by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
On Friday, July 24, 2015, my very first “Word Cloud” appeared at Flowers for Socrates. There’s been another one every Friday since, so I’ve now posted 52 profiles at this site.
The first poet I wrote about was James Dickey. I didn’t know how to use most of the World Press layout options (something I’m still learning), so I kept it simple.
Black ink on white background, not many visual enhancements – and short.
I wondered if there were any readers out there who would be willing to look at more than one poem.
So a virtual Toast and a THANK YOU to everybody who viewed “Word Cloud” during this first year, especially those of you who took the time to click “Like” or make a comment.
THANK YOU to all of you who tuned in later, connected with what you read, then checked out some of my earlier posts.
And a special THANK YOU if you’ve come back on Fridays for more.
At the end of this post, you’ll see the bibliography for James Dickey’s many books of poetry — I really didn’t do his work justice last year.
Here then are a few more of his poems that I especially like:
In the Marble Quarry
Beginning to dangle beneath
The wind that blows from the undermined wood,
I feel the great pulley grind,
The thread I cling to lengthen
And let me soaring and spinning down into marble,
Hooked and weightlessly happy
Where the squared sun shines
Back equally from all four sides, out of stone
And years of dazzling labor,
To land at last among men
Who cut with power saws a Parian whiteness
And, chewing slow tobacco,
Their eyebrows like frost,
Shunt house-sized blocks and lash them to cables
And send them heavenward
Into small-town banks,
Into the columns and statues of government buildings,
But mostly graves.
I mount my monument and rise
Slowly and spinningly from the white-gloved men
Toward the hewn sky
Out of the basement of light,
Sadly, lifted through time’s blinding layers
On perhaps my tombstone
In which the original shape
Michelangelo believed was in every rock upon earth
Is heavily stirring,
Surprised to be an angel,
To be waked in North Georgia by the ponderous play
Of men with ten-ton blocks
But no more surprised than I
To feel sadness fall off as though I myself
Were rising from stone
Held by a thread in midair,
Badly cut, local-looking, and totally uninspired,
Not a masterwork
Or even worth seeing at all
But the spirit of this place just the same,
Felt here as joy.
At Darien Bridge
The sea here used to look
As if many convicts had built it,
Standing deep in their ankle chains,
Ankle-deep in the water, to smite
The land and break it down to salt.
I was in this bog as a child
When they were all working all day
To drive the pilings down.
I thought I saw the still sun
Strike the side of a hammer in flight
And from it a sea bird be born
To take off over the marshes.
As the gray climbs the side of my head
And cuts my brain off from the world,
I walk and wish mainly for birds,
For the one bird no one has looked for
To spring again from a flash
Of metal, perhaps from the scratched
Wedding band on my ring finger.
Recalling the chains of their feet,
I stand and look out over grasses
At the bridge they built, long abandoned,
Breaking down into water at last,
And long, like them, for freedom
Or death, or to believe again
That they worked on the ocean to give it
The unchanging, hopeless look
Out of which all miracles leap.
So I would hear out those lungs,
The air split into nine levels,
Some gift of tongues of the whistler
In the invalid’s bed: my mother,
Warbling all day to herself
The thousand variations of one song;
It is called Buckdancer’s Choice.
For years, they have all been dying
Out, the classic buck-and-wing men
Of traveling minstrel shows;
With them also an old woman
Was dying of breathless angina,
Yet still found breath enough
To whistle up in my head
A sight like a one-man band,
Freed black, with cymbals at heel,
An ex-slave who thrivingly danced
To the ring of his own clashing light
Through the thousand variations of one song
All day to my mother’s prone music,
The invalid’s warbler’s note,
While I crept close to the wall
Sock-footed, to hear the sounds alter,
Her tongue like a mockingbird’s break
Through stratum after stratum of a tone
Proclaiming what choices there are
For the last dancers of their kind,
For ill women and for all slaves
Of death, and children enchanted at walls
With a brass-beating glow underfoot,
Not dancing but nearly risen
Through barnlike, theatrelike houses
On the wings of the buck and wing.
For the Last Wolverine
They will soon be down
To one, but he still will be
For a little while still will be stopping
The flakes in the air with a look,
Surrounding himself with the silence
Of whitening snarls. Let him eat
The last red meal of the condemned
To extinction, tearing the guts
From an elk. Yet that is not enough
For me. I would have him eat
The heart, and from it, have an idea
Stream into his gnarling head
That he no longer has a thing
To lose, and so can walk
Out into the open, in the full
Pale of the sub-Arctic sun
Where a single spruce tree is dying
Higher and higher. Let him climb it
With all his meanness and strength.
Lord, we have come to the end
Of this kind of vision of heaven,
As the sky breaks open
Its fans around him and shimmers
And into its northern gates he rises
Snarling complete in the joy of a weasel
With an elk’s horned heart in his stomach
Looking straight into the eternal
Blue, where he hauls his kind. I would have it all
My way: at the top of that tree I place
The New World’s last eagle
Hunched in mangy feathers giving
Up on the theory of flight.
Dear God of the wildness of poetry, let them mate
To the death in the rotten branches,
Let the tree sway and burst into flame
And mingle them, crackling with feathers,
In crownfire. Let something come
Of it something gigantic legendary
Rise beyond reason over hills
Of ice screaming that it cannot die,
That it has come back, this time
On wings, and will spare no earthly thing:
That it will hover, made purely of northern
Lights, at dusk and fall
On men building roads: will perch
On the moose’s horn like a falcon
Riding into battle into holy war against
Screaming railroad crews: will pull
Whole traplines like fibres from the snow
In the long-jawed night of fur trappers.
