striking after two hundred years:
Yet still I gasp'd and reel'd with dread.
And ever, when the dream of night
Renews the phantom to my sight,
Cold sweat-drops gather on my limbs;
My ears throb hot; my eye-balls start;
My brain with horrid tumult swims;
Wild is the tempest of my heart;
And my thick and struggling breath
Imitates the toil of death!
No stranger agony confounds
The Soldier on the war-field spread,
When all foredone with toil and wounds,
Death-like he dozes among heaps of dead!
While terror signals the presence of an emotionally animating form in both poems and indicates the genre to which they belong, the method of closure in each differs considerably, and this difference sheds further light on the momentum of Dickey's word-magic. To be sure, both poems close with a suffocating terror that demands release. Each poet has worked his way through considerable psychological pain; however, to remain in a state of such dread is emotional, moral, and political paralysis. In short, the pervasive terror in the body of each ode demands the poet's return to action in his conclusion, lest the momentum in each piece remain mired in pathetic tragedy. This two-step process—stasis and renewal—occurs in Coleridge's ending when he warns England that it has been protected from the political terrors of the Departing Year primarily because of the military value of its geographic isolation. Threatened even as he closes, Coleridge hears "the Birds of warning sing," then personally resolves to be "unpartaking of the evil thing" and to remain alert, "Cleans'd from the vaporous passions that bedim / God's Image."
Dickey, also acutely aware of catastrophic evil in human nature, needs to be "Cleans'd" from his exposure to the atrocities of war, which, like Coleridge, he personifies in animal form. Although both poets subscribe to a harmonious pantheism that incorporates historical calamity as fully realistic material for the poetic imagination, Dickey postulates nothing like a divine providence—as does Coleridge when he "recentre[s]" his "immortal mind"—as a subsumptive or unifying principle to which he can appeal for relief. Instead, on a personal level, Dickey dramatizes an inferred, magical animism in which life and death are not exclusive opposites but shared moments in a cycle of perpetual motion. In a world in which life and death constantly emerge into and out of each other, Dickey's snake—unlike Coleridge's birds, "the famish'd brood of prey"—has a double nature. First, the boa constrictor-like coiling and physical mutilation of the snake constitute a "confrontation" or "death encounter" for the speaker, a poetic event that has an emotional analogy with his vast experience of death from war and simultaneously stands for his desire for the symbolic death of his mutilated war self. With what appears at first to be an "appalling" movement, the snake then enters its subject from behind, and an opposite movement begins, namely, the renewal of the soldier that is initiated in the poem's final line. Strangely enough, the motion of the snake alters—indeed, redeems—both serpent and host, for the snake acquires, in Drake's terms, a "mysterious energy" that transforms the soldier, Christ-like, into "the new prince of peace":
I felt myself opened
Just enough, where the serpent staggered on his last
Colors needles gasping for air jack-hammering
My right haunch burned by the hundreds
Of holes, as the snake shone on me complete escaping
Forever surviving crushing going home
To the bowels of the living,
His master, and the new prince of peace.
As is the case with Dickey's animals in many of his poems, such as "Approaching Prayer," "Eagles," "Reincarnation I and II," and "The Sheep Child," the snake now functions redemptively by assuming the role of what is a shamanic commonplace in anthropological literature, namely, a power animal. In keeping with the classical, mythological character of a power animal, Dickey's snake acquires a "mysterious power" that is both malign and benign. On the one hand, as a cross-cultural symbol of the range of human evil (including war), the snake is a traditional object of terror. Joseph Campbell says, "in its threatening character, as a traveling aesophagus, the serpent is … an image of the consuming power of the … will [in nature], foreboding death to all that lives." On the other hand, Campbell notes, "The ability of the serpent to shed its skin and thus to renew itself, as the moon is renewed by sloughing its shadow, has recommended it, throughout the world, as an obvious image of the mystery of the [same] will in nature, which is ever self-renewing in its generation of living beings." This ancient mythological connection between snake and moon thus enables the serpent to play its double role by providing it with the "self-renewing" power that is passed on to the soldier. In "Victory," as in "May Day Sermon" and "The Eye-Beaters," Dickey establishes yet another magical setting in which his poetic agent is energized as he tries to overcome overwhelming odds. On the road of this momentous psychic journey, Dickey's soldier struggles forward to rid himself of war by acquiring traits of natural objects which are really rhetorical, self-animating aspects of his own mind. That nature should seem beneficent and helpful, rather than another debilitating oppressor, adds considerably to the momentum of the healing process.
Consequently, in Dickey's ritual scene, the moon is not static but carries with it a renewing, ancient, magical light. For example, in "Victory," "two birthdays / Ago," when the soldier got drunk—drunkenness being another variation of the hallucinatory state of shamanic transition—he did so at night when "the moon burned with the light it had when it split // From the earth." Dickey's soldier, like this moon, has been "split" by war from the human and emotional ground that he desperately requires. However, this moon retains the "light" or energizing possibility to split, then become something different and uniquely powerful, a possibility and process that bear direct analogy to the soldier's ritual journey of healing and self-empowerment. While expressing a dynamic relation between life and death, metaphors throughout the poem further bind the motions of snake and moon, suggesting once more that, in Dickey's world, there operates something analogous to Frazer's principle of a power-exchanging, contagious magic. When the soldier says, "I reached for the bottle. It was dying and the moon / Writhed closer to be free," the dying energy of whiskey's liberating hallucination gives rise to the snakelike motion of the moon, which sheds its animating light on the soldier's "smile of foreknowledge" that he will survive the war. Similarly, just before the visionary snake emerges from the bottle, the speaker indicates another, closer connection between snake and moon that images the archetypal movement of life out of death: "Had the Form in the moon come from the dead soldier / Of your bottle, Mother?" Finally, even during the tattooing process, the passive host gives himself over to the animating, magical motion of the snake. Earlier, he described the snake by saying, "the angel / Of peace is limbless." Yet as the snake covers his body, the soldier identifies with the shape and motion of this "dreadful … superhuman agency" (Drake's terms) and so takes on its sustaining and renewing moon-energy as he notes, "limbless I fell and moved like moonlight / On the needles."
Even though Dickey's poem suggests that the "Form in the moon" (which I read to be an incipient image of the "snakehead") comes from a masculine source (albeit from his mother: "the dead soldier / Of your bottle"), and though the form's shape suggests a phallocentric image, the serpent is, by no means, a universal sign of masculine power. As an instrument of self-revelation and transformation, the serpent is conceived in many cultures as a feminine totem that symbolizes modes of coming to consciousness that bear directly on central religious components in Dickey's poem. For example, Campbell notes that in "India's Kundalini Yoga … the energy of life—all life—is symbolized as … a female serpent." In this sect,
The aim of the yoga is to wake this Serpent Maiden, coiled in upon herself, and bring her up the spine to full consciousness, both of herself and of the spiritual nature of all things. She is awakened by the sound of the energy of the light of consciousness (the sound of the syllable "om"), which is brought to her first on the rhythm of the breath, but fully heard only when she has uncoiled and ascended to the center of the heart.
As it does in this Indian ritual initiated through feminine power, the snake in "Victory" covers the soldier's body with a motion that constitutes a hypnotic, somatic meditation, a meditation that, like Dickey's poem, involves the total transformation and awareness of its participant. Examples of the movement of Dickey's snake warrant repeating here to confirm this striking analogy: "the snake … was at my throat / Beginning with its tail … moving under / My armpit…. He coiled around me … I turned with him side / To side … he grew…. I lay and it lay / Now over my heart … and I knew that many- / colored snakeskin was living with my heart our hearts / Beat as one."
In Campbell's citation, the symbolic purpose of the Indian snake is to unify all human emotional and psychic centers, whether at the lowest point in the genitals or at the higher reaches of the heart. This somatic concordance then leads each center along the "One Way Trail" to full consciousness at "the crown of the head." To carry the whole man—sensory and cognitive, conscious and unconscious—through a comprehensive healing process, Dickey's serpent enters the soldier's bowels with the ritual motion of the mythical ouraboros, the serpent eating its own tail in the eternally circular process of separation and return to an energizing source. When Dickey's serpent passes the navel (that part of the body that Campbell interprets as a mythological symbol of "[the] will to power, aggression") and enters the soldier, we may read this event as the poem's climactic moment, a culmination of the fully conscious, circular transformation of the aggressive, war-torn, and exhausted phallus into an instrument of peace and renewal. Thinking through the physical imagery of the male body, Dickey transcends the merely physical by concluding in the mystical tradition of T. S. Eliot in "East Coker." While we may see a pun equal to Kenneth Burke's wordplay in his essay on the bodily tropes, we also see a standard, religious oxymoron in Eliot's words that locates Dickey's poetic attitude in a well-documented series of theological traditions, namely, that "In my end is my beginning."
If one thinks that this kind of closural magic (or, indeed, the formal, snakelike movement of Dickey's poem down the page) is trivial or may be reduced to static, sensory experience, one needs only to examine similar forms of "religious" meditation in other cultures, ranging from that of the Hopi Indians to certain Oriental religions. Consistent with the world-views in many of these beliefs, Dickey's magical method in "Victory" is not a form of escapism but rather a nondualistic way of clearing the ego of earthly pain in order to stand outside dominating sensation and emotion, and thus to free oneself from their tyranny. In many ways, the animating emotional form of "Victory" is analogous to the utterance of the mythic syllable om, which carries its practitioner through levels of consciousness, beyond myriad mental opposites, to the infernal and celestial vision deep within one's own soul. Dickey's magical, religious method of closure is thus both ancient and cross-cultural; it is directed to an external narrative of traumatic historical events, yet also inner-directed to the most sensitive reaction to these events by the human body. That this method should involve a sexual component becomes even more intelligible when related to certain basic religious principles, shared by Buddhist and Hindu sects. As Campbell notes of the Sahajiya cult in the Pala dynasty from Bengal, between A.D. 700 and 1200:
it was held that the only true experience of the pure rapture of the void was the rapture of sexual union, wherein "each is both." This was the natural path … to the innate nature (sahaja) of oneself, and therewith of the universe: the path along which nature itself leads the way.
So we read … 'This sahaja is to be intuited within." "It is free from all sounds, colors, and qualities; can be neither spoken of nor known." "Where the mind dies out and the vital breath is gone, there is the Great Delight supreme: it neither stands steady nor fluctuates; nor is it expressible in words." "In that state the individual mind joins sahaja as water water." "There is no duality in sahaja. It is perfect, like the sky."
… One knows then: "I am the universe: I am the Buddha: I am perfect purity: I am non-cognition: I the annihilator of the cycle of existence."
