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THE PLACE OF THE SKULL
The Baggage King
There in New Guinea, by the grounded metal And the birds' free flight,
Under their cries, far under:
Under them at the level of the ocean We came from the rusted freighter
With a thousand bags, duffel,
Kit-bags, B-4's, A-3's,
Barracks bags, handbags,
Kits, 'personal bags,' musette bags,
Parachutes, kith and kin,
And were left, there,
The never-failing replacements
As the ship drew out in darkness to the sea.
There the trucks came,
Or were supposed to come Out of combat,
Moaning like the wounded,
Like the enemy and friend Of life, to take us to the tents Where the boys who came a week earlier
Lay in a cold sweat,
Or their ghosts lay, sweating In a small tepid fog from the ground.
This was done, but I could not find My bag, my flying gear, my books,
And so would not leave The mountain of baggage.
When the last truck deserted, groaning Through the great, beseiging mud,
I saw the mound of baggage Begin to sink through the clay Like the hill of a dead king Beleaguered by mosquitoes and fl ies Losing their way in the dark.
Not knowing what this thing was
That at last I climbed aboard, clambering over The musette bags which crunched Like eggs, the long case Where the guitar was straining its breast,
Up the long, crumbling slope of baggage I sat in trashy triumph at the top,
Knowing my own equipment, my own link With the past was buried beneath me, or lost,
And not caring, not at all,
But only knowing that I was there,
Drenched in sweat, my shirt open down to my balls,
Nineteen years old, commanding the beach Where life and death had striven, but safe At the top of the heap, in the dark Where no lights came through From the water, and nothing yet struck.
Patience: In the Mill
Through a place in the roof the sun came down Where in a hall of light Mike Cole sat up,
His menial harness broken on his arms.
It shed a circle upon him,
As if he certainly were blessed, to be filling the cockpit with blood Blushed eagerly from his face,
And laid on the sunburst of dials with glowing hands.
He could not look, but did,
And saw a smear, like egg, on the ragged panel wiped.
It was his other eye, which last had looked In seeing his engine die from a vibrant disk To four great innocent sails.
Through his own incredible sternness Of pain, he heard the sirens flare On the gunned dust of the strip,
And motes from the stacks of sugar whirled And unsupported slept upon the air, beside his props Like petals carved from off the basined floor.
A tooth lodged in his throat.
He did not speak of it, but a loft of children In the light he had let in Were standing and piping. He could not sing with them,
And almost wept,
but like a child, forgot,
And wandered, lost, among their faces,
Opening the bags, tasting the slanted sugar as he would.
The Liberator Explodes
There, in the order of traffic Of aircraft. Where one of them once Was moving, in a clumsy hover,
It is like a blow through the sky That does not move.
Why would you watch it Before it becomes of fire?
There are many arranged on the air.
This one you might be watching,
Held in a fear
That contains no fear, but boredom, or fascination,
As it turns on the final approach.
Or you might be watching another That does not fall.
If it is this one, you see For an instant, nothing special. It is hanging down As it would, the big wheels not spinning,
And now are fire:
One shot, a great one,
By accident takes place where the plane is:
The plane was. All of it is gone Save the part that goes in on one wing,
There, off the end of the runway.
Then comes the shape Of a silence made of an army In one breath all watching wildly.
Things move out, and toward Where it must have come down
There, off the end of the runway,
Still alive with a little of fire.
Here is the purest of fact That took place like the purest of symbols.
The mind fires over and over
An aircraft that has blown away distance,
But cannot fetch that fact,
Or remember or know or imagine What the faces of those must have felt There in the brief shot of light,
And so must lie down again, and again,
Below the ground moved by palm-leaves Of the mind of that time, and let that fade,
And lie in the luck of salvation In the cities,
In the suburbs of time, until
There cracks across the simplest of the mind's Eyes, that purchase of terror on the air,
The burst of light within flame,
Magnificent, final, and you behold your own Unmirrored face freely explode,
And face, beyond faces,
Your brother of parallel fire.
The Place of the Skull
— 1945 —
I used to get up, in the tent,
In the canvas sewn over the stroke And shimmer of the inside of an orange,
And from my banged canteen the cup Tip full of a curve of water, and pour it out on my head,
The air would be breathless; the other would
Be breathing it, all asleep.
Across the downed gilt of the canvas, the shadow of a fly In the outside world would go Like a bullet, saying, 'Maze.'
I would dry my hands, and pick up the poetry books
And walk through the area, out,
Over the rise with the crumbled machine-gun pit,
In the licked, light, chalky dazzle Kicking the laces of my shoes along,
Until sea blue from under my belt
Trembled up, as down To a bench in the stillest side Of height, I came, to meet my holy masters in the Word Above the gauze- and powder-burning bay.
