Winner of the Melville Cane Award (1966)
Whoever looks to a new book by James Dickeys for further work in an established mode, or for mere novelty, is going to be disappointed. But those who seek instead a true widening of the horizons of meaning, coupled with a sure-handed mastery of the craft of poetry, will find this latest collection satisfying indeed.
Here is a man who matches superb gifts with a truly subtle imagination, into whose depths he is courageously travelingpioneeringin exploratory penetrations into areas of life that are too often evaded or denied. "The Firebombing," "Slave Quarters," "The Fiend"these poems, with the others that comprise the present volume, show a mature and original poet at his finest.
About the Author
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Denke daran, dass nach den grossen Zerstörungen Jedermann beweisen wird, dass er unschuldig war.
— Günter Eich
Or hast thou an arm like God?
— The Book of Job
All families lie together, though some are burned alive.
The others try to feel For them. Some can, it is often said.
Starve and take off
Twenty years in the suburbs, and the palm trees willingly leap Into the flashlights,
And there is beneath them also A booted crackling of snailshells and coral sticks.
There are cowl flaps and the tilt cross of propellers,
The shovel-marked clouds' far sides against the moon,
The enemy filling up the hills With ceremonial graves. At my somewhere among these,
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.
Thinking forward ten minutes
From that, there is also the burst straight out Of the overcast into the moon; there is now The moon-metal-shine of propellers, the quarter-
moonstone, aimed at the waves,
Stopped on the cumulus.
There is then this re-entry Into cloud, for the engines to ponder their sound.
In white dark the aircraft shrinks; Japan
Dilates around it like a thought.
Coming out, the one who is here is over Land, passing over the all-night grainfields,
In dark paint over The woods with one silver side,
Rice-water calm at all levels Of the terraced hill.
Enemy rivers and trees Sliding off me like snakeskin,
Strips of vapor spooled from the wingtips Going invisible passing over on Over bridges roads for nightwalkers Sunday night in the enemy's country absolute Calm the moon's face coming slowly About
the inland sea Slants is woven with wire thread Levels out holds together like a quilt Off the starboard wing cloud flickers At my glassed-off forehead the moon's now and again Uninterrupted face going forward Over the waves in a glide-path Lost into land.
Going: going with it
Combat booze by my side in a cratered canteen,
Bourbon frighteningly mixed With GI pineapple juice,
Dogs trembling under me for hundreds of miles, on many Islands, sleep-smelling that ungodly mixture Of napalm and high-octane fuel,
Good bourbon and GI juice.
Rivers circling behind me around Come to the fore, and bring A town with everyone darkened.
Five thousand people are sleeping off An all-day American drone.
Twenty years in the suburbs have not shown me Which ones were hit and which not.
Haul on the wheel racking slowly The aircraft blackly around In a dark dream that that is That is like flying inside someone's head
Think of this think of this
I did not think of my house But think of my house now
Where the lawn mower rests on its laurels Where the diet exists
For my own good where I try to drop Twenty years, eating figs in the pantry Blinded by each and all Of the eye-catching cans that gladly have caught my wife's eye Until I cannot say Where the screwdriver is where the children Get off the bus where the new Scoutmaster lives where the fly Hones his front legs where the hammock folds Its erotic daydreams where the Sunday School text for the day has been put where the fire Wood is where the payments For everything under the sun Pile peacefully up,
But in this half-paid-for pantry Among the red lids that screw off With an easy half-twist to the left And the long drawers crammed with dim spoons,
I still have charge — secret charge —
Of the fire developed to cling To everything: to golf carts and fingernail Scissors as yet unborn tennis shoes 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:
Not atoms, these, but glue inspired By love of country to burn,
The apotheosis of gelatin.
Behind me having risen the Southern Cross Set up by chaplains in the Ryukyus —
Orion, Scorpio, the immortal silver Like the myths of kinginsects at swarming time —
One mosquito, dead drunk On altitude, drones on, far under the engines,
And bites between The oxygen mask and the eye.
The enemy-colored skin of families Determines to hold its color In sleep, as my hand turns whiter Than ever, clutching the toggle —
The ship shakes bucks Fire hangs not yet fire In the air above Beppu For I am fulfilling
An 'anti-morale' raid upon it.
All leashes of dogs Break under the first bomb, around those In bed, or late in the public baths: around those Who inch forward on their hands Into medicinal waters.
Their heads come up with a roar Of Chicago fire:
Come up with the carp pond showing The bathhouse upside down,
Standing stiller to show it more As I sail artistically over The resort town followed by farms,
Singing and twisting All the handles in heaven kicking The small cattle off their feet In a red costly blast Flinging jelly over the walls
As in a chemical warfare field demonstration.
With fire of mine like a cat
Holding onto another man's walls,
My hat should crawl on my head In streetcars, thinking of it,
The fat on my body should pale.
Gun down The engines, the eight blades sighing For the moment when the roofs will connect Their flames, and make a town burning with all American fire.
Reflections of houses catch;
Fire shuttles from pond to pond In every direction, till hundreds flash with one death.
With this in the dark of the mind,
Death will not be what it should;
Will not, even now, even when My exhaled face in the mirror Of bars, dilates in a cloud like Japan.
The death of children is ponds Shutter-flashing; responding mirrors; it climbs The terraces of hills Smaller and smaller, a mote of red dust At a hundred feet; at a hundred and one it goes out.
That is what should have got in To my eye
And shown the insides of houses, the low tables Catch fire from the floor mats,
Blaze up in gas around their heads Like a dream of suddenly growing
Too intense for war. Ah, under one's dark arms Something strange-scented falls — when those on earth Die, there is not even sound;
One is cool and enthralled in the cockpit,
Turned blue by the power of beauty,
In a pale treasure-hole of soft light Deep in aesthetic contemplation,
Seeing the ponds catch fire And cast it through ring after ring Of land: O death in the middle Of acres of inch-deep water! Useless
Firing small arms Speckles from the river Bank one ninety-millimeter Misses far down wrong petals gone
It is this detachment,
The honored aesthetic evil,
The greatest sense of power in one's life,
That must be shed in bars, or by whatever Means, by starvation Visions in well-stocked pantries:
The moment when the moon sails in between The tail-booms the rudders nod I swing Over directly over the heart The heart of the fire. A mosquito burns out on my cheek With the cold of my face there are the eyes In blue light bar light All masked but them the moon Crossing from left to right in the streams below Oriental fish form quickly In the chemical shine,
In their eyes one tiny seed
Of deranged, Old Testament light.
Letting go letting go The plane rises gently dark forms Glide off me long water pales In safe zones a new cry enters The voice box of chained family dogs
We buck leap over something Not there settle back Leave it leave it clinging and crying It consumes them in a hot Body-flash, old age or menopause Of children, clings and burns
eating through And when a reed mat catches fire From me, it explodes through field after field Bearing its sleeper another
Bomb finds a home And clings to it like a child. And so
Goodbye to the grassy mountains To cloud streaming from the night engines Flags pennons curved silks Of air myself streaming also My body covered With flags, the air of flags Between the engines.
Forever I do sleep in that position,
Forever in a turn For home that breaks out streaming banners From my wingtips,
Wholly in position to admire.
O then I knock it off And turn for home over the black complex thread worked through The silver night-sea,
Following the huge, moon-washed steppingstones Of the Ryukyus south,
The nightgrass of mountains billowing softly In my rising heat.
Turn and tread down The yellow stones of the islands To where Okinawa burns,
Pure gold, on the radar screen,
Beholding, beneath, the actual island form In the vast water-silver poured just above solid ground,
An inch of water extending for thousands of miles Above flat ploughland. Say "down," and it is done.
All this, and I am still hungry,
Still twenty years overweight, still unable To get down there or see What really happened.
But it may be that I could not,
If I tried, say to any Who lived there, deep in my flames: say, in cold Grinning sweat, as to another As these homeowners who are always curving Near me down the different-grassed street: say As though to the neighbor I borrowed the hedge-clippers from On the darker-grassed side of the two,
Come in, my house is yours, come in If you can, if you Can pass this unfired door. It is that I can imagine At the threshold nothing With its ears crackling off
Like powdery leaves,
Nothing with children of ashes, nothing not Amiable, gentle, well-meaning,
A little nervous for no Reason a little worried a little too loud Or too easygoing nothing I haven't lived with For twenty years, still nothing not as American as I am, and proud of it.
Absolution? Sentence? No matter;
The thing itself is in that.
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.
Faces Seen Once
Faces seen once are seen
To fade from around one feature,
Leaving a chin, a scar, an expression
Forever in the air beneath a streetlight,
Glancing in boredom from the window Of a bus in a country town,
Showing teeth for a moment only,
All of which die out of mind, except One silver one.
Who had the dog-bitten ear?
The granulated lids? The birthmark?
Faces seen once change always
Into and out of each other:
An eye you saw in Toulon Is gazing at you down a tin drainpipe You played with as a dull child In Robertstown, Georgia.
There it is April; the one eye
Concentrates, the rusty pipe
Is trembling; behind the eye Is a pine tree blurring with tears:
You and someone's blue eye Transforming your boyhood are weeping For an only son drowned in warm water
With the French fleet off Senegal.
Soon after, the cancer-clamped face Of your great-grandfather relaxes,
Smiles again with the lips of a newsboy.