But, small, filthy, unwinged,
You will soon be crouching
Alone, with maybe some dim racial notion
Of being the last, but none of how much
Your unnoticed going will mean:
How much the timid poem needs
The mindless explosion of your rage,
The glutton’s internal fire the elk’s
Heart in the belly, sprouting wings,
The pact of the “blind swallowing
Thing,” with himself, to eat
The world, and not to be driven off it
Until it is gone, even if it takes
Forever. I take you as you are
And make of you what I will,
Skunk-bear, carcajoy, bloodthirsty
Lord, let me die but not die
James L. Dickey (1923–1997)
There’s a problem when you try to write about James Dickey’s life. Which James Dickey do you talk about? The Gifted Writer? The Drunk? The Myth of Himself he worked so hard to make the World believe?
Mark Twain said, “Man will do many things to get himself loved, he will do all things to get himself envied.”
Biographer Henry Hart spent eight painstaking years delving into what was true about James Dickey, what was exaggerated, and what was completely untrue. Then he wrote an 832 page biography called James Dickey: The World as a Lie.
James Dickey has often been compared to Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. They were all hard-drinking self-aggrandizers.
Hemingway did do some of the things he said he did, even if he put them in a highly-glossy spotlight, and sluffed off some of the less-than-flattering details. When he could no longer live up to the image he built, he shot himself.
Faulkner tried to live as a mythic Antebellum Southern Gentleman, but without the financial wherewithal to maintain it. He died of a heart attack after he checked into a sanitorium to dry out.
Dickey fabricated major pieces of his life to create that swaggering Southern Man’s Man persona — a combination Star Athlete-Great White Hunter-Bravura Cocksman-Heroic Warrior under which he hid in plain sight. He lied about his athletic ability and his war record. He greatly overstated his sexual virtuosity. He had no hunting experience with a bow, and quite possibly not with any other weapon either.
What kept him from being just a whiskey-soaked Good Ole Boy swapping lies on a Saturday night was his talent. The saddest thing I can say about James Dickey is that he drank that talent to death a couple of decades before he actually died.
Mark Twain also said, “Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man. The biography of the man himself cannot be written.”
James Dickey was truthful when he was asked if he thought his work would be remembered: “You never know that. I don’t know it; Robert Lowell doesn’t know it; John Berryman didn’t know it; and Shakespeare probably didn’t know it. There’s never any final certainty about what you do. Your opinion of your own work fluctuates wildly.”
Fortunately for him — and for us — his words have endured.
- “At Darien Bridge” from The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1945-1992, © 1992 by James Dickey, Wesleyan University Press — http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/42720
- “In the Marble Quarry” from The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1945-1992, © 1992 by James Dickey, Wesleyan University Press — http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/42721
- “Buckdancer’s Choice” from The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1945-1992, © 1992 by James Dickey, Wesleyan University Press — http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/42715
- “For the Last Wolverine” from The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1945-1992, © 1992 by James Dickey, Wesleyan University Press — http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/42719
POETRY – SELCTED BIBLIOGRAPHY
- Into the Stone, and Other Poems, Scribner, 1960.
- Two Poems of the Air, Centicore Press, 1964.
- Buckdancer’s Choice, Wesleyan University Press, 1965.
- Poems, 1957-1967, Wesleyan University Press, 1968.
- The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead, and Mercy, Doubleday, 1970.
- Exchanges, Bruccoli Clark, 1971.
- The Zodiac, Doubleday, 1976.
- The Strength of Fields, Bruccoli Clark, 1977.
- Tucky the Hunter (for children), Crown, 1978.
- The Strength of Fields, Doubleday, 1979.
- Head Deep in Strange Sounds: Improvisations from the UnEnglish, Palaemon Press, 1979.
- Scion, Deerfield Press, 1980.
- The Early Motion: “Drowning with Others”/ “Helmets,” (1960s works republished together) Wesleyan University Press, 1981.
- Falling, May Day Sermon, and Other Poems, Wesleyan University Press, 1981.
- Puella, Doubleday, 1982.
- Veteran Birth: The Gadfly Poems, 1947-1949, Palaemon Press, 1983.
- Bronwen, the Traw, and the Shape Shifter: A Poem in Four Parts(for children), illustrations by Richard Jesse Watson, Harcourt, 1986.
- The Whole Motion: Collected Poems, 1945-1992, Wesleyan University Press, 1992.
- James Dickey: The Selected Poems, edited and introduced by Robert Kirschten, University Press of New England, 1998.
- James Dickey: The World as a Lie, © 2001 by Henry Hart, Picador/St. Martin’s Press
- Atlantic Review by Peter Davison of Summer of Deliverance: A Memoir of Father and Son, by Christopher Dickey — http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1998/08/the-burden-of-james-dickey/377173/
- “Liar, Liar Pants on Fire”: Some Notes on the Life and Art of the Late James Dickey by George Garrett — http://www.vqronline.org/essay/%E2%80%9Cliar-liar-pants-fire%E2%80%9D-some-notes-life-and-art-late-james-dickey
Please note: The following retrospectives on James Dickey were written prior to the release of Henry Hart’s biography, which is now considered the primary source.
- Poetry Foundation — http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/james-l-dickey
- NYTimes obituary— https://www.nytimes.com/books/98/08/30/specials/dickey-obit.html
The first Word Cloud: MEMORABLE
- Marble Quarry
- The Darien Bridge in Georgia – photograph by Jennifer Schafer
- Wolverine in winter
- James Dickey
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud