James Dickey

by Anthony Lawrence

“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 far-below sound and indifference, in its large coil and tiny points and flashes of the moon, in its long sinuous form, in its uncomprehending consequence.”

                  James Dickey, Deliverance


Watching Deliverance again after many years, waiting for the banjos and accents
the rapids and the sound of a bow-string snapping back, I reach for and open
the Collected Poems of James Dickey, and read my way to “In the Mountain Tent”
and then “On the Cootaswattee,” the river referenced, with great freedom
in the film, the one about to be dammed, the one four friends travel down
in canoes, a passage of adult rites, of booze, hillbilly rape and finally death
and reading my way through the early poems, the mythologies loom, grown
more intense since the last time I entered them, especially those of the earth
and sky, rivers and war, until I reach what is surely one of his best, “Hunting Civil
War Relics at Nimblewill Creek”, where the narrator and his one brother
are using metal detectors that float “vitally” “among the ferns and weeds,” until
remnants of the Civil War are found, unearthed, collected, named, and over
and under this concentrated gathering of items from the past and unspoken
respect for each other, the natural world comes in, first as a bird’s voice breaks
into three parts, and then as past and present merge, from wind and bracken
with the sound “fathers, fathers,” this is Dickey at his finest, allowing cracks
to appear that reveal a sensitivity that can seem anathema to the subject-
matter, and all the while, in narrow stanzas, capturing sharp, often
brutally real images that remain for years, such as the creatures that leapt
“upon the bright backs of their prey,” “in a sovereign floating of joy,” and then
“they fall, they are torn, they rise, they walk again,” and reading this, I hear
a gun-shot, and on the screen a hillbilly is staggering backwards off a cliff
and this leads me to “The Performance,” where a man “under pressure,”
“knelt down in himself beside his hacked, glittering grave,” his life
coming quickly to an end on a beach in the Philippine Islands, the Japanese
“headsman” breaking down “in a blaze of tears, in that light of the thin
long human frame,” and like the story of four men on a doomed river, these
details are enough, we don’t need to get forensic with research as to when
or where, how or why the characters and scenes in Dickey’s poems can
offer us, if not enjoyment, then a belief in the power of words to make
things come alive, or die, or be utterly compelling for the duration
of a poem, and this is how I need to read the man, not for his work’s
potently physical take on what it means to live, in a tactile, flawed way
in the world (although that’s there), or for his ability to stun
the senses into thinking he was there, as a grounded pilot, a human
stripped of wings during the Korean war (I believed him), or the ecstasy
and almost transcendental moment when, in a two-man canoe, he looks
“past the man in front’s changed hair, then along the wing-balancing floor
and then onto me and one eye and into my mouth for an instant,” he breaks
bread with me in poems like this, “On the Cootaswattee” might he here
in the south, winding through a very different landscape, the Riverina
where I nearly drowned, my ankle in a snag-fork in flood time, so I read
and look up, and read again, words and images, the coast of Georgia
opening out like a gatefold brochure soaked in salt water and blood
in “The Shark’s Parlor” where a man, “I”, Dickey, someone, runs a rope
out into the deep and sets a baited hook under a two-gallon plastic
jug as a float, then pours pig’s blood onto the “windless blue water,” a leap
of faith for a shark, then rows back and ties the end to the porch, the trick
being to sit back in a recliner and drink and await the arrival of whatever
makes it up the berley trail, tiger or white pointer, thresher or Wagga
and it’s in this poem that Dickey’s staggered syntax works its magic, the fear
and adventure come alive off the page, though it’s not really a poem about
fishing, it’s about the unrelenting times we go to the margins to explore
what shouldn’t be possible, and to place ourselves (in poems, our lives, at
the centre of improbability, and to see what happens, and this is at the core
of Dickey’s best poetry, the myth and legend, the domestic and spiritual
sharing breath, free-diving into amazement, and so I go on, I read
“Buckdancer’s Choice,” “Adultery,” “The Bee,” and then “Deer Among Cattle”
where “they are all grazing with pins of human light in their eyes,” the word
“paralysed” used to describe an electric fence, and in the film, on the river
two men are talking about their lives, and I listen in, the sound of falling
water all around them, and by the time I return to the book, I am over-
whelmed, taken in, and down, then up to relive the horror in “Falling,”
a poem about an air stewardess falling to her death from an aeroplane
it’s a long, risky, broken-down, relentless, voyeuristic, dethatched-intimate
narrative that invites and repels, and with “The Last Wolverine”
may well be his best work, it’s hard to tell, but it’s here, as on the slate-
grey water of that South Carolina river, that things are out of control
while being under the spell of a master craftsman, it’s a paradox
that surfaces frequently when involved with Dickey’s poems, the world
flayed open, its underside exposed, and that’s enough, “Spring Shock,”
brings the reading to an end, and so I close the book, turn off the light
and watch the film, it’s the scene where the sheriff (played by Dickey)
is questioning the survivors (a traumatised Ned Beatty and John Voight
Dickey is a natural, he leans on the car, “Before you go, Buddy
left me ask you something,” he looks around, “how come you all
ended up with four life jackets?” the survivors look lost, broken
“Didn’t we have an extra one,” a man says, and another man stalls
then adds “Drew wasn’t wearin’ his,” I leave the film and the rest unspoken.


2 thoughts on “James Dickey

  1. This is extraordinarily vivid and ‘real’. And your admiration for James Dickey is compelling.

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