"Victory" originally appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1968. Twenty-five years later, in fall 1993, Dickey dramatized yet again his paramount interest in mystical momentum by using word-magic to conclude his novel To the White Sea. Here, his hero-predator, the American tail gunner Muldrow, shot down over war-torn Japan, is killed by Japanese soldiers. As their bullets go through him, he does not exactly die but rather enters a desireless, objectless, bodiless world, like the Sahajiyaian realm of supreme rapture, in which "the mind dies out and the vital breath is gone," which "neither stands steady nor fluctuates," and in which there is "no duality," for "the individual mind joins [nature] as water water." This absolute, circular flow—the union of life and death, waking and dreaming, pain and the absence of sensation—then hypnotically transports him to a kind of waking trance beyond even these harmonious opposites. In the novel's final lines, Muldrow's predatory quest ends when he closes his eyes and the individuality of his speaking voice dissolves into a darkened silence, which Campbell calls the "fourth element" of om, "the sphere of bliss," described in the Mandukya Upanishad as "neither inward- nor outward-turned consciousness, nor the two together … neither knowing nor unknowing … the coming to peaceful rest of all differentiated, relative existence: utterly quiet: peaceful-blissful." In the purity of his motionless motion, this soldier, like the soldier in "Victory," is propelled by the momentum of Dickey's extraordinary word-magic into the ecstatic silence that is his and its own final form:
When I tell you this, just say that it came from a voice in the wind: a voice without a voice, which doesn't make a sound. You can pick it up any time it snows, where you are, or even just when the wind is from the north, from anywhere north of east or west. I was in the place I tried to get to. I had made it in exactly the shape I wanted to be in, though maybe just a little beat up. But the main thing was that I had got to the landscape and the weather, and you can remember me standing there with the bullets going through, and me not feeling a thing. There it was. A red wall blazed. For a second there was a terrific heat, like somebody had opened a furnace door, the most terrible heat, something that could have burned up the world, and I was sure I was gone. But the cold and the snow came back. The wind mixed the flakes, and I knew I had it. I was in it, and part of it. I matched it all. And I will be everywhere in it from now on. You will be able to hear me, just like you're hearing me now. Every-where in it, for the first time and the last, as soon as I close my eyes.
Martin Bidney (essay date Fall 1995)
SOURCE: "Spirit-Bird, Bowshot, Water-Snake, Corpses, Cosmic Love: Reshaping the Coleridge Legacy in Dickey's Deliverance," in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 31, No. 4, Fall, 1995, pp. 389-405.
[In the following essay, Bidney traces the influence of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's writing in Dickey's Deliverance.]
"I like to work my mind, such as it is," said James Dickey to Francis Roberts in 1968, "to see what I can get out of it and put into it. As John Livingston Lowes revealed in that wonderful book on Coleridge, The Road to Xanadu, if these things are in your mind, Lord knows what amalgams you can get out of it." Two years later, in his 1970 novel Deliverance, Dickey demonstrated his capacity to produce not only a visionary "amalgam" of the sort he found laid out in Lowes but, more surprisingly, a richly suggestive pattern of allusions to the work of Coleridge himself. In what follows I would like to offer a brief "Road to Deliverance," exploring that neo-Coleridgean pattern and its (re)visionary implications.
Dickey has elsewhere made clear his fondness for Coleridge. It has been noted that the last line of the war poem "Bread" ("I ate the food I ne'er had eat") varies "It ate the bread it ne'er had eat" from "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." And in 1965 Dickey expressed to an interviewer from Eclipse the ambition to produce in his own verse "a sense such as if you stumbled on the village idiot, and he began to mutter amazing things to you, and, like in 'The Ancient Mariner,' you could not help but hear…." Deliverance, as the title of my essay implies, is firmly anchored in the thematic pattern of "Mariner." But "The Eolian Harp" and "Dejection" and "Kubla Khan" will be seen to play a role as well; Dickey has done many and varied things with the legacy of his wise but troubled mentor.
Daniel B. Marin, the one critic who refers explicitly to "Ancient Mariner" in the context of Deliverance, writes that the tone at the book's conclusion is "quiet and maybe even melancholy. I am reminded of Coleridge's Wedding Guest: 'A sadder and a wiser man / He rose the morrow morn,' though not exactly. Is it that the note of 'pure abandon' Dickey reaches so wonderfully in the poetry can never be sung here in the darklight, in the 'darkness visible' of Deliverance?" My own feeling about the contrast between the endings of "Mariner" and Deliverance is rather the opposite of Marin's: I find Dickey more disposed to conclude on a note of comradely reassurance. Coleridge's aged sailor must endlessly retell the tale of his crime in an immortal repetition compulsion that is rightly styled "Life-in-Death." By contrast, Dickey's narrator Ed Gentry is not possessed by the vision of his narrative; the story is his possession—not something he owns up to guiltily, but something he owns proudly: "The river and everything I remembered about it became a possession to me, a personal, private possession, as nothing else in my life ever had. Now it ran nowhere but in my head, but there it ran as though immortally."
This is no Life-in-Death but a far pleasanter kind of immortality. Ed Gentry tells us that his hero-friend, Medlock Lewis—likewise no guilt-ridden intrusive presence but comfortingly called "a human being, and a good one"—refers to Ed confidentially as "U.C., which means—to him and me—'Unorganized Crime,' and this has become a kind of minor conversation piece at parties, and at lunch in the city with strangers." Unorganized Crime of this smoothed-over sort, when juxtaposed to the Mariner's paranoid guilt obsession, seems a fraternal joke, or a whimsical authorial wink at the visionary tradition: "U. C." = "You (and I) see."
Yet the sad wisdom invoked by Marin is deep-rooted in Dickey's book as well; indeed, the entire conflictual structure of the work is Coleridgean. Every reader of "Mariner" feels the unresolved tension between the explicit transcendent message of cosmic love and the punishing prophetic burden of the driven wanderer who is forced to preach it, the difficulty of separating divine revelation from cruel fate, heavenly truth from purgatorial reality. Dickey's two epigraphs epitomize a similar unresolved tension between metaphysical meaning and the sense of ungovernable chaos, as the biblical Obadiah reveals a meaningful moral order ("The pride of thine heart hath deceived thee") while the philosopher Georges Bataille blames the inescapable conditions of human life itself for our frustrations ("Il existe à la base de la vie humaine, un principe d'insuffisance").
This is the same tension or conflict that generally divides analyses of Dickey's book into two groups. Some critical accounts of Deliverance have emphasized the heartening messages apparently conveyed: "penetrating insights into the political values forged by the American experience" [Charles M. Redenius, "Recreating the Social Contract: James Dickey's Deliverance," The Canadian Review of American Studies 17 (1986): 285-99], "the alleviation of fears associated with the omnipotence of thought by making restitution for hostile, destructive wishes" [James W. Hamiltion, "James Dickey's Deliverance: Midlife and the Creative Process," in American Imago 384 (1981): 389-405], or the "discovery, in extremis, that the sole means of controlling anxiety is through the imposition of aesthetic order" and "the maintenance of civilized values" [Michail K. Glenday, "Deliverance and the Aesthetics of Survival," in American Literature 56 (1984): 149-61]. Other analyses have just as emphatically portrayed the overwhelming power of evil or "darkness visible" in Deliverance—the idea that the narrator's "being-beyond-himself is the result of an act of transgression" [Heinz Tschachler, "Un principe d'insuffisance: Dickey's Dialogue with Bataille," in Mosaic 20 (1987): 81-93], or the analogous potentials for evil revealed in both heroes and villains ("The 'countrified jerk' in the city who wants a girl's buttocks in his ad is a part of Ed himself, and his domain is deep in Ed's unconscious"; "The cat that claws the girl's panties in Ed's dream and the owl that rips the canvas of Ed's tent anticipate the bestial man who commands Bobby to 'drop them panties'" in the scene of sexual violence [Peggy Goodman Endel, "Dickey, Dante, and the Demonic: Reassessing Deliverance," in American Literature 60 (1988): 611-24]).
What the pattern of Coleridgean allusion accomplishes is to dramatize all these conflicting tendencies and thereby to heighten the visionary drama of Deliverance. We shall see that here, as in "Mariner," images of spirit-like bird and flashing water-snake each embody an ambivalence; juxtaposed, they create still further conflict. The motifs of multiple corpses and cosmic love, taken from Coleridge's enigmatic epos of terror and transcendence, are enlisted in the service of Dickey's equally vivid moral-metaphysical chiaroscuro. Additional themes—dulcimer and sacred circle from "Kubla Khan," wind-played musical instrument and dancing diamonds on the main from "The Eolian Harp," as well as the motifs of rottenness, water tracks, angels, fire-water unity and the moving moon from "Mariner"—give Deliverance a pervasively Coleridgean ambiance and make it a major neo-Romantic re-envisioning and revision.
"Revision" is the key word here, for it is not only the reassuring tonality of the ending that (as I have suggested) distinguishes Deliverance from "Mariner." Rather, this changed conclusion indicates a noticeable shift in concern—from the psychodynamics of persecution to the ambivalences central to (human) nature. Only through the extremely risky unleashing of a desire for violent victory does Ed attain the transcendent insights of pantheistic oneness. As Heinz Tschachler has shown, this is a troublesome dialectic traceable in part to Georges Bataille: in Deliverance as in the thinking of Bataille, only when the "principle of individuation" is put at risk (as a result of the individual's risking his life) are hidden continuities exposed to view and feelings of sacred merger briefly attainable. By strategic alterations and re-orchestration of Coleridgean motifs Dickey makes this thesis vivid and its exemplum ineffaceably present to the imagination.
As Lewis, with evangelizing fervor, outlines to Ed his project for a canoeing venture, the latter worries at one point that "he's going to turn this into … A lesson. A Moral"; here Ed shows the same discomfort with "morals" that Coleridge showed when responding to Anna Barbauld's complaint that "Ancient Mariner" lacked a moral, the poet famously countered that it had "too much" of one. Ed buys into the trip, mainly out of boredom induced by routine; when his wife asks, "Is it my fault?" he says no but thinks to himself that "it partly was, just as it's any woman's fault who represents normalcy." Ed likes his wife well enough; it's just that married life has the fault of being normal: in "Mariner" the Wedding Guest was obliged to direct his imaginative attention to something a good deal less normal than weddings, and in Deliverance the same priority is given to an extraordinary experience promised by a man. Lewis's surname, "Medlock," has in fact a striking resemblance to "wedlock," but what Lewis offers in proposing his expedition for a group of four men is a venture in platonic male bonding, a male adventure trip that will temporarily replace the routine life Ed leads in wedlock (an idea hideously parodied, of course, in the eventual rape committed by the rural stranger). One may find a bit of misogyny in this humdrum picture of marriage, but if so, it is a problem Dickey shares with Coleridge.
The chief attraction of the trip for Ed, as sportsman, is not canoeing but hunting with a bow; only in the film version is a crossbow used, certainly an additional contribution to "Mariner" thematics. Allusions to the motif of the albatross are also oblique, but they are multiple, varied, and ingenious. The alb-syllable, an etymon for the whiteness of the white bird, appears, along with the birdlike motif of music, when the "albino boy" Lonnie plays banjo in a duet of magical beauty with Ed's and Lewis's co-traveler Drew. Playing with Lonnie makes even the back of Drew's neck express "sheer joy": the albino conveys a sudden and profound inspiration, like that suggested by Coleridge's quasi-supernatural white bird. Each of the albino's eyes is singular in its strange independence, as they focus in different directions; soon afterwards, another singular eye, the "glazed" and "half-open" eye of a chicken's head, appears to the travelers in a stagnant patch of river downstream from the poultry plant. So even if no albatross is killed in Deliverance, the singular eye of the bird-related albino appears to us soon in a metamorphosed form of death.
Bird allusions abound in the first part of Deliverance; for example, a certain Mr. Holley, Ed's subordinate in his design consulting firm, turns "one of [Georges] Braque's birds into a Pegasus," and Lewis Medlock himself rather strikingly resembles a bird, with his "face like a hawk," beakish "longnosed" profile, and "whitish patch up toward the crown of his head." C. Hines Edwards, Jr. has specifically studied the prominent and recurrent owl-theme, noting the contrasts it embodies: the owl is at once bird "of prey" and "bird of wisdom," conventionally an "ill omen" and yet used in the book to suggest both nature and—in the form of the owl-shaped wind chime—civilization.
But two Coleridgean insights need to be added to this. First, the repeated mention of the "ringing of the owl on the other birds, in Martha's wind-toy at home" brings the bird motif together with the Aeolian harp motif, betokening Coleridgean inspiration: wind chimes are modern suburbia's answer to the Aeolian harp. Second, the owl that repeatedly visits Ed during the night—and whose frightening "stony toe" Ed even learns to touch without fear—resembles a familiar spirit, a haunting presence familiar yet uncanny in its incessant departures and returns: "All night the owl kept coming back to hunt from the top of the tent," just as the Coleridgean albatross, "every day, for food or play, / Came to the mariner's hollo!" In its quasi-supernatural uncanniness, in its friendly association with the wind-generated music favored by Coleridge, and in its ambivalent implications, Dickey's owl-symbol, like the musical albino, shares the enigmatic nature of the Coleridgean Mariner's albatross. Even in its size the owl is exceptional, closer to the ungainly dimensions of the Coleridgean bird—a "big night bird—surely it was very big, from the size of the nails and feet."
The ambivalent implications of both albatross and owl are in part covert: the Mariner has no way of suspecting that if he kills the albatross 200 sailors' deaths will result; and Ed, who spends the night pleasantly imagining the owl's hunting feats on its various flights, does not imagine that the huge "talons" which had so terrifyingly punctured the roof of his tent are foreshadowings of the lex talionis, the pitiless rule of retribution or Law of the Claw that will govern the latter part of the men's violent adventure. But in both the Coleridge and Dickey narratives, an atmosphere of nausea is quickly induced by the recurrent use of the theme of "rot" as the tales proceed. After the Mariner kills the bird, "The very deep did rot: O Christ! / That ever this should be!" After the rural villain commits his rape of Bobby, the adventurers find themselves "by a sump of some kind, a blue-black seepage of rotten water," and when Lewis kills the rapist and tries to bury the body, the earth has turned into sheer rot: "There was no earth; it was all leaves and rotten stuff. It had the smell of generations of mould." In both stories, intimations of unfathomably deep corruption overwhelm the soul and body.
Yet it is not long before the moon provides, for both Coleridge's and Dickey's protagonists, a moving emblem of visionary hope. Life-in-Death has won the Mariner's soul; Drew has been murdered by the rapist's cohort. Yet the Mariner, at least, has triumphed over Death itself; and Lewis and Ed have worked out their plans for both defense and retribution—they, too, can somehow glory in "pure survival." The moon, betokening hope, is evoked with strikingly similar language in the two works. Coleridge's marginal annotations describe a "silent joy" in the scene where "The moving Moon went up the sky, / And no where did abide: / Softly she was going up …" (emphases added). And Ed tells us his "heart expanded with joy" as he watched while "the moon was going up and up …" (emphases added). It will only take another moment, in both narratives, for the climactic water-snake epiphany to arise in moonlit glory.
Let us look first at the Coleridgean precedent, which Dickey will vary in a composite epiphany consisting of four brief episodes. In the light of the just-ascended moon, says the Mariner,
I watched the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.
O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware….
Traditionally cursed, the seeming symbol of evil is revealed as in its unfamiliar way wholly divine. Serpentine horrors can now be seen as inseparable from the life-power, the fertility and wisdom and immortality, that mythic traditions world-wide have rightly credited to the coiled ouroboros.
In Dickey's four-phase moonlit epiphany all the appearances of the water-snake are metaphoric. But they are overpoweringly real. And note the evocative borrowings already in phase one:
Despite everything, I looked down. The river had spread flat and filled with moonlight. It took up the whole of space under me, bearing in the center of itself a long coiling image of light, a chill, bending flame. I must have been seventy-five or a hundred feet above it, hanging poised over some kind of inescapable glory, a bright pit. (emphasis added)
Coleridge's "fire" is Dickey's "flame"; the Mariner's snakes that flashingly "coiled" have become Ed's "coiling image of light"; moonlight fills the water in both scenes. Dickey wants no loss of symbolic ambivalence in the transfer: he insists on the image of the snaky abyss in his "bright pit." Inescapable glory is wedded to acceptance of the lowest.
In fact, a few pages later the light spreads out on the water "eternally, the moon so huge on it that it hurt the eyes," just as the Mariner speaks soon afterward of the blinding lightning descending from moon-level as "a river steep and wide." And when "angelic spirits" come down instantly to enter the bodies of the dead and one of these spirits even helps the Mariner as they pull together "at one rope," a precedent is set for a vivid metaphoric wording in Dickey's analogous multiphase epiphany: "The thought struck me with my full adrenaline supply, all hitting the veins at once. Angelic. Angelic. Is that what it means? It very likely does. And I have a lot of nylon rope…." Coleridge writes of watersnakes and heavenly angels in the literal language of suspended disbelief, of high gothic dreamwork; Dickey's snakes and angels are metaphoric, observing the conventions of lyrical-psychological prose. But it is still visionary prose—vatic, and Coleridgean.
The third phase of the metaphoric water-snake epiphany returns to Coleridge's original depiction of the snakes:
What a view, I said again. The river was blank and mindless with beauty. It was the most glorious thing I have ever seen. But it was not seeing, really. For once it was not just seeing. It was beholding. I beheld the river in its icy pit of brightness, in its farbelow sound and indifference, in its large coil and tiny points and flashes of the moon, in its long sinuous form, in its uncomprehending consequence. (emphases added, except for "beheld," italicized by Dickey)
Words like "mindless" and "indifference" and "uncomprehending" recall the Mariner's blessing the snakes "unaware"; the "large coil" and "long sinuous form" make the serpent-image gloriously present in an emphatically Coleridgean way; the "tiny points and flashes of the moon" on the water clearly recall the "hoary flakes" of moonlight and the multiform "flash" of reflected moon-fire from Coleridge's sacred scene. Ed's experience is a visionary triumph—an act of not mere seeing but beholding—in itself. But reading it with Coleridge in mind heightens its vibrancy and reveals it as a worthy homage to a suitably complex and many-sided master.
The fourth and final phase of the neo-Coleridgean epiphany repeats and underlines the main motifs—awe, the life-force, the moon, the metaphoric snake, the visionary light:
Fear and a kind of enormous moon-blazing sexuality lifted me, millimeter by millimeter…. I looked for a slice of gold … in the river … something lovable, in the huge serpent-shape of light.
Above me the darks changed, and in one of them was a star. On both sides of that small light the rocks went on up, black and solid as ever, but their power was broken….
I was crying. What reason? There was not any, for I was really not ashamed or terrified; I was just there…. Lord, Lord. The river hazed and danced into the sparkle of my eyelashes, the more wonderful for being unbearable. (emphases added)
Ed's mysterious sense that the "power" of the rocks was "broken" by the visionary light makes us remember how "The spell begins to break" in Coleridge's marginal annotation to the line, after the water-snake epiphany, in which the Mariner finds himself finally able again to worship. "That selfsame moment I could pray," says the Mariner—the precedent for Ed's joyous, awed outcry, "Lord, Lord." The fact that the river "hazed and danced into the sparkle of [Ed's] eyelashes" (emphases added) alludes to yet another epiphanic scene: recall the speaker in "The Eolian Harp," who stretches his limbs at noon "Whilst through my half-clos'd eyelids I behold / The sunbeams dance, like diamonds, on the main" (emphases added). Dickey has conflated two scenarios of Coleridgean glory.
Coleridgean revelation also sheds a closely reláted light on Ed's foolhardy but heroic adventurer-mentor, Lewis Medlock. For all his miscalculations and improvidence, Medlock is deemed worthy of transfiguration for a moment in a clever variant of the Mariner's water-snake reverie. We remember that when the water-snakes glided through the moonlit waves, "every track / Was a flash of golden fire": the tracks of the glorious creatures seem wondrously to unite the incompatible elements of fire and water. The same word, "track," the same motif of tracks in the water, and the same quasi-miraculous union of the fiery and the liquid ("red" for fire and "blue" for water) are motifs reworked in Ed's wonderstruck portrait of his mentor:
Everything he had done for himself for years paid off as he stood there in his tracks in the water. I could tell by the way he glanced at me; the payoff was in my eyes…. The muscles were bound up in him smoothly, and when he moved, the veins in the moving part would surface. If you looked at him that way, he seemed made out of well-matched red-brown chunks wrapped in blue wire. (emphases added)
The "Mariner" variation is ingenious, unobtrusive, and effective. In the vivid and often coarse tale that constitutes Deliverance, Dickey has lost none of the delicate allusive subtlety that distinguishes him as lyric poet.
When Coleridge somewhat perversely insisted to Mrs. Barbauld that "Ancient Mariner" had too much of a moral—that it "ought to have had no more moral than the Arabian Nights' tale" of the merchant who, during a snack, tosses a nutshell aside and is accused of murder because a genie claims the shell has put out the eye of the genie's son—Coleridge was mistaken. The cosmic love moral, as we may call it—
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all
—is crucial to the poem's enduring fascination, which lies precisely in the tension between the Mariner's moment of transcendence and the immense, absurdly disproportionate price he has to pay for it. Such paradoxes afflict and bless and puzzle all of us. James Dickey's Deliverance likewise takes account of them, building on Coleridge's insights, not on his arbitrary or irked disclaimers.
There are many cosmic love or universal empathy passages in Dickey's narrative, suitably presented in the context of the four-phase water-snake epiphany: for example, as he moves up the steep escarpment, Ed begins, as it were, to "make love to the cliff"; as he inches upward he moves "with the most intimate motions of my body, motions I had never dared use with Martha, or with any other human woman." But the central, most striking passage of paradoxical empathy is the one in which Ed opens up to a strange transpersonal oneness with his enemy, precisely the man on whom he will wreak revenge with a bowshot for the murder of Drew:
I had thought so long and hard about him that to this day I still believe I felt, in the moonlight, our minds fuse. It was not that I felt myself turning evil, but that an enormous physical indifference, as vast as the whole abyss of light at my feet, came to me: an indifference not only to the other man's body scrambling and kicking on the ground with an arrow through it, but also to mine. If Lewis had not shot his companion, he and I would have made a kind of love, painful and terrifying to me, in some dreadful way pleasurable to him, but we would have been together in the flesh, there on the floor of the woods, and it was strange to think of it.
This cosmic empathy feeling recurs repeatedly in ever-changing forms: a few pages later we read, for example,
The needles were filling slowly with the beginnings of daylight, and the tree began to flow softly, shining the frail light held by the needles inward on me, and I felt as though I were giving it back outward.
Even after he has killed the offender, Ed feels that "His brain and mine unlocked and fell apart, and in a way I was sorry to see it go. I never had thought with another man's mind on matters of life and death, and would never think that way again." The precedent for these seemingly inconceivable unities disclosed in existential crisis may be found in "Mariner," but the Coleridgean revelation is elaborated and multiply varied in Deliverance.
It would not be easy—to say the least of it—for Ed "to get used to the idea that I had buried three men [the rapist killed by Lewis, then Drew, and finally Drew's murderer] in two days, and that I had killed one of them." But the neo-Coleridgean fascination of Ed's narrative would not exert its hypnotic force without both of the factors that constitute the book's reason-challengingantinomy, its tragic enlightenment: multiple corpses and cosmic empathy; deadly peril and lifegiving love—a quasi-mystical or pantheist transcendence that arises from an existential test, pushing aside the principle of individuation to reveal unimaginable continuities, unsuspected and not always gratifying oneness.
It is in the light of this antinomy, finally, that we should read the "Kubla Khan" and "Dejection" allusions in the earlier part of Deliverance—which I have postponed for separate treatment for that reason. These unmistakable allusions begin when Lewis tries to interest Ed in the folkloric riches of mountain music: "there are songs in those hills that collectors have never put on tape. And I've seen one family with a dulcimer." "If those people in the hills," retorts Ed skeptically, "the ones with the folk songs and dulcimers, came out of the hills and led us all toward a new heaven and a new earth, it would not make a particle of difference to me" (emphases added). In this wittily allusive interchange we not only hear an echo of Coleridge's "damsel with a dulcimer" but also an ironic reference to the "new Earth and new Heaven" which Imagination gives us by "wedding Nature to us"—as it does when Aeolian harps (which are wind-dulcimers, emblems of the harmonious unity of spirit/breath and world) function properly.
The Coleridgean irony grows into a dreadful grotesquerie after the villainous rapist, mortally wounded by Lewis's avenging arrow, goes into "convulsions" that resemble the visionary seizure of the shaman-figure depicted in "Kubla Khan":
He took a couple of strides toward the woods and then seemed to change his mind and danced back to me, lurching and clog-stepping in a secret circle. He held out a hand to me, like a prophet…. (emphases added)
The verb "danced" and the "secret circle" make us think of Coleridge's "Weave a circle round him thrice"—a circle woven precisely through ritual dance; the "lurching" and "convulsions" of the dizzily dancing victim recall the "flashing eyes and floating hair" of the shamanistic seer in "Kubla Khan," his being possessed in a state of seizure, a fit—precisely the mad ecstasy of a "prophet," as Dickey says. All this relates with horrific irony but all-too-evident appropriateness—via the mountain "dulcimer" motif—to the evil archetype of the "demon-lover."
Yet there is a Coleridgean tragic tenderness, as well, in Dickey's final symbolic depiction of the criminal-victim's farewell: "He held out a hand to me, like a prophet…." In a context of Coleridgean allusion, the word "prophecy" refers to no specific predictions or forecasts; rather, it points to some transcendent insight or awareness of ultimate value: here, the prophetic insight acquired—even by a bestial villain—at the threshold of death is unspoken, perhaps unspeakable. The Ancient Mariner, too, was a prophet, though a reluctant one, like Jonah, or like Paul. It may, indeed, be best to end our comparative journey with this final instance of an epitomizing symbol of deep kinships that can never be fully articulated, a symbolic gesture that serves as testimony to a neo-Coleridgean seed of enlightenment arising from crisis and trial, a "bright pit."
Susanna Rich (review date Winter 1996)
SOURCE: "Dickey's 'The Firebombing,'" in The Explicator, Vol. 54, No. 2, Winter, 1996, pp. 110-13.
[In the following review, Rich asserts that Dickey's poem "The Firebombing" "can be shown to implicate the reader in the blame for the firebombing of Japan during World War II."]
Jacques-Louis David originally displayed his painting The Sabines facing a cartouched oval mirror. When patrons turned their backs to the painting to look into the mirror, they saw themselves flattened two-dimensionally into the midst of the battle of the Sabines against the Romans—either imprinted over the central figure of the woman with arms outstretched as if on a crucifix, or standing under her arms, as if under protective wings. With a slight shift, the viewer became imprinted over the figure of the naked invading Roman who has his back to us, a round shield covering him. David's unusual orchestration made a political statement at the time of the French Revolution: We are all involved and implicated in the struggle over freedom. The spectator may turn a back to it only to find herself or himself more fully reflected in it.
What David did with The Sabines, James Dickey does with his perhaps most controversial poem "The Firebombing." This poem, written sympathetically from the point of view of an ex-bomber pilot in World War II, has been described by Robert Bly as "gloating over power over others." He calls Dickey a "Georgia Cracker Kipling" for writing what Bly characterizes as "new critical brainwashing that doesn't wash." But "The Firebombing" can be shown to implicate the reader in the blame for the firebombing of Japan during World War II. Bearing out the experiences of many war veterans, this reading is sound on several levels. First, politically, by sanctioning a government that, in war, sends people into battle, Americans sanction the bloodshed that ensues. Soldiers follow orders that are, "on behalf of the American people." Second, psychologically, when the weight of guilt is too hard to bear, we pass it on to others to share it with us. Dickey, through the mirror of his craft, deftly reflects back into the picture those of us who deny complicity and disagree with the poem's message.
The poem begins with a rousing imperative, much like a pep talk given by a sergeant to his soldiers: "Homeowners unite"—a one-line, two-word stanza that looms larger because of the frame of white space around it. Dickey uses five of these one-line stanzas in the first three pages, and then, just when we become accustomed to them, stops. His stanzas vary in length, organization, and line length. Sometimes he begins the next line at the visual point where the previous line ends. We feel dropped. All this variation is unsettling, inviting us to grasp onto some comforting structure, impose it ourselves, just as a government imposes orders onto its military in the chaos of battle.
Unsettling, as well, is his shift to triple spacing between words, dividing verbs from adverbs, prepositions from their objects, verbs from their objects, nouns from their verbs. This invites the reader to try, albeit unconsciously, to pull the words back to comfortable regularity, thus including the reader in the shaping of the words on the page and, by implication, closing the distance between us as passive listeners and the speaker as active creator. In some places this spacing invites us to punctuate, as for example in these lines:
Grocery baskets toy fire engines
New Buicks stalled by the half-moon
Shining at midnight on crossroads green paint
Of jolly garden tools red Christmas ribbons:
This invitation to punctuate is a haunting move, for dropping punctuation into written discourse as an afterthought, done by someone other than the author, is visually, and metaphorically, like dropping bombs into a landscape.
Dickey further unsettles us with stutterings:
In a dark dream that that is
That is like flying inside someone's head
Think of this this of this
Letting go letting go
As with any stutterer, we are tempted to say it for him just to stop the halting, get closure, be finished with it. And so we are drawn into the bombing, for these lines stutter the way a machine gun would. We want the words to empty out, the bombs to leave the bomb bay. With these and other unsettling moves Dickey makes us vulnerable, forcing us to look for some structure into which we can settle.
Dickey also draws us in with patterns such as anagramatic alliteration. For example, he often starts a series of lines with the same letters, as in stanza 3:
There are cowl flaps …
The shovel-marked …
The enemy …
Forever I do sleep …
For home that breaks …
From my wingtips …
Even his capitalization of first words offers the safety of return, and so we grab for the next line, and the next line, and are driven along to read more of the bomber's rapturous ode. Then there are visual and aural alliterations that link words in lines and across lines: the b's in,
Break under the first bomb, around those
In bed, or late in public baths …
and the look and sound of c's in,
Of Chicago fire:
Come up with the carp pond showing …
Whitmanesque catalogues of the landscape viewed from the cockpit name the elements of what is being bombed, like Adam's first naming and thus making conscious the parts of Paradise. We are drawn to this voice by its exuberance and power. We want to be part of a power that is not affected by moral strictures that seem, like the Japanese villages seen from the distance of an airplane, mere abstractions.
It would be easy for us to blame the pilot-speaker, to unburden ourselves of the guilt of having enjoyed this poem and of feeling the power of destruction. But there is the "Catch 22": If we blame the firebomber, we destroy what we have co-created, and if we do not, then we are co-pilots and guilty as well.
Dickey begins "The Firebombing" with an epigram taken from the Book of Job, "Or hast thou an arm like God?" Dickey offers us two alternatives: to be blameworthy by blaming the firebomber for his lack of guilt, or to be forgiven by forgiving: to damn like the devil, or to forgive with the sweep of God's arm, and thus, like David's spectator, become the Christlike Sabine with outstretched arms—the one taken in violence.
Keen Butterworth (essay date Spring 1996)
SOURCE: "The Savage Mind: James Dickey's Deliverance," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, Spring, 1996, pp. 69-78.
[In the following essay, Butterworth discusses the savage side of man portrayed in Dickey's Deliverance and analyzes how characterization structures the novel.]
On the dust jacket of the first edition of James Dickey's Deliverance an eye peers out through a surrounding cluster of hemlock fronds. It is not the poison hemlock shrub of Socrates, but the benign water-loving hemlock tree (Tsuga canadensis) of our Appalachian forests. It would grow in abundance, probably in virgin stands, along the Cahulawassee, the fictional river on which most of the story of Deliverance takes place. The fronds provide the screen of Nature from which the eye looks out. The eye's blue iris is the color of the sky—or of clear deep pools of water. The white ball is the color of clouds—or of turbid falling waters. The skin around the eye has the green cast of deep forests. Is it the eye of the murderous mountaineer? The eye of the narrator Ed Gentry? Of some Nature spirit or pantheistic god? Is it the eye of the author? Probably it is all of these, for it is the eye of the book itself.
In lectures and readings Dickey often quotes the final statement of [Rainer Maria] Rilke's poem "Archaic Torso of Apollo": "You must change your life." (Du muss dela leben andern.) This, says Dickey, is what all important art demands, and certainly this is the effect that Dickey wants his work—poems and novels—to have on his readers. I am reminded of the warning Boehme gives at the outset of one of his books: he asks his readers to go no further unless they are willing to make changes in their lives that the book will call for; if they are not, then reading the book might be bad for them, even dangerous. Readers of Deliverance might heed a similar warning, for the novel records a harrowing descent into the abyss, the dark chasm of our own psyches; and the change Dickey calls for is in our understanding of ourselves as human animals whose genetic origins lie in a dark but certain past. Unless the reader understands the violence of the story as it relates to his own psyche, then the effect of the novel might indeed be dangerous.
"Denn da ist keine Stelle, die dich nicht sieht." This assertion which precedes the final statement of Rilke's poem seems even more to the point: "There is no part that does not see you." We stand naked before the naked work of art. It sees us—and if we have the stomach for it, we see ourselves, through reflection and contrast—for what we are: flawed, incomplete creatures; and we must change, or, at least, accept the imperative to change.
Flawed certainly, but to say we are incomplete may be misleading: our incompleteness often results from our refusal to accept a part of ourselves, an innate part of our psyches, which we are afraid to claim. Under the intimidating light of modern civilization, we hide our shadow, our instinctual selves, not only because we distrust it, but also because John Locke and the Enlightenment have convinced us that it does not exist. The Puritan Manichean ethos has taught us to project it conveniently elsewhere—as the devil, or on some darker complexioned race. Yet from time to time we feel the Aurignacian Man lurking just beneath our skins, and that scares the devil out of us; so we turn him out, or push him back deep into the recesses of our psyches, where we will not have to face his reality at close hand. To that subterfuge of modern man Dickey says his No—not in Thunder, but to the roar of mountain water. In the poem "Falling" the protagonist strips away her clothes, the integuments of civilization, to the roar of wind, as she falls from womb to grave, discovering—or inventing—in the process who she is. In Deliverance Dickey strips himself bare by breaking the psyche down into its component parts and testing them in a baptism, a trial by water, original water, near the source, not yet damped by the controls of civilization: the uterine font, launching the quarter of characters forth into a new life where only the fittest will prevail.
And so the eye of Dickey's book sees us: subdued creatures of an urban-industrial civilization, separated from Nature—save our own; and that nature-in-ourselves we cannot understand because of our isolation from the natural world which could furnish the analogies necessary for understanding. The rise of civilization, Carl Jung tells us, has been the history of the rational mind's successive gains against the instinctual, until we scarcely recognize ourselves as part of the natural world at all, but rather, in the Christian redaction, as separate creations altogether. The problems caused by this sublimation have been enumerated and analyzed by modern psychology. In Deliverance those problems, and perhaps a solution, have been dramatized.
Deliverance. From what? From the murderous mountain men? From the primordial dangers of the river? Certainly these are the most obvious referents of the title. But there is also the implication of a deliverance from the enslaving monotony of modern urban life. And, beyond that, to a deliverance from the parts of ourselves which also hold us in a kind of bondage, which thwart self-knowledge and consequently hinder our pursuit of vitality itself.