Faces seen once make up
One face being organized
And changed and known less all the time,
Unsexed, amorphous, growing in necessity As you deepen in age.
The brow wrinkles, a blind, all-knowing Questioning look comes over it,
And every face in the street begins
To partake of the look in the eyes,
Every nose is part of that nose And changes the nose; every innocence and every
Unspoken-of guilt goes into it,
Into the face of the one Encountered, unknowable person who waits For you all over the world,
In coffee shops, filling stations, bars,
In mills and orphan asylums,
In hospitals, prisons, at parties,
Yearning to be one thing.
At your death, they — it is there,
And the features congeal,
Having taken the last visage in,
Over you, pretesting its smile,
The skin the indwelling no Color of all colors mingled,
The eyes asking all there is.
Composed, your own face trembles near
Joining that other, knowing That finally something must break
Or speak. A silver tooth gleams;
You mumble, whispering "You Are human, are what I have witnessed.
You are all faces seen once."
Through the bent, staring, unstable dark Of a drainpipe, Unity hears you —
A God-roar of hearing — say only
"You are an angel's too-realized
Unbearable memoryless face."
The Common Grave
Some sit and stare In an unknown direction, though most lie still,
Knowing that every season Must be wintered.
The mover of mists and streams Is usually in the weeds By twilight, taking slowly A dark dedicated field-shape.
Of all those who are under,
Many are looking over Their shoulder, although it is only one leap To beyond-reason gold, only one Breath to the sun's great city.
All ages of mankind unite Where it is dark enough.
The midstrides of out-of-shape runners,
The discarded strokes of bad swimmers,
Open-mouthed at the wrong time —
All these are hooked wrongly together.
A rumor runs through them like roots:
They must try even harder To bring into their vast,
Indiscriminate embrace All of humanity.
In someone's hand an acorn Pulses, thinking It is only one leap,
In the field by twilight are The faller in leaves through October,
The white-headed flyer in thistles Finding out secret currents of air,
The raiser of mists from the creekbed,
A fish extending his body Through all the curves of the river,
The incredible moon in the voice box Of dogs on All Souls? Night.
All creatures tumbled together Get back in their wildest arms No single thing but each other,
Hear only sounds like train sounds,
Cattle sounds, earth-shakers.
The mover of all things struggles In the green-crowded, green-crowned nightmare Of a great king packed in an acorn.
A train bends round a curve Like a fish. An oak tree breaks Out and shoves for the moonlight,
Bearing leaves which shall murmur for years,
Dumfoundedly, like mouths opened all at once At just the wrong time to be heard,
Still, passed through the spokes of an old wheel, on and around The hub's furry rust in the weeds and shadows of the riverbank,
This one is feeling his life as a man move slowly away.
Fallen from that estate, he has gone down on his knees And beyond, disappearing into the egg buried under the sand
And wakened to the low world being born, consisting now Of the wheel on its side not turning, but leaning to rot away In the sun a few feet farther off than it is for any man.
The roots bulge quietly under the earth beneath him;
With his tongue he can hear them in their concerted effort
To raise something, anything, out of the dark of the ground.
He has come by gliding, by inserting the head between stems.
Everything follows that as naturally as the creation Of the world, leaving behind arms and legs, leaving behind The intervals between tracks, leaving one long wavering step
In sand and none in grass: he moves through, moving nothing,
And the grass stands as never entered. It is in the new Life of resurrection that one can come in one's own time To a place like a rotting wheel, the white paint flaking from it,
Rust slowly emerging, and coil halfway through it, stopped
By a just administration of light and dark over the diamonds Of the body. Here, also naturally growing, is a flat leaf To rest the new head upon. The stem bends but knows the weight And does not touch the ground, holding the snub, patterned face Swaying with the roots of things. Inside the jaws, saliva
Has turned ice cold, drawn from bird eggs and thunderstruck rodents,
Dusty pine needles, blunt stones, horse dung, leaf mold,
But mainly, now, from waiting — all the time a symbol of evil —
Not for food, but for the first man to walk by the gentle river:
Minute by minute the head becomes more poisonous and poised.
Here in the wheel is the place to wait, with the eyes unclosable,
Unanswerable, the tongue occasionally listening, this time No place in the body desiring to burn the tail away or to warn,
But only to pass on, handless, what yet may be transferred In a sudden giving-withdrawing move, like a county judge striking a match.
Excerpted from "Buckdancer's Choice"
Copyright © 1965 James Dickey.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Faces Seen Once,
The Common Grave,
The Shark's Parlor,
Pursuit from Under,
Fathers and Sons,
I. THE SECOND SLEEP,
II. THE AURA,
Sled Burial, Dream Ceremony,
The Night Pool,
The War Wound,