James Dickey Dickey, James (Vol. 15)

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Joan Bobbitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Throughout his poetry, Dickey employs shockingly bizarre or ludicrous images to communicate the alien position of nature in the "civilized" world. Indeed, the juxtaposition of the world of nature and the world of man often leads to grotesque incongruities. Things seem severely twisted by comparison. In the sea, the shark finds a natural home: in the parlor, its presence becomes unnatural. The poet sees civilization as so far removed from nature, its primal antecedent, that only such aberrations can aptly depict their relationship and, as he implies, possibly restore them to harmony and order.

Dickey makes it clear, however, that what seems to be unnatural is only so because of its context in a civilized world, and that these deviations actually possess a vitality which modern man has lost. In "Kudzu," for example, nature's power flows from the plant to the speaker, who needs its strength even though his civilized character dictates that he must destroy the giver. (p. 39)

The kudzu provides a kind of transfusion of nature's power into a human body that is somehow deficient, what H. L. Weatherby terms "the way of exchange," a mysterious regenerative process which may take place between man and his opposites." With the "green sword twined among / the veins" … the arm grows and takes on new strength. Such vigor does not come from "proper shaved fields" or "safe cows,"… nature which has been tampered with by man, but only from nature which refuses to be harnessed by man. While he sleeps, the power comes to him despite the closed windows, and in him it prospers. His waking self, however, finds it necessary to root the invader out or risk destruction by an irrational force. Yet the alien plant has made an impact on the civilized world, and in remembering, man is acknowledging his own need of a power which only nature can provide.

In "The Sheep Child," Dickey once again depicts the relationship between rational man and irrational nature through a bizarre image. Though Georgia farm boys admit the masturbatory function of nature in their wild need "to couple with anything,"… their fear of the product of complete irrationality in man, the sheep child, forces them to be civilized. Like the legend of the kudzu, the story of the "woolly baby pickled in alcohol" … in an Atlanta museum serves as a grim reminder of what happens when the irrational takes control. Such "things can't live" … because man and nature pose two extremes which are seemingly irreconcilable. (pp. 40-1)

In the figure of the sheep child, Dickey credits himself with having created the most unique persona in literature. This grotesque combination of two worlds, the world of nature and the world of man, speaks "merely with his eyes,"… perhaps a Platonic reference to the dwelling place of the soul. (p. 41)

Dickey uses the imaginary sheep child to represent nature denied and man diminished as a consequence…. The fear which keeps farm boys from coupling with animals and forces them "deep into their known right hands" … is civilized man's rejection of the irrational within himself. The memory of the sheep child drives man to marry and to raise his kind, and, in doing so, it becomes a civilizing tool….

In "The Fiend," Dickey employs the unnatural in the same manner and for the same purpose as in "Kudzu" and "The Sheep Child," bringing the power of nature to the civilized, normal world. The fiend specifically embodies the sexual power in nature which becomes grotesque when concentrated in this one unlikely man. A Jekyll and Hyde figure, by day he is the most ordinary of people, a worried accountant who somehow epitomizes the tedium and mediocrity of civilized existence. At night, however, he transcends this dreary state, though he never quite discards its trappings, the straightened tie and pocketful of pens given him by salesmen. When he assumes the role of voyeur, the accountant loses many of his human characteristics and as a consequence becomes in harmony with...

(The entire section is 5,957 words.)