I would sit all morning and read In the sun, the page coming off my eye More quivered-in than all the blue danced-up By the miles of centerless waves, that spread to say If I reached off the book, my hand would die
In the sea, of fire, with Shelley and with Crane,
And never touch the ships that anchored there.
The Spirit moving on the face of print Left out the nights, when past the honest sleepers of the fleet
I rose in starry harness on the air,
And in my rubber mouth, from out the slender breeze Of oxygen, I made a song of what I meant to kill Before I poured my hanging head From a can of water, and sat Again above the bay, which loved the Word, and caught
My country's ships in such a full And furious holocaust of soul,
The lines of ashen text marked off the graves Where all my men, who sailed the ships, must die For lack of Good, that I drew off the page.
I bit the silent tongue
Of men and angels, reading on In the sound of engines run-up on the strip,
A grizzle of fly-wings, saying,
'Who asks for Truth as a time like this Is shut from pity, and will slay his own Whose vision kills the meaning of his view:
Only the larger war, with God,
Half-knows such seeming peace.'
Things placed there First a cornfield Where you wandered, drunk on your own afterbirth,
Weaving and crying.
The ears on the stalks were blackened Two clouds went over the sun Like lop-ears, and when they passed, you could see That the rows of corn each made A little road; down one Of these you stumbled, and where you came out A deer was eating the rotten shucks
Men, boys almost men,
Stood before a goal,
And you dressed in plastic and leather,
Carrying something in your arm,
And fled into the midst Into the grunting midst of them.
They opened like rows of corn,
And you plunged through
Into a motel
In Fresno, California Where a girl with a face you'd forget Lay tangled in sheets.
In the early morning you rose,
In the gray, still light,
And tumbled into the swimming pool Whose waters lapped and tingled With the mighty rhythm of cottages Where the pilots lay with their girls
Drunk on that water
You crawled barefooted over A rusted aircraft engine,
A Pratt and Whitney Pulled out of the ocean and junked,
Crusted with barnacles,
The cylinders fused into the block From too much water-injection.
Past that it was moonlight
Shining over the island,
The graves out of sight Every which way you could swivel.
Naked, you got ready, and set out With a canteen of bourbon And grapefruit juice,
Through the graves that opened in fans Of infinite, knee-high perspectives,
Shifting like spokes of the wheel That turned Okinawa through sea-foam.
Various ships took you away
To schools, to peacetime France,
And at last into the lap Of students, each looking at you
With the stone question In the heads of Greek statues Who ask where their arms And legs and the tips of their noses Have gone. Your two sons took you
Under the arms, out through
The students, aging themselves,
And brought you to a broad field,
Green turning paler with dusk.
You pulled a cane from a bush And sat there, looking at nothing But how it all whitens and darkens,
Bourbon and beer still fasting,
Still tasting of ghosts, who all like it.
The Confrontation of the Hero
— April, 1945 —
Claw-hammer, hay, and grease,
We club the engine from its crate,
Swinging, and harness the nacelle.
The dog's head blown from earth By propeller blast, then buried, then Stencilled to hem the nosewheel in its jaws,
Looks off between us at quiet,
Increasing, until there is a sound.
I drag on the hemp and chain of the pulley,
But the engine grinds into coral.
Line astern through a smoked first sketch For swans, the craft come over.
You place your foot, still, forward Sleeping in its flesh, road by road Into the island, and the coral shudders,
Gives way, turns easily, a zodiacal wheel,
And the beasts step from their stars over you And disappear in the sea and earth of noon.
For a second you seem to move among them,
Sewn as a flower on the Ram's light horn.
You grow, then soar from the matted head And stretch toward night, swelling and foaming Into sparks, your leg-bone traversed By an incandescent angle of the pattern,
Blue-white and fixed. The rest drops off.
Down the long road where the aircraft break From dust, and wedge their wheels,
There is no violence, and under the stumps Of the plantain wood you turn like stars,
And a spring forces suddenly open,
Shining and groaning, at your ear.
A bulldozer moves with the sun downhill,
Mice racing softly before the blade.
In, where wire-meshed bulbs are set,
I hear the right hand of the sky Purl, withheld. Searchlights brim through heads Of horses masked and run in a field of flowers To the knife, on the shell of canvas:
Men running, wading the leaves of shadow Strongly with their eyes. From hour to hour Medics bandage-roll and thread my calf Into the sea. Their needles buckle, slash,
And hold to count; my nostril jerks at its hose;
Light fastens to my shin. His blade Strikes on the sun let down through walls A man is putting up leaf by leaf.
His whirring feathers fill my ears;
His wolf-hound's skull lights up Around my serum; he swings his shield Flashing and streaming down the aisle of beds To cut his sight from mine, but I rise From cotton, aluminum, rubber, gauze, tin,
And creep out on a leg like a double exposure's:
Out, as the wind dives still,
And the light from the high sword falls To the roads through my leg In dim and complex joy. My foot breaks New, as with throat-heat, down smashing the records Shed, slamming into tents, over bunkers.
He dances like dust, low in the chalk fields As I sprint the beach past landing-craft,
Fuel drums, crates, revetments, stars Waiting in delicate rain to fix my form at night To the north. In gold flats of sun, he hangs,
Not sure, because of the speed that takes my head Lashing from side to side on guano'd rocks.
My eyes close in unforgiving pity
On his dwindling shield. I sleep And wake. My loins draw in: I relax And stream all day and night As rocks, sea, sun, above the landing beach.
A truck blasts through with a load of coral.
About that spirit burning emptily Darkness lowers the coals into the nut grove,
Where we blew on the soil, and licked with flame,
Mud, from the fortified tombs. Looped with cartridges,
With foresters' gear, dug in, I sprawled In the enfilade: the urn-shaped gun-pits rocketed Through my sights, and the island sang Glory for glory into my shadow,
For the field lay clear to the sea,
And the aircraft rose. I woke and knelt
Over the ward, then crept, knee, fist, and stump,
Into a crab-grassed, brambled gulley Where was a cow. Its eyes rolled And fell back. For a while I lay with my side Touching in and out of the earth,
Until the dark boys formed in ranks around,
And from above, as at a sign, all raised to their lips Thistle, and blew a long soft mirror-clouding breath In which something shook to come back,
Or to go on, but could not, in the huge light snow Like a face advancing to its counterparts:
The mouth toward hunger to be made serene,
The eyes to enchanted marble, the ears, the sea,
All through my eyeholes floating still.
In my horns I held the short-haired Or crab-back-thorned sun, far off,
Listening. Round metal cleared.
My grinning serpents flew at his feathered heels,
Beat down, and Spring tore off their skins.
He placed his armor on the stair of light And bent to take my yellowed head,
His muscles gliding naked in the mirror Of the air, his face warm as a man's Who shall hold at his breast the look To freeze his peaceful cities to the stone Lamp of every room, though over plotted graves He bear it in trembling gentleness, till it be richened With the stars between the ships of all the bays,
And nail it to the ground in secret weeping.
Though lumber was scarce, we found it,
Trading with rations of whiskey,
And began to build on the clifftop Not a tent with a floor, but a house Above the ragged island which had changed To peace one night while we slept:
A three-room house with a view,
A porch, two rugs, and a kitchen.
All ends in gentleness.
It was not a place to bring girls We would marry, but we liked To think of bringing others:
Perhaps those, in the flesh,
Cut out of polished magazines And smiling like a harem from our walls.
Each fluttered on her four nails As we cut windows near her in the wind.
All ends in gentleness.
The live slats under our camp chairs Rocked, as we drank tea, becalmed,
Our missions done, seeing the earth No longer from aircraft, but a porch We had built for idling upon.
In shorts and unmartial attire We kept the high house for officers And gentlemen, and dozed for weeks.
All ends in gentleness.
Yet strange claims settled upon us For this was becoming home.
Each thought for the first time of children By an unknown woman he should love Enough to go back to war for,
Who kept this house by unlikeness To the slick girls who trembled and chattered All day and night on our walls.
All ends in gentleness.
Before we moved out, our girls,
Their immortal skin in tatters,
Flaked strangely away, still smiling,
And while we awaited that day A captain went down the cliff On a rope, each dangerous evening,
To bring back blue, foreign flowers For no one, to place on the table.
All ends in gentleness.
Excerpted from "The Whole Motion"
Copyright © 1992 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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Table of Contents
THE PLACE OF THE SKULL,
PEACETIME: SEEKING THE CHOSEN,
Into the Stone,
Drowning with Others,
Falling, May Day Sermon, and Other Poems,
The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy,
Root-light, or the Lawyer's Daughter,
Head-Deep in Strange Sounds: Free-Flight Improvisations from the unEnglish,
Six from Puella,
The Eagle's Mile,
Double-tongue: Collaborations and Rewrites,
What People are Saying About This
“A career-spanning collection by National Book Award winner James Dickey, ‘the high flier of American poets.’”
"Dickey is no ruminator or meditator. Perception with him is not a static matter. It is characteristically, whatever his subject, a clash, a confrontation, something that might happen in a cyclotron; and the particles that are struck off are new and packed with primal energy, particles of order destroyed during the act of creation . . . What I am left with is an awed sense of the pure power of these words"Wallace Stegner
"A career-spanning collection by National Book Award winner James Dickey, 'the high flier of American poets.'"John Updike
"Dickey is no ruminator or meditator. Perception with him is not a static matter. It is characteristically, whatever his subject, a clash, a confrontation, something that might happen in a cyclotron; and the particles that are struck off are new and packed with primal energy, particles of order destroyed during the act of creation . . . What I am left with is an awed sense of the pure power of these words"