Dickey has discouraged symbolic readings of his novels and poems because he wants to emphasize the importance of story and storytelling, which he feels are too often devalued by modern theory and practice. Whatever meaning, in the abstract sense, his work might suggest has grown out of narrative action. This is certainly a healthy corrective to synthetic theories deriving from Poe and tracing their development through the symbolists, T. S. Eliot's objective correlative, to the postmodern practices of the anti-novel, where effect (or idea) is the first consideration and the synthesis of materials to produce that effect second: narrative thus becomes tertiary—a means of effecting the synthesis, often by inventive but unnatural means. Dickey opts for Nature. He would agree, I think, with [Walter Savage] Landor's old philosopher: "Nature I loved, and next to Nature Art." For Dickey empirical experience is authentic, salutary. His mode is thus mimetic, but informed by the esemplastic imagination.
Form and metaphor, Dickey says, must grow out of the material. But then, too, we know that the imagination of the artist is attracted to those materials in which form and metaphor inhere. First, the basic structure of Deliverance is archetypal: Descent and Return—as old at least as The Gilgamesh, and tracing its lineage upward through The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, King Lear, Faust, Moby-Dick. There are some who hold that it is the basic structure of all great narrative. It is certainly the emphasized structure of Deliverance. Then, there is the river—the great mystery and power of water: life-giving but dangerous, vitalizing, primarily feminine in its associations. American literature is obsessed with water, whether it be [James Fenimore] Cooper's and Poe's and Melville's oceanic expanses, or Twain's and Faulkner's rivers. Water is life—vast and deep in the collective oceans, flowing and inexorable in its journey from highlands to estuary. But Dickey's Cahulawassee differs significantly from Twain's and Faulkner's Mississippi. It is the river of origins, chaotic and primitive. The Mississippi has tremendous power, but it is a gathered power, belied by its placid surface. The Cahulawassee is anything but placid; it is too original and unsophisticated to disguise its energy as it plunges through the rapids and gorges of North Georgia. It represents life untouched by the civilizing hand of man, or even by the tempering forces of Nature itself. The river is raw and wild.
On the other hand, there is the opposing metaphor of the dam being built at Aintry, which will cause the submersion of the river as it floods the valleys and gorges through which the characters of the novel travel. The dam is a symbol of man's abstractions, of Bergson's geometric order. As an architectural structure, it is like man's laws, his mores, his religions, his arts, which he uses to subdue and control the wild and primitive vitality in himself. As the waters rise behind the dam, they will subdue the wild river, diffuse its power, and cover over the rugged landscape it has wrought. Finally, it will create a placid, monotonous surface, and the wild river will be only a personal memory of those who have experienced it, or a cultural memory of those who have heard or read the stories told by their forebears. Like the dam, the shaping forms of civilization do not so much create order as they effect a monotonous peace which allows man to go about his daily business without threat of disruption. Instinct and passion are sublimated for the sake of society and progress.
Dickey illustrates this monotonous peace in the first section of the novel. In this prologue entitled "Before," Ed Gentry, the narrator, goes through his daily routines as an advertising executive and suburban family man in Atlanta. By the standards of modern society, it is a good life, but dull and feminized: when Ed returns to his office from lunch, he realizes there is not a man, save himself, on the street, only a bevy of women. His business, though prosperous, is mediocre: it cannot even strive for excellence, lest it out-class the market and thus lose accounts. His wife Martha is a generous, sympathetic woman, but their sexual coupling indicates that romance and adventure have long since departed their marriage. The only excitement Ed experiences is caused by the gold fleck in the eye of a nearly nude model his agency has employed. The eye is different, mysterious—it seems to represent the flaw in humanity, in the human condition, which can be beautiful and fascinating, particularly when found in an object or person approximating perfection. It is a symbol of mystery and exotic possibility. Her eye seizes Ed's imagination, and its image comes back to him several times during the course of the novel; but it offers only a temporary relief from the general boredom of his life.
At an unconscious level, Ed seeks deliverance from the monotony and tedium of this urban-suburban life. Yet he hesitates to go on the trip his friend Lewis Medlock has planned down the Cahulawassee. Adventure seems hardly worth the trouble of disrupting the comfortable apathy of his life, just as a passionate pursuit of the girl with the golden eye would disrupt his impersonal business relations. But he goes nevertheless because of the contagious enthusiasm of Lewis: psychologically, it would be more difficult for Ed to refuse Lewis than to go along with him. Thus, in a way, even here, Ed is choosing a path of least resistance. He is seduced by Lewis's enthusiasm: when Lewis rolls the topographical map out on the table for Drew, Bobby, and Ed to see, he makes the trip sound like pure romance. The map, however, gives no more idea of what the actual terrain is like than a textbook in anthropology allows us to understand the life of an ice-age hunter. It is an abstraction, another of the reductions by which we separate ourselves from the concrete reality of things and events. There are only two ways of confronting and understanding that reality. Direct experience: the way of Ed Gentry. Or by an act of the imagination: the way of Dickey, the poet-novelist.
What happens to the characters during their ordeal on the Cahulawassee, and what they learn from that experience, is directly related to the personalities they reveal during the course of the narrative. Drew is a corporate executive with a highly developed sense of social and moral order. He is an organization man, but in the best, not the pejorative, sense of the term. He is also a family man with a strong sense of duty. His love of music, which has a mathematical order and logic, but also an emotional warmth, reflects these qualities in him. Even his last name, Ballenger, might suggest balance. Because of this highly developed sense of order and social morality, Drew is not able to cope with the chaos of the primitive drama in which he is forced to participate. Consequently, he is destroyed.
Bobby, on the other hand, is violated, but not destroyed. He is a social being also, but without the ideals of Drew. Whereas Drew is an executive with responsibility and position, Bobby is the salesman who has to sell himself, to please and win others, at whatever cost to his own integrity and pride. He also lacks discipline, as revealed by Ed's memory of his blowing up at a party. He is the softest, effeminate and porcine, and the quickest to complain. Thus, Bobby cannot protect himself from the violation of his being by gratuitous evil, represented by the two mountaineers, Stovall and Benson. But he does survive that violation, because his moral lassitude (some might call it flexibility) allows him to.
Lewis Medlock, the enthusiast and instigator of the trip, is quite different from either Drew or Bobby. He is a man of independent means, directly indebted to no one. He can develop his individuality at will—which he does, and thus comes to believe in his own invincibility. He has become expert at every athletic activity he pursues—archery, fly-casting, weight-lifting—and insists on doing everything his own way. He even believes that he can survive a nuclear holocaust, if it comes. As Ed says, Lewis thinks he is immortal. Perhaps Lewis is weakened by his overspecialization and hubris. In the course of the ordeal he is humbled by his experience and forced to realize his vulnerability and mortality. He is a changed and wiser man when he returns to Atlanta.
Ed is the most successful of the tour men in coping with his experience, probably because he is the best all around, and the least specialized. He also has more imagination, more of a power of empathy or negative capability, than the other three. He is able to understand moral relativity and adapt to the unexpected very quickly. He also establishes a rapport with nature in a short time, even though almost totally ignorant of her ways before this adventure. His flexibility allows him to enter into the drama of survival of the fittest and call on reserves deep inside himself to predict and destroy his enemy. As a result of his experience he realizes the violence that man, himself included, is capable of committing, but he can also take pride in his ability to enter the primitive world on its own terms and survive if not triumph over it. "Deliverance" at this level takes on a new meaning: it suggests that Ed has been delivered from the terror of his primitive ordeal and the realized savage in himself. When he returns to Atlanta, he has a new understanding of himself and an appreciation of the values and amenities of civilized life. His experience has indeed been a "recreation," in a way he could not have suspected when he drove north out of Atlanta with Lewis: it has been a "re-creation" of the life of his distant ancestry—tribal, or even pretribal, man. The routines, the manners, the trivialized human encounters of modern life—these are the price we pay for our deliverance from the terrors of primal chaos. But our realization and memory of that terror can give meaning, and poignancy, to the tedium of our daily lives. This is the lesson Ed Gentry has learned, and his memory will keep that lesson alive. Ed has, indeed, "changed his life."
Dickey's use of characterization to structure and inform Deliverance suggests other possibilities of interpretation as well. From a certain angle of vision, the four main characters appear to be four aspects of the author's own personality. In fact, they might be classified in psychoanalytic terms. Bobby has certain characteristics of the id: he is concerned with his own immediate comfort and gratification; he is impulsive, almost totally lacking in self-control: he is androgynous, undifferentiated, social without a social conscience. Because he lacks anything like a "higher" consciousness, we might say that he lives on an animal level, the level of instinct, much as the id operates within the psychic totality. (In this regard, the mountaineers, Benson and Stovall, who rape Bobby, probably murder Drew, and threaten to kill Lewis and Ed, might be seen as elements of the libido, an unchecked and undifferentiated sexual energy which is frightening and destructive until brought under control by the psyche.)
Lewis, on the other hand, can be seen as the ego: he is concerned with his own survival as an individual, not with the survival of society; he values his relative independence from the economic institutions of society; of all the characters he is the most in touch with external (physical) reality; he is disciplined, but only in activities related to his personal fitness for survival. Before the ordeal on the Cahulawassee he believes, as [Sigmund] Freud said of the ego, that he is "immortal."
Drew is like the superego: he is social-institutional man; his values are the internalized codes of his civilization; his reactions are not instinctive, but they are reflexive, because in him the internalization of values is so complete that they operate on an unconscious level. (I am avoiding here the question of how much of social consciousness is innate and how much learned. The modern science of ethology has indeed shown that a large part of what we might call "superego" is instinctual and present in many of the mammalian species. But for the purposes of the analysis here I am assuming that consideration irrelevant.) Drew places more value on corporate and social well-being than on his own. His highest allegiance is to the articulated principles, such as law, that make civilization possible. His love of music might seem an anomaly, but it is not. Music mediates and formalizes the instincts and passions through the orderly arrangement of tone and rhythm, and thus allows "civil" communication. It expresses our human interrelatedness: like the other arts it is one of the highest expressions of our sense of community.
Ed Gentry is the psyche: he takes charge over the other components of the personality, because none of them, by themselves, is adequate to meet the demands of the ordeal, which require the totality of self for survival. As narrator, Ed is the mediator between the other characters and the external world (represented by the reading public), just as the psyche must be the mediator between the various components of the personality and its environment. Ed is adequate to the task; thus, the self, though much battered and altered, prevails. An interesting development, however, is that Bobby (the id) disappears: although the id survives, the ordeal has dispatched it so that the psyche no longer has to deal with it directly. The id has been chastened and brought under control; it is sufficient only that the psyche remember that the id still exists.
On the other hand, Drew, the superego, does not survive. The implication here is that an automatic, reflexive code based on societal values cannot survive when it ventures beyond the protective boundaries of the civilization that evolved those values for its own preservation. In the primal chaos outside those boundaries, the superego is not only irrelevant; it is also a hindrance to survival. Thus it is destroyed. This does not mean that the superego is without value. As Ed says at the end of the novel, Drew was the "best" of the bunch of them. Because of the psychic violence of the ordeal, the superego cannot survive as an autonomous component of the self, but it can be valued in memory as a valuable principle.
Although this Freudian structure may not be immediately obvious, once discovered it seems too precise not to have been a consideration during composition. In my own conversations with Dickey, however, he has denied that he was conscious of this division of the Freudian paradigm among the four characters of the novel. If this is so, an interesting possibility is raised: Freudian metaphor has become so imbedded in modern thought that it often functions today at a subliminal level.
An indication that Dickey consciously intended the four major characters to represent aspects of himself is the distribution of his vocations and hobbies among them. The narrator Ed Gentry is an advertising executive in Atlanta: Dickey had been a highly successful advertising executive in Atlanta and New York during the late 1950s. Lewis Medlock lifts weights and is an expert archer: Dickey was an athlete who took his weightlifting seriously, and during the 1950s and 60s he became an expert field archer—an accomplishment he has been quite proud of. Drew Ballenger is a guitarist: Dickey's house is filled with guitars, both 6- and 12-stringed varieties; during the 1960s he practiced on the instrument religiously and became a technically proficient musician, and he still plays with much enjoyment today.
That leaves only Bobby Trippe to account for: he has no talents except his sociability; his name suggests the porcine and unsavory; his behavior is childish, cowardly, and embarrassing. It seems that Bobby represents that undisciplined and sometimes ludicrous part of the self that we all wish to be rid of. And that is just what Dickey does in the course of the novel: dispatch Bobby to regions where he will not be an embarrassment to Ed and Lewis.
If the four characters represent aspects of the author, the novel can then be seen as metaphor for Dickey's own life. He leaves the security of a good position in advertising and a comfortable middle-class family existence to enter the imaginative life of the poet. That life requires a descent into the abyss of being to find the sources of imaginative energy. Horrors lurk there, but discovery of the hidden self can be exhilarating. The poet finds in the depths and recesses of the conscious and unconscious mind the primitive well-springs of the poetic imagination. Support for this interpretation can be found in the sleep-dream motif of the novel. Before the adventure, Ed plunged deeply into sleep each night, probably to renew contact with the unconscious sources of vitality. But something has always kept him from remembering what he dreamed; his internal censor will not allow the dreams' contents to rise to consciousness. On the trip with Lewis to the Cahulawassee, Ed moves in and out of sleep, as though he is about to enter a dream. And indeed he does—a nightmare out of man's primitive past, violent and lawless. And this time he brings the dream back into the light of consciousness by telling us about it, just as the poet Dickey is objectifying and dramatizing, through metaphor, his descent into his own elemental self.
Deliverance is not an American Heart of Darkness. Unlike Marlow, the American hero does not beat a paranoiac retreat when he encounters the primitive aspects of his own psyche; rather he approaches those manifestations, with trepidation perhaps, but also with fascination and a desire to understand their meaning and value. Natty Bumppo, Ishmael, Huck Finn, Isaac McCaslin, R. P. McMurphy, all embrace their shadows. (Both [Nathaniel] Hawthorne and Henry James are primarily European in their attitudes toward the shadow, and are thus exceptions to the generalizations I am making here.) The instinctual self turns out to be a source not only of vitality but also of some of man's most admirable traits. In Deliverance, however, there is no Chingachgook, Queequeg, Jim, Sam Fathers, or Bromden, because Dickey's vision has passed beyond the Puritan Manichean psychology that begot the shadow. Dickey's psychology is more modern, more complex, for the instinctual self rises from within when called upon to meet the challenge of survival. Projection is evident only in Ed's mildly paranoiac attitude toward mountain people in general, and in the symbolic projection of evil onto Benson and Stovall, in particular. Nonetheless, Deliverance stands in the tradition of Cooper, Melville, Twain, Hemingway, and Faulkner. It is also indebted to the primitivism of Jack London, particularly to The Call of the Wild, for which Dickey wrote the screenplay of a 1975 television production. The American work that Deliverance stands closest to, however, is Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Both are explorations of the modern psyche in similar motival and symbolic terms. The major difference between the two works lies in the authors' attitudes toward knowledge. Poe's residual transcendentalism takes for granted that ultimate knowledge lies outside the self, in a realm whose shadowy existence can be sensed only through the intuition. If for Dickey transcendental knowledge exists, it is not a concern of either his poetry or fiction. Knowledge in Deliverance comes from within, from the shadowy regions deep in the individual psyche. For Dickey, it would seem, the only access to that knowledge is through action, the recreation of archetypal experience, the realization of dream. The act may entail actual participation—or it may be realized in the creation of art. In both, the archetypal is externalized and made concrete.
For many of us, an opportunity to participate in archetypal experience like that described in Deliverance is unavailable or improbable. And if it were available, most of us would be unequal to the ordeal of confronting and absorbing its terror. Furthermore, unless we are writers of the order of Melville or Faulkner or Dickey, we shall never realize such experience effectively through imagination. That is why the artist is of extraordinary value to our modern culture: he has the imaginative power and will to break through the conventions that blind us to the nature of reality outside those conventions—and to the darker regions of our own psyche, which, again, convention urges us to suppress or ignore. The great writer is our Perseus who confronts and overcomes the bright Medusa of existence, the Gorgon which we all contain within ourselves—for the Medusa is the consummate Anima figure, in all her beauty and hideousness. The writer's mirror-shield is his art. In it he sees Life, he sees Us—thus inviting us to see ourselves. He also invites us to grasp, with him, the Sickle of Knowledge and slay the Gorgon. If we have the courage to accept that invitation and sever the petrifying head, then Pegasus flies free and our lives are changed. That is the only kind of knowledge that gives meaning to the tedium of our daily existence, and allows us to rise occasionally above it to perform a heroic action—or at least to understand the nature of heroism.
Laurence Lieberman (essay date Winter 1997)
SOURCE: "Warrior, Visionary, Natural Philosopher: James Dickey's To the White Sea," in The Southern Review, Vol. 33, Winter, 1997, pp. 164-80.
[In the following essay, Lieberman asserts that Muldrow, the main character in Dickey's To the White Sea, "serves as a kind of contemplative mouthpiece for the author and … embodies many of the wisdoms and lessons of Dickey's poetry."]
To the White Sea, James Dickey's third novel, achieves perhaps as much a summing-up of the milestones and peak moments in its author's best poems as did Yeats's "The Circus Animals' Desertion," also written in late career. Within the work's horrific narrative labyrinth are numerous passages that offer a retrospective survey of Dickey's hard-earned poetic mythologies, his achieved personal mythos. The book links the poet's favorite creeds, lores, and mystiques for an advance into his autumnal grasp that both contains and soars beyond them. Further, in its grappling with the key myths of Dickey's major poems, this book's spiritual dimension pulls together the diverse strands of his pantheism, composing a religio-philosophic credo that recalls [William Butler] Yeats's formulation of his own mature (and occult) mythos in A Vision. Throughout To the White Sea the reader is struck by eloquent forays into homemade theories of optics, physics, and aesthetics and into the esoteric lore of icebergs and arctic predators … all of which, taken together, quietly adds up to a fascinating and innovative treatise of natural philosophy. True to his mentor Lucretius, Dickey in To the White Sea adorns naive scientific inquiry with painstakingly exact poetic image-making. His prose style never departs from the plain idiom of common speech—and yet he manages an uncannily precise descriptive power and a musical lyricism, both of these filtered through his secret amanuensis, Sergeant Muldrow, a character who serves as a kind of contemplative mouthpiece for the author and who embodies many of the wisdoms and lessons of Dickey's poetry. I take this aspect of Muldrow to be the source of his elation and, finally, of his abiding faith in survival.
Donald Armstrong, the heroic protagonist of "The Performance," was Muldrow's earliest forerunner. Perfection of his acrobatics, high-spirited gymnastic tricks, gave Armstrong access to a sacred mind-space that enabled him to transcend the horror of his own beheading:
Yet I put my flat hand to my eyebrows
Months later, to see him again
In the sun, when I learned how he died,
And imagined him, there,
Come, judged, before his small captors,
Doing all his lean tricks to amaze them—
The back somersault, the kip-up—
And at last, the stand on his hands,
Perfect, with his feet together,
His head down, evenly breathing,
As the sun poured up from the sea
And the headsman broke down
In a blaze of tears, in that light
Of the thin, long human frame
Upside down in its own strange joy,
And, if some other one had not told him,
Would have cut off the feet
Instead of the head,
And if Armstrong had not presently risen
In kingly, round-shouldered attendance,
And then knelt down in himself
Beside his hacked, glittering grave, having done
All things in this life that he could.
Armstrong's triumph over brutality is shared; he is secretly vindicated by the headsman's anguish. Contrarily, the only witness to Muldrow's final immolation and act of transcendence—his parading himself before a de facto firing squad in a suit of swan feathers pasted to his naked body with human blood—is the reader … hence his direct appeal to the reader as witness in the book's last pages.
Muldrow emerges, in the end, as an original antihero. I find him to be one of the authentic—if improbable and accidental—religious mystics in literature. How paradoxical, then, is his disavowal of any religious leanings to the expatriate American monk he meets in Japan. This denial comes from a total lack of intellectual pretense, but Muldrow is a believer, ever faithful to his vision. The essence of the religious philosopher is to risk everything, to be willing to live and die, each moment, in the spirit of his sacred idea; and what character in literature has more diligently labored through, in his life and thought, all the ramifications of his one brave, impossible theory? In this way Muldrow is in fact deeply committed, may even be seen in his final martyrdom as a kind of saint.
Amoral he is in most ways, yes, which frees him from angst and from doubt: his rare twinges of guilt occur only when he violates, transgresses, his own code. When he has slain the hunter whose tribe saved his life, a first, belated passion of guilt overtakes Muldrow. It is fleeting, but it comes as a saving hallmark of conscience: "… more than one time I was sorry I had killed the little bearded man who had hunted the goats at the same time as I did. I wish I hadn't done it, because in a way he had been a good friend, and he was a hunter, too. Too bad, but there was not anything I could do about it now." How, then, can he be dismissed as simply a "monster," as some of the novel's early commentators have proposed?
In the book's frequent visionary passages, Dickey's identification with his protagonist comes to seem pervasive; Muldrow is perhaps the most personally revealing of all his characters. Consequently, I find it difficult to reconcile the soldier's moments of high aesthetic passion with his brutality. Now and again I find myself wondering whether the lapses into needless viciousness have been thrown in to mislead us, to disguise the radical extent to which the author is incarnated in his character.
Once Muldrow escapes Tokyo and the drama of his voyage north is in full swing, we discover that he is a man compelled by two competing agendas: the Survival Kit and the Dream Life. From this point on, his psychic priorities may be viewed as shifting back and forth by turns. This seesawing between the warrior and the visionary, two rival identities vying for the seat of Muldrow's Being, reaches a marvelous climax during his most prolonged soliloquy, while kayak-paddling across the strait between Japan's two great islands, Honshu and Hokkaido:
Nothing happened for four hours. I was into my rhythm, and deeper and deeper into it. I didn't have any notion as to how much distance I had made except by the time it took me to make it. My main worry was that I wouldn't be able to get all the way across in the dark. In daylight I would be a sitting duck for sure, with no cover and camouflage, and no scheme I could come up with would be good enough. But that was not the point. The point was that I was moving on the water, and that I was moving the water. But the thought kept coming back to me: what was I doing here, halfway between the enemy's two countries, something nobody could even have dreamed up? The water hit the sides of the boat as I kept up my rhythm. Who had a better right to it? But again, what was I doing here? The water was right, felt right, I could have been here on vacation and nobody would have said anything about it. But I was not fooling myself. I was where I was. But after a minute I didn't let myself think like that. Only for a second did I think like that, but it was wrong. Only for a second: a flash, a night flash. Then, no more.
But when the oars had come into my hands doublebladed, a kayak paddle now, something happened to the strait between Honshu and Hokkaido, something the place could never have imagined, that would never be there again. The snow came back, and the real cold, the gut-blue water and the long stretches and, above all, the ice. There was the glacier. The glacier was coming to me with every dig of the paddle, every stroke, every slant of the body to go with the paddle, left and right. I had seen it, and would see it again, the real pure thing, the pure color…. When I told you before that you wouldn't see this every day, I was right. It was the most intense, and the most pure, it was—well, you could say—secret, the best of it, the heart of ice, the heart you never had any idea was there, and when you saw it, knew had to be there…. But now it was the ice, the water and the ice, the white sea; what I said.
This great peroration, addressed to the reader-witness ("When I told you before that you wouldn't see this every day, I was right"), culminates in the sole recitation of the book's title image. The whole eloquent passage marks a beautiful crossover into the novel's dream empyrean, a crossover that parallels the crossing, at long last, of the strait. Now there will be no turning back from the fulfillment of Muldrow's dream agenda … whatever the fleshly cost. The priorities have swung to psychic due North, once and for all: "Only for a second did I think like that, but it was wrong. Only for a second: a flash, a night flash. Then, no more."
Muldrow's vigorous dialectic, a quarreling with himself akin to the soliloquies of Hamlet or Lear, plumbs the depths of his soul and hurls accusatory questions at the sky. These are the big existential questions, though posited humbly enough: Who am I, and what am I doing here? For once, Muldrow resolves that survival must take a backseat to his exhilarating adventure in the spirit: "In daylight I would be a sitting duck for sure, with no cover and camouflage…. But that was not the point…. [W]hen the oars had come into my hands double-bladed, a kayak paddle now, something happened to the strait between Honshu and Hokkaido, something the place could never have imagined, that would never be there again."
Auspiciously, the rhythm of rowing—"The water rocked me; I rocked the water"—primes Muldrow for the great awakening and revelations that occur en route:
You would have to be out there in a kayak, where it is quiet, no engines; where you lift your paddle out of the water because there's not anything else you can do. The ice slides, you with your mouth open, slides down and falls … it was something else, something that the world said itself, that nobody could know except what said it. But there it was, right ahead of me, the shucked-out middle of the glacier…. When you were out in the kayak you started with some notion of walrus, of seal, of whatever you might find on the floe, even a polar bear. But when the glacier starts to calve, all animals go somewhere else; there is nothing but what is.
In this pilgrim-explorer's religion, then, the message must be exhaled, purely, by the world itself. There can be no mediation by church, Bible, or presiding ecclesiastic. Nature speaks directly to you, in flashes; you hear it or you don't. These ideas keep whirling about in Muldrow's mind, as if guided by a will of their own, or empowered by a spirit in the universe that has found in him just the right medium for their formulation.
Sergeant Muldrow, happily, is working through the terms of his pantheistic vision, improvising them as if for the first time. He is molding, under these extraordinary circumstances, a coherent worldview … fitting its parts together with the same grace and finesse he applied, earlier, to the obsessive inventory of his Emergency Survival Kit. The rhythm of double-bladed paddling keeps nurturing the higher mind that gives these ideas their final shape. Muldrow would never try to dignify this arduous process with the term meditation, but it is by means of the loftiest kind of meditative rigor that these ideas coalesce into a grand overview … into a system of natural philosophy.
At the outset of his migration through Japan, Muldrow's mastery of camouflage, a necessity for survival, may accidentally have set into motion the creation of his dream selves. The fugitive's whole visionary life may have sprung from his attempts at disguise. As he perfects the art of matching skin color to each new background, it's as though a second self, a spiritual other, is born, hiding in his body. His ghostly twin is begotten of the mystery of concealment:
As the color of my face disappeared and went to another color, there was something inside me that changed, too. It moved, and then sat still. In my mind there was a shape I couldn't exactly make out, but it seemed to be in a crouch, pulled up into itself and ready, and that was the feeling I got from the soot, the stronger the more I put on.
The repeated process of finding the right soil, soot, or vegetation with which to render himself invisible—mimicking the strategies of his favorite arctic animals—brilliantly echoes Muldrow's constant shifting between two versions of himself, alternate identities if you will: soldier and dreamer, warrior and visionary. Progressively, he trains himself to become a quick-change artist, a magician of self-vanishings. A supreme chameleon:
My camouflage made a lot of difference in the way I was moving, like I had put on some other kind of dimension, you might say; that was the feeling of it. And because it was, the trees and bushes and pine needles and rocks that were on the slope were different, too. I used the trees in another way from what I was used to. When I came to a bare place the other dimension was stronger, like it even stood out from me, stood off me a little, and everything in me and on me got better.
When Muldrow perfects his camouflage, it's as if he is reinventing himself and becoming a new species of mammal. The "other dimension" in which he clothes himself is an aura, the raiment of invisibility. Something strange happens to the light around his body. "It stood out from me, stood off me a little." His psyche grooms its fluttering to participate in his body's vanishment, and this honing and refining of mental moves, of inner stillnesses, contributes as much to his invisibility as the skin-rubbings do: "everything in me and on me got better." Muldrow's alteration of his identity is so total and so powerful that he senses—believes—that his body transforms the "trees and bushes and pine needles and rocks" of the scene he glides through; his Being collides with and changes the environment.
Muldrow learned this magic of self-erasure from observing, at age ten, a rattlesnake in the hills near Greeley, Colorado:
And then it moved again, like a wave of rock, coming to life and flowing, almost floating, over the other ground with the same marks. It was a big rattlesnake, the only one I ever saw, and when it quit moving again I got as still as it was, and took it in. We both stayed a long time, and then it started off again. When it moved the whole canyon shifted a little. [My italics.]
At the time Muldrow didn't fully comprehend what he'd seen, but the intense memory stayed with him. In the present of the novel, he goes back to that mystery-laden moment, and he now has the wisdom and insight to process the image, even to duplicate the snake's powers. What a rare discipline, this skill in dredging up recollected treasures from childhood for discovery-in-action today!
We follow with astonishment the early stages of Muldrow's development as a visionary thinker. That occult journey, the voyage of his dream-life, operates like a second narrative, an undercurrent, moving along by laws of its own just below the surface of the story of his northward flight. The second narrative line, though secret, half-hidden, is no less an ongoing story in its own right. The reader can trace the birth and wavelike growth of Muldrow's dream-cosmos: it lives out its own full lifespan—rising and falling, at intervals—to apocalypse.
The soldier's interior metamorphosis is progressive and cumulative. Oh, how well he knows he's building a vision! That vision becomes his life, his mission, supplanting all other goals. If necessary, he will gladly sacrifice his mortal life to its fulfillment. He guides his dream-life with coolly rational control, never losing any important link in its unfolding. As he inspects parts of his dream-composite, prepares them for use, he might as well be reviewing the tools in the kit he has taped to his chest. The same total focus and discipline abides, equivalently, in both worlds; Muldrow the craftsman, the superb technician in aircraft and gunnery, brings a tough-minded, punishingly austere concentration to his visionary world. An artist in his way, he fashions an equipage, an outfit, for survival of the spirit against all odds: it can stand up against—as he says—any trials his enemy can dish out.
Muldrow is enthralled by the beauty he encounters in nature. He takes pride in his power to behold such marvels as the hypnotic blue light discharged by a glacier's "heart" when massive sheets of ice calve off, sliding into the sea; or the amazing "red-orange box" that appears under a body of still water when the sun strikes its surface at a particular angle:
The sun on top of water is one thing, but the sun in it—down somewhere under the surface where it makes a kind of box shape, you could say, a box that changes, that goes in and out like it's breathing—that's something else again, I'll tell you. This lake had that for me. It might have been my angle from it, or the angle of the sun, or maybe both, but I saw that gold box with the sides thinner than any paper, alive down there, alive with itself. It was big, too, the biggest yet; it would've had to be big for me to see it from that far. Then the box was gone, but I took it for a good sign, and knew I could go down and do whatever I wanted, near where it was.
These small miracles are offered up only to the alertest observer, and only at those rare moments when a unique set of variables comes together. When Muldrow stumbles upon such a treasure, he counts himself most blessed. He is among the chosen few ("I took it for a good sign"). He reminds us again and again that he need observe an event just once; the awe-inspiring image and the lesson received are indelibly carved into memory. "I had it," he says, confident that the image flashed before his eyes has become as much a permanent fixture in his repertory of available mental pictures as if he'd snapped it on film with a Nikon: "I had seen it from the hill, in a way that must be like you'd see a ghost, and that heart, that sun in a box, I had. It meant a lot to me. I kept thinking about it: the underwater cube, about half box and half diamond." Why is this cube of underwater light so important to Muldrow—what does it confirm? He is no materialist, but the sun in a box is a prize possession to him; he owns it, for all his life, and no one can take it from him. Such revelatory moments in nature sustain Muldrow. They uplift him, bolstering his high elation: they are his best life.
Hence it can be argued that Muldrow, though unschooled, has attained a highly sophisticated level of aesthetic receptiveness. He lives for beauty, for the beautiful in nature. Ah, what an appetite he has for it! (We note again and again that he is oblivious to beauty in women—if aggressively and willfully so.) Moreover, on occasion Muldrow seems to view himself as one of God's Elect. The universe speaks to him, gives him omens ("I took it for a good sign, and knew I could go down and do whatever I wanted, near where it was")—the spirit in nature wants to help him survive, wants to empower him: "Wait, I said; wait on the cold and the weather that would make a suit of feathers feel like it was something that God made just for you. Wait for the other island, I said. Or the full north of this one."
Both religious philosopher and aesthete, then, Muldrow is a man who can be gratified completely by his epiphanies. The physical world—the seasons, trees, animals, the white sea—gives him an aesthetic high equal to the one great books, paintings, sculpture, and music afford modern cognoscenti. Primitive, yes, this going back to art's and religion's origins in the splendor of nature:
That was a new thrill every time I thought about it. I remembered the deep, pure interior blue of the ice-berg, with Tornarssuk and I stopped beyond words, both paddles out of the water. What a thing that was: the only color in the world, a new color, with life in it, the life of the heart of ice, which came clear when everything between it and us tore off, slid, and fell.
Such images are the fabled gold at the end of the rainbow for Muldrow. He often returns to them in memory for solace, in the way many people revere their families. And whether he recognizes it or not, his reliance on these images to provide strength to face his predicament is prayerful. The profound spirituality of this activity is especially evident when we contrast it with, say, the tepid, passionless rituals of the American monk, which seem to lack any true investment of selfhood. The expat monk is hollowly simulating the moves of his Japanese peers, paying lip service to principles that are, for him, life-negating rather than life-affirming. Perhaps the real reason he betrays his countryman to the Japanese soldiers is that Muldrow's authentic happiness, his nature visions, challenge and threaten this Buddhist manqué. The "military" American holds up a mirror to his fraudulence, and he can't bear it.
Toward the climax of his journey, Muldrow suffers momentary lapses of faith when he fails in attempts to conjure up the images. The dream-pictures seem, unforgivingly, to be breaking apart; and the physical pain of being beaten by the soldiers who briefly hold him captive can't approach this psychic anguish. The reader may be surprised by the pathos and tragic amplitude in Dickey's writing about these crises. Not long before Muldrow's final capture, we find this heart-wrenching account of his failed efforts to revive his dream-vision:
The road was rough. It bashed upward and bumped around a lot, and it seemed like every lick was aimed at my face. I felt around inside my mouth with my tongue, and I was missing three teeth, with another one loose. That was not going to kill me, though like I say, I was hurting pretty good. As quiet as I could make myself, I concentrated on the rope, but I couldn't get it loose behind my back no matter what I did…. I went back to the log train, and how good some of the riding had been, especially the night part when I could put out from my mind anything I wanted, overlay Japan with it, and watch the Brooks Range become everything in the world…. I couldn't do the same thing here, not like I had on the train. I tried hard, though: tried to see the line of deer heads in the snow, all pointed one way, the horns trued up like right dress on parade. Maybe it was because my face hurt so much, and now my ribs, that I couldn't get things to come right. The deer kept breaking formation, busting up out of the snow, when all I wanted was the heads. Maybe it was that I was hurting, and my eyes were still about half crossed, or maybe it was because the truck was headed in the wrong direction. I don't know, I really don't. But my hands were in front of me, and when the deer heads wouldn't line up I knew it was time….
