James Dickey Newsletter
Vol. 27, No. 2 (Spring 2013)
A “Clamorous Amassment” Beyond-Speech Golden:
The Complete Poems of James Dickey
Dickey and Havird at the grave of Lead Belly (near Mooringsport, Louisiana, 1993)
David Havird is professor of English at Centenary College of Louisiana. He studied under James Dickey at the University of South Carolina in the early 1970s and has published several articles on Dickey including the essay memoir “In and Out of Class with James Dickey” in the summer 2000 Virginia Quarterly Review. His article “‘Passion Before We Die’: James Dickey and Keats” appears in the summer 2013 Southern Literary Journal. A poet himself with poems in Agni, Sewanee Review, Yale Review, and elsewhere, and a chapbook, Penelope’s Design (2010), winner of the 2009 Robert Phillips Poetry Chapbook Prize, he is the author of the full-length collection Map Home (Texas Review Press, 2013).
A “Clamorous Amassment” Beyond-Speech Golden:
The Complete Poems of James Dickey
What we have here with The Complete Poems of James Dickey is a scholarly edition by Ward Briggs, and the question is: what does it offer that the poet’s own assemblage, The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1945-1992, does not? For one thing, it offers 93 additional poems—331 poems in all, as opposed to The Whole Motion’s 238. These additional poems include previously uncollected poems published in periodicals throughout Dickey’s writing life; poems published in the 1950s and collected in Striking-In: The Early Notebooks of James Dickey (edited by Gordon Van Ness ); the 12 poems from Puella that Dickey did not re-collect; translations of Yevtushenko from Stolen Apples (1971), otherwise uncollected (which I wish were designated as translations within the body of the book and not solely in the “Apparatus Criticus”); and two children’s poems previously published as individual books. Among the previously uncollected poems is the version of “Springer Mountain” (the rewritten version of which in Helmets has always been a special favorite of mine) that appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review (1962) and caught the eye of the literary agent who “encouraged the publication of Deliverance.” There is also a skillful version of “Under Buzzards” published in 1963, which Dickey thoroughly revised in the free style of his “central motion” and published six years later. Arranged in chronological order by date of publication—except for 22 “poems of uncertain date” (though it is apparent from Briggs’s notes which ones date from the 1950s and which from the 1960s—I would have much preferred them placed together, if segregated, within their respective decades) and the two children’s poems, all of which come at the end—the poems span exactly 50 years. The earliest one, “Christmas Shopping, 1947,” appeared in Gadfly, Vanderbilt’s student literary magazine, in 1947, the last, “Entering Scott’s Night,” in The New Yorker right after Dickey’s death in 1997. It is thereby evident that the first of the two dates—1945—that Dickey used to bracket the whole of his motion was misleading if not inaccurate. What that date may have meant to Dickey was that World War II, which ended in 1945, had brought him to the threshold of a new life, the life of a poet.
As a scholarly edition comprising five decades of published poems, The Complete Poems also lists variants for each poem through its often several appearances in print, which the notes specify as well. These textual notes, the product of painstaking scholarship, a “labor amoris,” by Briggs who is a professional classicist and not a textual scholar, are especially valuable, since The Whole Motion “contains,” as he observes, “more than fifty typographical errors, more than one in every five poems.” Astonishingly, one of these appears in the very first poem: a misspelling of “besieging,” which Briggs corrects. (I cannot evaluate the textual reliability of Briggs’s edition, reading as I’ve done the “uncorrected page proofs.”)
There are also notes of a different sort. It is fascinating to read numerous times in notes to early poems: “Intended for Into the Stone, but cut by Wheelock”—that is, John Hall Wheelock, who edited Scribner’s Poets of Today, the series in which Dickey’s first book appeared (1960). More interesting to me are notes that connect the poems to their biographical and sometimes literary origins and that orient them within their cultural context. Briggs draws on numerous sources besides Self-Interviews for Dickey’s own statements—but not gullibly, as his identification of Dickey’s barbershop in Columbia, South Carolina, reveals. This barbershop figures in an entertaining later poem, “False Youth: Autumn: Clothes of the Age.” In the poem itself as well as in statements about it Dickey places the barbershop on Harden Street, and for 40 years I assumed that it was my barbershop, whose proprietor, who cut my hair, went and shot his estranged wife outside of church one Sunday morning. That detail, when I shared it with Dickey, sure that it would appeal to his southern gothic sensibility, got only a tepid response, perhaps because his barbershop, as Briggs informs us, was on Devine, not Harden Street. There are also notes of this informative sort that reveal extensive original research on Briggs’s part. “I have made free but cautious use,” he writes in the “Preface,” “of Henry Hart’s capacious biography, James Dickey: The World as a Lie.” Especially gratifying as well as humanly interesting are notes that set the biographical record straight—as regards, for instance, the identity of Doris Holbrook in “Cherrylog Road,” one of Dickey’s most often anthologized poems. With “Cherrylog Road” Briggs also maps out the topography. It never occurred to me that “Cherrylog” was anything other than a sort of portmanteau name, humorous in an obviously Freudian, vulgar way, for the setting of an adolescent sexual escapade in a junkyard. But in fact there is, as Briggs observes, a Cherry Log, Georgia; what is more, “In Dickey’s youth Gene Buchanan’s junkyard covered many acres on either side of the … highway”—not, however, the poem’s Highway 106 but Old Georgia Route 5—an “enormous ancient junkyard [that] contained some cars so old that not only had kudzu grown over them … but trees had grown through them.”
The critical apparatus occupies almost 200 pages of this 900-odd-page collection. It is a stupendous achievement, for which scholars and, for that matter, general readers who delight (as Dickey did himself) in the connection between artifice and life cannot but be enormously grateful. Of course scholarship, by nature an unfolding, collaborative enterprise, is never truly definitive, and it is not at all to diminish this editor’s contribution that I observe that just as Briggs has made cautious use of Hart’s biography, readers should also take Briggs’s commentary as an occasion for professional dialogue.
Let’s begin by acknowledging, as Briggs is aware, that Dickey displayed, as he said of Lawrence Durrell, “a slightly thievish sensibility”—and more than slightly thievish from the mid-1970s, when he was “collaborating” with the long-dead Dutch poet Hendrik Marsman on The Zodiac (1976), onward, and never more so than in The Eagle’s Mile(1990), where he failed to acknowledge the pervasive debt to Vicente Aleixandre. Briggs has an eye peeled for Dickey’s sources, chiefly in a translation by Willis Barnstone and David Garrison but also, it appears, in a Spanish edition, which Dickey owned, of Aleixandre’s poems. Keen as Briggs’s eye is, Dickey’s debt to the Spanish Nobel laureate is even more extensive than the notes disclose. By no means am I an expert on the matter, but it will be readily apparent to a casual reader of both poets that “Weeds,” “Sleepers,” and “Expanses” all derive from specific poems by Aleixandre; and if “Eagles” is, as Briggs identifies it to be, a “‘re-write’” of “Las águilas,” surely “The Little More” is a revision of “El niño y el hombre.” Of some 20 or so suspect poems in The Eagle’s Mile (and several other, previously uncollected poems besides), at least 15 are manifest “collaborations” with Aleixandre. There is obviously more scholarship to do on the subject. (I wonder, by the way, if “To the Butterflies,” Dickey’s “homage” to Central America, doesn’t owe as much to a scene in the 1983 film Eréndira, based on a short novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as it does to Christopher Dickey’s With the Contras.)
Briggs correctly identifies “La palabra,” one of Aleixandre’s seven “immortals” (“Los inmortales”) as the source of “Word,” the lovely—for me, the unexpectedly lovely and appropriate—poem that concludes The Eagle’s Mile and thus The Whole Motion (a poem to which I’ll return). At the same time, he identifies as an “echo of A. E. Housman, ‘Eight O’Clock’ (lines 7-8): ‘And then the clock collected in the tower / Its strength, and struck,’” the conclusion of Dickey’s poem when the human voice “for an instant / Is like the other”—that is, like the voice of eternity (the godhead) that “call[s] on lightning / To say it all”: “breath alone / That came as though humanly panting / From far back, in unspeakably beautiful // Empty space // And struck.” Of course lightning does strike—why hear Housman’s clock strike eight, announcing as it does the hour of a convict’s hanging?
Ready as he is to hear an echo here, Briggs fails to notice that an early poem “The Work of Art” (1957) owes its memorable, grotesque concluding image to a well-known essay, “The Hovering Fly” (1943), by Allen Tate. Tate’s essay examines the “last scene” in Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot, and as “The dead woman and the fly are a locus of the process of decomposition,” so are the amputee and the “hovering fly” at the end of Dickey’s poem. Similarly Briggs fails to recognize Dickey’s theft, verbatim, of two entire lines from Shelley’s “Triumph of Life” (lines 54-55: “Some flying from the thing they feared, and some / Seeking the object of another’s fear”) in “Entering Scott’s Night,” the poem that in The Complete Poems concludes the whole of Dickey’s motion.
Am I nitpicking? I’m grateful to Briggs for identifying allusions when he catches them, and I am more than willing to regard the foregoing question about Housman’s “Eight O’Clock” as one of interpretation. Sometimes, however, the issue is an unambiguous matter of scholarship. One of my own favorite poems in Puella (1982) is “The Surround,” which failed to appear in The Whole Motion where there are only “Six from Puella.” In a letter to Dickey, I asked about its omission, and he replied: “I’m sorry I didn’t include ‘The Surround,’ but one can’t have everything, and since Jim Wright’s wife and estate took umbrage at my long review of his Collected Poems in the Southern Review, I decided I wouldn’t include it this time, though maybe later.” (When the poem first appeared in the Atlantic, there was this headnote: “James Wright Spoken-to at Sundown”; “The Surround,” as Briggs quotes Dickey as saying, “is a kind of elegy for the American poet James Wright.”) After citing that reply, Briggs then asserts: “Dickey did not review Wright’s Collected Poems; in fact he contributed a complimentary blurb for the dust jacket.” Briggs adds, “He may have been thinking of his 1958 Sewanee Review essay,” a review of New Poets of England and America in which Dickey is dismissive of Wright.
No, Dickey was referring to his 3000-word review in the Southern Review (spring 1991) of Wright’s Above the River: The Complete Poems. Titled “Give-Down and Outrage: The Poetry of the Last Straw,” it offers a brutally ambivalent appraisal: “To read through and annotate almost four hundred pages of James Wright’s poetry … is to come away with mixed feelings of the most profound and turbulent sort.” Whether Wright’s widow and estate took umbrage I do not know; but well they might have done, for Dickey persistently calls Wright’s manhood into question, finding in his poetry “a core of softness,” a “disturbing tone of abjectness,” a deprivation “of force and muscle,” which makes it “distressingly limp”: “The poems … are rarely powerful …. One wears oneself out against the abject, against powerless outrage, and longs for the poet to stand up, face, and fight.”
More so than does this oversight, Briggs’s speculations regarding the one-eyed William O. Douglas in “The Eagle’s Mile,” one of Dickey’s more substantial later poems (the poem from which his last individual volume takes its title), illustrate the ever unfolding nature of our common enterprise. Dedicated to the United States Supreme Court justice, the poem is an apostrophe to Douglas, with whom Dickey claimed to have “talked about fishing and hunting and conservation.” The Douglas in the poem is one-eyed, having left “half your sight … hanging in a river / In England, long before you died.” As Briggs points out, “There is no evidence in his biographies that Douglas lost an eye in a fishing accident,” and he ingeniously speculates that the model for Douglas may have been Robert Penn Warren, whose poems “about eagles” Dickey both “admired” and “emulated in ‘Eagles’ and ‘The Eagle’s Mile’”; Warren, Briggs adds, “who physically resembled Douglas, could see out of only one eye in his old age.”
