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MAY DAY SERMON TO THE WOMEN OF GILMER COUNTY, GEORGIA, BY A WOMAN PREACHER LEAVING THE BAPTIST CHURCH
Each year at this time I shall be telling you of the Lord
— Fog, gamecock, snake and neighbor — giving men all the help they need To drag their daughters into barns. Children, I shall be showing you The fox hide stretched on the door like a flying squirrel fly Open to show you the dark where the one pole of light is paid out In spring by the loft, and in it the croker sacks sprawling and shuttling Themselves into place as it comes comes through spiders dead Drunk on their threads the hogs' fat bristling the milk Snake in the rafters unbending through gnats to touch the last place Alive on the sun with his tongue I shall be flickering from my mouth Oil grease cans lard cans nubbins cobs night Coming floating each May with night coming I cannot help Telling you how he hauls her to the centerpole how the tractor moves Over as he sets his feet and hauls hauls ravels her arms and hair In stump chains: Telling: telling of Jehovah come and gone Down on His belly descending creek-curving blowing His legs
Like candles, out putting North Georgia copper on His head To crawl in under the door in dust red enough to breathe The breath of Adam into: Children, be brought where she screams and begs To the sacks of corn and coal to nails to the swelling ticks On the near side of mules, for the Lord's own man has found the limp Rubber that lies in the gulley the penis-skin like a serpent Under the weaving willow.
Listen: often a girl in the country,
Mostly sweating mostly in spring, deep enough in the holy Bible Belt, will feel her hair rise up arms rise, and this not any wish
Of hers, and clothes like lint shredding off her abominations In the sight of the Lord: will hear the Book speak like a father Gone mad: each year at this time will hear the utmost sound Of herself, as her lungs cut, one after one, every long track Spiders have coaxed from their guts stunned spiders fall Into Pandemonium fall fall and begin to dance like a girl On the red clay floor of Hell she screaming her father screaming Scripture CHAPter and verse beating it into her with a weeping Willow branch the animals stomping she prancing and climbing Her hair beasts shifting from foot to foot about the stormed Steel of the anvil the tractor gaslessly straining believing It must pull up a stump pull pull down the walls of the barn Like Dagon's temple set the Ark of the Lord in its place change all Things for good, by pain. Each year at this time you will be looking up Gnats in the air they boil recombine go mad with striving To form the face of her lover, as when he lay at Nickajack Creek With her by his motorcycle looming face trembling with exhaust Fumes humming insanely — each May you hear her father scream like God And King James as he flails cuds richen bulls chew themselves whitefaced Deeper into their feed bags, and he cries something the Lord cries Words! Words! Ah, when they leap when they are let out of the Bible's Black box they whistle they grab the nearest girl and do her hair up For her lover in root-breaking chains and she knows she was born to hang In the middle of Gilmer County to dance, on May Day, with holy Words all around her with beasts with insects O children NOW In five bags of chicken-feed the torsoes of prophets form writhe Die out as her freckled flesh as flesh and the Devil twist and turn Her body to love cram her mouth with defiance give her words To battle with the Bible's in the air: she shrieks sweet Jesus and God I'm glad O my God-darling O lover O angel-stud dear heart Of life put it in me give you're killing KILLING: each Night each year at this time I shall be telling you of the snake-doctor drifting from the loft, a dragon-fly, where she is wringing Out the tractor's muddy chains where her cotton socks prance,
Where her shoes as though one ankle were broken, stand with night Coming and creatures drawn by the stars, out of their high holes By moon-hunger driven part the leaves crawl out of Grimes Nose And Brasstown Bald: on this night only I can tell how the weasel pauses Each year in the middle of the road looks up at the evening blue Star to hear her say again O again YOU CAN BEAT ME TO DEATH And I'll still be glad:
Sisters, it is time to show you rust Smashing the lard cans more in spring after spring bullbats Swifts barn swallows mule bits clashing on walls mist turning Up white out of warm creeks: all over, fog taking the soul from the body Of water gaining rising up trees sifting up through smoking green Frenzied levels of gamecocks sleeping from the roots stream-curves Of mist: wherever on God's land is water, roads rise up the shape of rivers Of no return: O sisters, it is time you cannot sleep with Jehovah
Searching for what to be, on ground that has called Him from His Book:
Shall He be the pain in the willow, or the copperhead's kingly riding In kudzu, growing with vines toward the cows or the wild face working over A virgin, swarming like gnats or the grass of the west field, bending East, to sweep into bags and turn brown or shall He rise, white on white,
From Nickajack Creek as a road? The barn creaks like an Ark beasts Smell everywhere the streams drawn out by their souls the floodsigh of grass in the spring they shall be saved they know as she screams Of sin as the weasel stares the hog strains toward the woods That hold its primeval powers:
Often a girl in the country will find herself Dancing with God in a mule's eye, twilight drifting in straws from the dark Overhead of hay cows working their sprained jaws sideways at the hour Of night all things are called: when gnats in their own midst and fury Of swarming-time, crowd into the barn their sixty-year day consumed In this sunset die in a great face of light that swarms and screams Of love.
Each May you will crouch like a sawhorse to make yourself More here you will be cow chips chickens croaking for her hands That shook the corn over the ground bouncing kicked this way And that, by the many beaks and every last one of you will groan Like nails barely holding and your hair be full of the gray Glints of stump chains. Children, each year at this time you will have Back-pain, but also heaven but also also this lovely other lifepain between the thighs: woman-child or woman in bed in Gilmer County smiling in sleep like blood-beast and Venus together Dancing the road as I speak, get up up in your socks and take The pain you were born for: that rose through her body straight Up from the earth like a plant, like the process that raised overhead The limbs of the uninjured willow.
Children, it is true That the kudzu advances, its copperheads drunk and tremendous With hiding, toward the cows and wild fences cannot hold the string Beans as they overshoot their fields: that in May the weasel loves love As much as blood that in the dusk bottoms young deer stand half In existence, munching cornshucks true that when the wind blows Right Nickajack releases its mist the willow-leaves stiffen once More altogether you can hear each year at this time you can hear No Now, no Now Yes Again More O O my God I love it love you don't leave don't don't stop O GLORY Be:
More dark more coming fox-fire crawls over the okrapatch as through it a real fox creeps to claim his father's fur Flying on doornails the quartermoon on the outhouse begins to shine With the quartermoonlight of this night as she falls and rises,
Chained to a sapling like a tractor WHIPPED for the wind in the willow Tree WHIPPED for Bathsheba and David WHIPPED for the woman taken Anywhere anytime WHIPPED for the virgin sighing bleeding From her body for the sap and green of the year for her own good And evil:
Sisters, who is your lover? Has he done nothing but come And go? Has your father nailed his cast skin to the wall as evidence Of sin? Is it flying like a serpent in the darkness dripping pure radiant venom Of manhood?
Yes, but he is unreeling in hills between his long legs The concrete of the highway his face in the moon beginning To burn twitch dance like an overhead swarm he feels a nail Beat through his loins far away he rises in pain and delight, as spirit Enters his sex sways forms rises with the forced, choked, red Blood of her red-headed image, in the red-dust, Adam-colored clay Whirling and leaping creating calling: O on the dim, gray mantrack of cement flowing into his mouth each year he turns the moon
back Around on his handlebars her image going all over him like the wind Blasting up his sleeves. He turns off the highway, and
There is now something else to hear: there is now this madness of engine Noise in the bushes past reason ungodly squealing reverting Like a hog turned loose in the woods Yes, as he passes the first Trees of God's land gamehens overhead and the farm is ON Him everything is more more MORE as he enters the black Bible's white swirling ground O daughters his heartbeat great With trees some blue leaves coming NOW and right away fire In the right eye Lord more MORE O Glory land Of Glory: ground-branches hard to get through coops where fryers huddle To death, as the star-beast dances and scratches at their home-boards,
His rubber stiffens on its nails: 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 Of resurrection: such shining is how the spring creek comes Forth from its sunken rocks it is how the trout foams and turns on Himself heads upstream, breathing mist like water, for the cold Mountain of his birth flowing sliding in and through the egomaniacal sleep of gamecocks shooting past a man with one new blind Side who feels his skinned penis rise like a fish through the dark Woods, in a strange lifted-loving form a snake about to burst Through itself on May Day and leave behind on the ground still Still the shape of a fooled thing's body:
he comes on comes Through the laurel, wiped out on his right by an eye-twig now he Is crossing the cowtrack his hat in his hand going on before His face then up slowly over over like the Carolina moon Coming into Georgia feels the farm close its Bible and groundfog over him his dark side blazing something whipping By, beyond sight: each year at this time I shall be letting you Know when she cannot stand when the chains fall back on To the tractor when you should get up when neither she nor the pole Has any more sap and her striped arms and red hair must keep her From falling when she feels God's willow laid on her, at last,
With no more pressure than hay, and she has finished crying to her lover's Shifting face and his hand when he gave it placed it, unconsumed,
In her young burning bush. Each year by dark she has learned
That home is to hang in home is where your father cuts the baby Fat from your flanks for the Lord, as you scream for the viny foreskin Of the motorcycle rider. Children, by dark by now, when he drops The dying branch and lets her down when the red clay flats Of her feet hit the earth all things have heard — fog, gamecock Snake and lover — and we listen: Listen, children, for the fog to lift The form of sluggish creeks into the air: each spring, each creek On the Lord's land flows in two O sisters, lovers, flows in two Places: where it was, and in the low branches of pines where chickens Sleep in mist and that is where you will find roads floating free Of the earth winding leading unbrokenly out of the farm of God The father:
Each year at this time she is coming from the barn she Falls once, hair hurting her back stumbles walking naked With dignity walks with no help to the house lies face down In her room, burning tuning in hearing in the spun rustgroan of bedsprings, his engine root and thunder like a pig,
Knowing who it is must be knowing that the face of gnats will wake In the woods, as a man: there is nothing else this time of night But her dream of having wheels between her legs: tires, man,
Everything she can hold, pulsing together her father walking Reading intoning calling his legs blown out by the ground-fogging creeks of his land: Listen listen like females each year In May O glory to the sound the sound of your man gone wild With love in the woods let your nipples rise and leave your feet To hear: This is when moths flutter in from the open, and Hell Fire of the oil lamp shrivels them and it is said To her: said like the Lord's voice trying to find a way Outside the Bible O sisters O women and children who will be Women of Gilmer County you farm girls and Ellijay cotton mill Girls, get up each May Day up in your socks it is the father Sound going on about God making, a hundred feet down,
The well beat its bucket like a gong: she goes to the kitchen,
Stands with the inside grain of pinewood whirling on her like a cloud Of wire picks up a useful object two they are not themselves Tonight each hones itself as the moon does new by phases Of fog floating unchanged into the house coming atom By atom sheepswool different smokes breathed like the Word Of nothing, round her seated father. Often a girl in the country,
Mostly in spring mostly bleeding deep enough in the holy Bible Belt will feel her arms rise up up and this not any wish Of hers will stand, waiting for word. O daughters, he is rambling In Obadiah the pride of thine heart hath deceived thee, thou That dwelleth in the clefts of the rock, whose habitation is high That saith in his heart O daughters who shall bring me down To the ground? And she comes down putting her back into The hatchet often often he is brought down laid out Lashing smoking sucking wind: Children, each year at this time A girl will tend to take an ice pick in both hands a lone pine Needle will hover hover: Children, each year at this time Things happen quickly and it is easy for a needle to pass Through the eye of a man bound for Heaven she leaves it naked goes Without further sin through the house floating in and out of all Four rooms comes onto the porch on cloud-feet steps down and out And around to the barn pain changing her old screams hanging By the hair around her: Children, in May, often a girl in the country Will find herself lifting wood her arms like hair rising up To undo locks raise latches set gates aside turn all things Loose shoo them out shove kick and hogs are leaping ten Million years back through fog cows walking worriedly passing out Of the Ark from stalls where God's voice cursed and mumbled At milking time moving moving disappearing drifting In cloud cows in the alders already lowing far off no one Can find them each year: she comes back to the house and grabs double Handfuls of clothes
and her lover, with his one eye of amazing grace Of sight, sees her coming as she was born swirling developing Toward him she hears him grunt she hears him creaking His saddle dead-engined she conjures one foot whole from the ground-fog to climb him behind he stands up stomps catches roars Blasts the leaves from a blinding twig wheels they blaze up Together she breathing to match him her hands on his warm belly His hard blood renewing like a snake O now now as he twists His wrist, and takes off with their bodies:
each May you will hear it Said that the sun came as always the sun of next day burned Them off with the mist: that when the river fell back on its bed Of water they fell from life from limbs they went with it To Hell three-eyed in love, their legs around an engine, her arms Around him. But now, except for each year at this time, their sound Has died: except when the creek-bed thicks its mist gives up The white of its flow to the air comes off lifts into the pinepoles Of May Day comes back as you come awake in your socks and crotchhair On new-mooned nights of spring I speak you listen and the pines fill With motorcycle sound as they rise, stoned out of their minds on the white Lightning of fog singing the saddlebags full of her clothes Flying snagging shoes hurling away stockings grabbed-off Unwinding and furling on twigs: all we know all we could follow Them by was her underwear was stocking after stocking where it tore Away, and a long slip stretched on a thorn all these few gave Out. Children, you know it: that place was where they took Off into the air died disappeared entered my mouth your mind Each year each pale, curved breath each year as she holds him Closer wherever he hurtles taking her taking her she going forever Where he goes with the highways of rivers through one-eyed Twigs through clouds of chickens and grass with them bends Double the animals lift their heads peanuts and beans exchange Shells in joy joy like the speed of the body and rock-bottom Joy: joy by which the creek bed appeared to bear them out of the Bible
's farm through pine-clouds of gamecocks where no earthly track Is, but those risen out of warm currents streams born to hang In the pines of Nickajack Creek: tonight her hands are under His crackling jacket the pain in her back enough to go through Them both her buttocks blazing in the sheepskin saddle: tell those Who look for them who follow by rayon stockings who look on human Highways on tracks of cement and gravel black weeping roads Of tar: tell them that she and her rider have taken no dirt Nor any paved road no path for cattle no county trunk or trail Or any track upon earth, but have roared like a hog on May Day Through pines and willows: that when he met the insane vine Of the scuppernong he tilted his handlebars back and took The road that rises in the cold mountain spring from warm creeks:
O women in your rayon from Lindale, I shall be telling you to go To Hell by cloud down where the chicken walk is running To weeds and anyone can show you where the tire marks gave out And her last stocking was cast and you stand as still as a weasel Under Venus before you dance dance yourself blue with blood-
joy looking into the limbs looking up into where they rode Through cocks tightening roots with their sleep-claws. Children,
They are gone: gone as the owl rises, when God takes the stone Blind sun off its eyes, and it sees sees hurtle in the utter dark Gold of its sight, a boy and a girl buried deep in the cloud Of their speed drunk, children drunk with pain and the throttle Wide open, in love with a mindless sound with her red hair In the wind streaming gladly for them both more than gladly As the barn settles under the weight of its pain the stalls fill once More with trampling like Exodus the snake doctor gone the rats beginning On the last beans and all the chicks she fed, each year at this time Burst from their eggs as she passes:
Children, it is true that mice No longer bunch on the rafters, but wade the fields like the moon,
Shifting in patches ravenous the horse floats, smoking with flies,
To the water-trough coming back less often learning to make Do with the flowing drink of deer the mountain standing cold Flowing into his mouth grass underfoot dew horse or what ever he is now moves back into trees where the bull walks With a male light spread between his horns some say screams like a girl And her father yelling together:
Ah, this night in the dark laurel Green of the quartermoon I shall be telling you that the creek's last Ascension is the same is made of water and air heat and cold This year as before: telling you not to believe every scream you hear Is the Bible's: it may be you or me it may be her sinful barn-
howling for the serpent, as her father whips her, using the tried And true rhythms of the Lord. Sisters, an old man at times like this Moon, is always being found yes found with an ice-pick on his mind,
A willow limb in his hand. By now, the night-moths have come Have taken his Bible and read it have flown, dissolved, having found Nothing in it for them. I shall be telling you at each moon each Year at this time, Venus rises the weasel goes mad at the death In the egg, of the chicks she fed for him by hand: mad in the middle Of human space he dances blue-eyed dances with Venus rising Like blood-lust over the road O tell your daughters tell them That the creek's ghost can still O still can carry double Weight of true lovers any time any night as the wild turkeys claw Into the old pines of gamecocks and with a cow's tongue, the Bible calls For its own, and is not heard and even God's unsettled great white father-
head with its ear to the ground, cannot hear know cannot pick Up where they are where her red hair is streaming through the white Hairs of His centerless breast: with the moon He cries with the cow all Its life penned up with Noah in the barn talk of original Sin as the milk spurts talk of women talk of judgment and flood And the promised land:
Telling on May Day, children: telling That the animals are saved without rain that they are long gone From here gone with the sun gone with the woman taken In speed gone with the one-eyed mechanic that the barn falls in Like Jericho at the bull's voice at the weasel's dance at the hog's Primeval squeal the uncut hay walks when the wind prophesies in the west Pasture the animals move, with kudzu creating all the earth East of the hayfield: Listen: each year at this time the county speaks With its beasts and sinners with its blood: the county speaks of nothing Else each year at this time: speaks as beasts speak to themselves Of holiness learned in the barn: Listen O daughters turn turn In your sleep rise with your backs on fire in spring in your socks Into the arms of your lovers: every last one of you, listen one-eyed With your man in hiding in fog where the animals walk through The white breast of the Lord muttering walk with nothing To do but be in the spring laurel in the mist and self-sharpened Moon walk through the resurrected creeks through the Lord At their own pace the cow shuts its mouth and the Bible is still Still open at anything we are gone the barn wanders over the earth.
Excerpted from "Poems 1957-1967"
Copyright © 1967 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.
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