The passion evoked here is quite lovely, and given Muldrow's amoral—not to say criminal—nature, we are not prepared for his undoubted largeness of soul. At such moments he takes on a fully tragic stature.
The religious prodigality in Muldrow's spirit is most vividly revealed in the scene of his two-day stopover at the waterfall:
A waterfall about fifteen feet high was there in front of me, and I stood on my last big rock and looked at it with the low sun striking gold across that pure white: whiter than cloud, whiter than egg white, whiter than snow, whiter than an eyeball, whiter than anything…. I felt so comfortable and secure, with the waterfall standing like it was watching over me, looking out for me, that I made the decision I had been putting off. I would stay one more day, and two if I felt like it…. When I went out of there I wanted to feel like I could take on anything.
The beauty of those plunging whites, like the blues of the glacier's interior, reinvigorates him, restores his confidence. It is as if the falls, which loom protectively above, are a guardian angel; as if a beneficent universe, embodied in the blazing barrage of white tinged with the sun's gold, is opening its heart to its chosen one, spewing nourishment upon his brow. He need only recognize the beckoning hand and receive nature's gift: its spiritual succor and bodily sustenance, transfusions both, as he comes to call them.
Religious wakenings are often prompted by beauties in nature, and what could more compellingly bespeak such a change than Muldrow's bursts of playfulness as he sprints alongside the creek below the falls, racing leaves downstream?
Before I left I knew every rock, from the waterfall to the lake, and the last afternoon I went up and down them twice, trying for some kind of personal record, running with the current and then against it, with the banks, and racing downstream with special leaves I set going. The leaves were dry, and there were some big ones, and I picked them by how much they curled up on themselves and rode high in the water, going through the rapids better than anybody'd have believed. These things happen, you know; all you have to do is watch.
He celebrates the beauty and wonder of these leaf dances. For Muldrow, as for primitive clans, objects in nature serve as emblems of the sacred. In that way, his pantheistic worldview may resemble the totemism or animism of ancient tribes. Thus, the leaves he chases may be conceived of as avatars, incarnations of the spirit; they embody the godhead, and Muldrow gets a charge of self-renewal from interacting with them. His joy, as purely instinctual as a child's or an animal's, reflects a deep reverence for life, despite his alienation from all but a few of his fellow humans. At his worst Muldrow is a misogynist and a violent misanthrope; but like Shakespeare's Timon of Athens, that titan of misanthropes, he proves that a vision that repudiates most of humanity can, finally, be healing and redemptive.
At times in his grueling passage north, Muldrow appears to be on the brink of developing moral scruples, such as the tribute he pays to the aged samurai when he places the two-handed sword on his corpse with ritual tenderness ("I put some more silk over him, dark silk, and the sword on top of that, without the scabbard"); and in the nearly comic restraint he exercises when he teaches cat's cradle string tricks to a pair of Japanese infants who surprise him in the act of stealing rice and fish-heads from their family's storage crypt.
But Muldrow's emerging moral sense gets derailed by a series of betrayals and disappointments. During his convalescence from a severe puncture wound in his thigh, inflicted by a mountain goat, he grows fond of the tribe of bear hunters who nurse and befriend him. For a time he seems tempted to join this clan, this community.
The village was the cleanest place I had ever seen men live in. It was very neat indeed; it was a pleasure to be there.
I could walk around some now, and when I could do it without favoring my leg so much, it seemed like it made the whole village happy. I had never in my life seen such friendly people; even Eskimoes couldn't compare with them.
However, when he's just begun to risk a cautious love for these people, he is abruptly shocked and disaffected by their abuse of two bear cubs. Perhaps his nearest approach to a full-blown human conscience is the repugnance and loathing—a moral outrage, of sorts—that he feels on behalf of the assaulted creatures:
They showed me two cubs in a wood cage, and I thought at first that they were being kept for pets, a couple of live ones in amongst all the pieces of dead ones; it was good to see a bear move around. But they were putting up little sticks around the cage, painted sticks with the top ends shaved down with the wood curling, and there was a lot of carrying on, with the women singing and dancing and now the men coming into it, too, and I knew they were going to kill one of the cubs, or maybe both, probably with a lot of noise and singing and speeches. I was never one for any of that. Whatever animal they decided on, they could have done this with. They could have done it with the lynx—if there had been any of them—with the arctic fox or the wolverine. I had been wrong. I had been dead wrong about them. No matter how friendly they were, these were men like all the others, and they did the same things as the others. They wanted bear meat and furs, and their guilt about it set up all that singing, to agree on it, to put it right; set up all that singing and dancing, and playing those twanging instruments that all sounded out of tune. I say screw that. The animals are a lot better than any such. Better, a lot better, than the people. My heart turned around and locked.
Muldrow is driven to a towering rage by this ceremony, though he keeps his anger under wraps, for now. Why such bitter scorn? It seems to him the tribe is making war on his closest kin, his family so to say, and he feels powerfully betrayed, the pain intensified by his initial affection for the villagers. The American soldier's Timonesque revulsion against his fellows has never been quite so intense as now, following his last-ditch effort to spring back from exile, to repatriate himself to the human community. But he feels violated in a new way, much more punishing to his sensibility than the thrashing he took as a prisoner. That was acceptable to his spirit; that was war. But these tribes people fooled him. They took him in. Never before has he seen so clearly the polarization between the two families vying for him, human and animal. He is forced to choose, once and for all; and not surprisingly, he chooses the family that counts among its ranks his brothers-for-life, the lynx, the fisher marten, the snowshoe hare, the arctic fox, and the wolverine.
During this interlude, I found myself speculating that the persona of Dickey's poem "The Eye-Beaters," now incarnated in Muldrow, has finally carried out his deep wish to go back to the world of primitive tribes and espouse their raw survival ethic. Subsequently he would become totally disillusioned, finding the natives no less barbarous and malevolent in their treatment of their animal kin than our modern civilized breed, thereby shattering any myth of the blameless, unspoiled savages.
When Muldrow slips away from the village and recommences his trek, he experiences a moment of profound arrival and exultation: he recognizes that in his exploits as a warrior he has achieved supremacy in both families, both worlds, human and animal:
I kept traveling: three days, four. There were bigger trees than I had seen anywhere in Japan, and then there would be long open stretches. Open. Empty. I like empty. I also liked what I had come through to get where I was; I liked my knocked-out teeth and my thigh gored to the bloody bone. I had gone through it, and I carried the marks of it here. I had got here any way it took, and there was no human thing or animal thing that could stand against me.
The veteran soldier is now (any whiff of pride or egotism aside) taking stock of his accomplishments, tallying wins and losses on the field of battle. He carries off the recitation with dignity and honor, then unleashes a dance of ecstasy on his snowshoes, celebrating this happiest arrival:
In the middle of one of the biggest bare places, one I could hardly see across, I stopped and put both feet together in the best of breathing in the sky, and the good, the great steel went down both nostrils and all over me, and if heaven has got anything better I don't want to know it. I can't know it, because heaven has not got it. Not yet. The clear cold was so wonderful that I damned near cried. I could stand in it, I could sleep in it, I could jump up and down in it. What I did was dance, danced on the snowshoes, as much as I felt like, which was plenty. Then I went on, still dancing a little.
Muldrow's dance revivifies the memory of his joyous snowshoe romps as a child in the Brooks Range in Alaska, and it also tacitly rebukes the mawkish, choreographed song and dance of the tribeswomen during the torture and killing of the bear cubs. Though this chantlike passage reeks of Muldrow's feeling of victory, we do well to recall that all he has ever wanted in the way of spoils, bounty, triumph, is to be free and alone, to survive purely by his own wits in the wilderness.
This scene is a prelude to the final sequence, in which Muldrow forms a partnership with a reclusive old falconer. In his work with the birds, he develops a great passion for throwing his spear across snowfields. We soon learn that while training his arm, Muldrow has been exercising his visionary reach as well. This rigor and discipline has gradually become his single-minded obsession. Freed of having to fend for himself by the ministrations of the caretaker birds, who provide the falconer and companion with an ample supply of rabbit, Muldrow turns his best energies to that other enterprise, the soaring beyond human limits of his visionary mind, a power he has been fostering throughout his adventure in Japan:
My spear with the chipped head and the hawks. The hawk's view, which was beyond any man's. It was being able to see what you don't. It was being able to see into the snowbank, into the stone. To see beyond what any human, any man who has ever been born, could see. Like I tell you, out of the snow drift, into the snowdrift, into the stone.
How far into this new frontier has Muldrow traveled by now? "Into the stone," he says. With his Stone Age spearhead, he has burrowed all the way back to prehistory. To before human time. To outside time. So at last he is ready, as never before now, to die or not to die into the realm "beyond explanation," the deathless beyond hinted at twenty-five years before by the vision of the stewardess in Dickey's remarkable poem "Falling."
During setbacks, or when Muldrow has reached an impasse in his journey, he often boosts his flagging spirit by looking back at the obstacles he has surmounted:
Maybe I had made it through the fire, through the fields and the terraces, through the fights, through my own blood and gone teeth, through the lakes and the creeks, through the stars, through the good times and the bad. If the ocean opened up in front of me, I didn't think there was anything I couldn't do. And if I could find a way to get to the other island, and into the cold country, the real country, the mountains and the isolation, and find just a little game, I believed there was not a person in Japan, or any bunch of them, who could stay in it with me.
Clearly it proves therapeutic to make such a periodic reckoning of the highs and lows, the watersheds, the whole linked chain of events in his vigil and passage north. When stalled, Muldrow rebuilds momentum by plotting out this survey. He calls this self-bolstering process his "plan."
But what began simply as a tactic for survival against great odds, a soldier's code, has gradually been amplified into a commanding life mission, into a visionary's blueprint for prevailing over limits of mind and body—for stretching the supposed boundaries of Being in nature. Muldrow's "plan" becomes a credo-in-action that would do the most ambitious and adventurous natural philosopher proud. As he faces the stiffest trials, Muldrow develops, grows in stature; he keeps exploring the new "possibilities" of existence that are revealed to him as if for the first time, though they are assembled, like collages, from scraps of insight he collected at random in his youth, scraps now coming together in an awakened and expanded consciousness. And this new-minted vision of existence leads him, stage by stage, to grand intellectual aspirations. He's at the frontier, the cutting edge if you will, of a novel experiment in lifemanship, a new gamble with the unknown:
I hit my knees to the floor and rolled in the feathers, like I was rolling in the snow. I was close. I was very close.
I walked out and knew I had found it, what I had been looking for all my life, in all the blood and the fucking and the right arm and the fast move, in everything I had done and everybody I had to deal with. I knew I had found it, but up till now I had never had the full thing. In the wind the swan feathers fluttered on me, and I could have flown. I could have flown with the hawks and the swans if I had wanted to. But I didn't want to. I wanted to stand there.
Stepping off into those frontiers—oh, yes, a frontiersman he is—demands all his toughness, all the staunch discipline he's previously applied to fishing, hunting, gunnery, and survival in the enemy wilds … but turned now to other goals in the world of spirit. This mission has stolen his heart away, and engaged his unwavering steadfastness. He has been changed, utterly, healed in soul by the nobility of his task. And he will never again settle, whatever the cost, for less than his soul's fulfillment. What human drama, we might well ask, can so stringently demand our fullest possibilities—can be, at last, more heroic? If he—meaning, now, both Dickey and Muldrow—succeeds in his quest, what a feat of endurance he has brought off!