In fact, according to Warren’s biographer Joseph Blotner, the older poet was 16, at home in Kentucky, when a chunk of coal the size of a baseball, tossed over a hedge by his brother, destroyed the vision in Warren’s left eye—and 29 when a surgeon removed the eye. Besides, Warren wrote not about eagles but hawks, “Evening Hawk” being one of his most famous later poems. (See also “A Problem of Spatial Composition” and “Red-Tail Hawk and Pyre of Youth.”) Beyond these quibbles, it is more than doubtful that Dickey in “The Eagle’s Mile” is conflating Warren with Douglas; for he is surely confusing Justice William Douglas with Ambassador Lewis Douglas, who represented the United States at the Court of St. James from 1947-1950 and who became, with his eye patch, the model for an iconic ad of the 1950s, when Dickey was himself in advertising: “The Man in the Hathaway Shirt,” created by David Ogilvy. According to Kenneth Roman in The King of Madison Avenue: David Ogilvy and the Making of Modern Advertising, “The idea [for the eye patch] was prompted by a photograph of Ambassador Lewis Douglas, who had injured his eye while fly fishing in England.”
As I observed at the outset, these 331 poems—except for the 22 poems of uncertain date and the two children’s poems—proceed in chronological order according to date of publication, an arrangement acknowledged by Briggs to be problematic but also convincingly explained by him to be necessary. Consequently, The Complete Poems “provide a kind of poetic autobiography emphasizing the poet’s development, his poetic innovations and experiments, his shifts in style and subject matter, and his great successes as well as his failures.” With The Complete Poems thus arranged, I see that my own excavation of bound periodicals (when I was an undergraduate at the University of South Carolina, in search not only of poems not collected in Poems 1957-1967, the Collier paperback edition of which I purchased on June 14, 1969, and which Dickey signed on September 28, 1972, but also of its poems as they first looked in print) was an unconscious attempt to read the poems as an unmediated, unfolding autobiography of the poet as poet. The Complete Poems returns me to the stacks at the University of South Carolina’s McKissick Library where I thumbed bound volumes of the Sewanee Review, and there in 1951 is “The Shark at the Window,” the first of Dickey’s poems (a pastiche of maybe Tate, the Robert Lowell of Lord Weary’s Castle, Hart Crane, and Dylan Thomas) to appear in a national venue—a poem never before collected, unread by me for 40 years. I am breathing again the dust and the old-paper smell.
It is surprising, given Dickey’s emphasis in class on form—I was a student of his during the early 1970s—that his published apprentice poems do not evince a mastery of traditional forms. The earliest poem, “Christmas Shopping, 1947,” boasts occasional rhyme—exact rhymes and slant—and, though the meter is irregular, more lines of iambic pentameter than anything else. The next poem, from 1948, though divided into four quatrains, consists of eight rhyming couplets in iambic tetrameter. Even as Dickey developed his characteristic three-beat line, he proved himself adept with rhyming couplets (“Reading Genesis to a Blind Child,” “The Scratch,” “The Underground Stream,” all published in 1960), and for well over a decade he continued to experiment with rhyme and uniform stanzas. (See “Breath” .) At the same time, however, he was giving play in other, irregular poems to an extravagant, audacious imagination not happily constrained by the devices of formal versification. Impressively ambitious though these other early poems are, they are inaccessible, at least to me; I stand in awe of the bright minds that, having penetrated their obscurity, saw sufficient merit to warrant their publication in such prestigious venues as the Sewanee Review, Poetry, Partisan Review, Hudson Review, and Commentary. I find myself similarly respectful of Wheelock who cut poem after poem intended for Into the Stone (except when that poem is “Dover: Believing in Kings,” an admittedly difficult poem, published in Poetry and later collected in Drowning with Others); for I now come to “The Performance,” and right after it “The String,” and then “On the Hill below the Lighthouse,” “Into the Stone,” and “Awaiting the Swimmer”—I am suddenly in the presence of a master whose baroque imagination and deliberate craft have found in each other a mate.
If you want to see what Dickey’s imagination was exercising itself to do—if you want the measure of his “capacity to commit himself to his own inventions”—look at “May Day Sermon” (1967), whose placement at the beginning of Poems 1957-1967 seems to me to announce it as the poem that comprehends that decade of poems even if it is not as successful as the poem “Falling,” which with it brackets the early motion. “Falling” is more sharply focused, less extravagant (which is to say, less self-indulgent)—though extravagant still—and more lucid. The placement of “Falling” at the end seems to say on Dickey’s behalf, here, reader, is the poem that you’ll prefer to have been my aim. However, when Falling, May Day Sermon, and Other Poems appeared as a separate collection in 1980, “Falling” appeared at the beginning, “May Day Sermon” at the end. Anyway, those two poems together do more than bracket the decade; they seal it off, making it psychologically impossible (even without the complications of this poet’s very human response to fame and fortune, not to mention his addiction to alcohol) for Dickey to resume his early mode, as characterized by the “versified anecdote” (as he belittled it later when writing Puella). In the “Foreword” to The Complete Poems the poet Richard Howard observes, “I suspect that the last cumulus (1957-1967) of his earlier ‘movement’ … is the one chiefly admired today.” He need not suspect.
This, the critical judgment that prefers the early to the later motion, remains as it was when I entered the University of South Carolina in 1971. As well as that green Collier paperback cumulus, I soon acquired the colorful, splashy paperback edition of The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy (1970). I remember a professor’s sneering at those more recent poems, the swaggering tone’s insistent, buttonholing “Buddys” and “Brothers.” (I do think that with the publication of Poems 1957-1967 Dickey turned from verse composition to prose—even, I mean, with the poems themselves—until Puella, the overall success of which is dubious.) And yet, I had read in 1969, while still a kid in high school whose parents took the Atlantic, “Looking for the Buckhead Boys” and “At Mercy Manor” (as “Mercy” first appeared), charmed by the former, mystified by the latter, rapt by both—as later by “Exchanges” (collected in The Strength of Fields ). I’d stand in front of “Exchanges,” a poster of it, which hung on a living room wall at the Dickeys’ on Lelia’s Court, rapt then as later still by “The Surround” when it appeared in the Atlantic in 1980, by which time I was in graduate school at the University of Virginia. There were as well the later books, of which The Zodiac (the shoddy production of which by Doubleday must have humiliated the poet as it embarrassed even me) held special interest, since this was the poem that occupied Dickey when I was his student. How we students had listened raptly to the poem-in-progress—uncomfortably, discomfited by the unrestrained yammering of Dickey’s drunken persona—as Dickey performed the hallucinatory second part with its celestial lobster: “A Lobster! What an idea! An idea God never had”—performed it even for the women of Columbia’s Junior League, meeting in a parlor at a local church, where he apologized in advance for the profanity, attributing it to the drunken poet, not himself. What an idea indeed! And how appalled was Archibald MacLeish when Dickey announced over bloody marys, during the poet’s April 1975 visit to the university, that he meant to publish The Zodiac in Playboy. It was at that reading for the Junior League that I first heard “Root-light, or the Lawyer’s Daughter,” in which “God’s burning bush of the morning / Sermon was put on” the speaker’s “Image / Of Woman” (“I had never seen it where / It has to be”), and “Drums Where I Live,” which evoked nearby Fort Jackson, and “Haunting the Maneuvers”—wonderful poems then uncollected, though it had been possible, as Briggs’s arrangement reveals, for Dickey to include them in The Eye-Beaters.
If I am again in the stacks at McKissick, so am I too at poolside, an Amstel at hand, on the island of Crete in 1991, poring over The Eagle’s Mile, those urgent, mystical poems with their seascapes—their “ocean / In shock … / Hair-tearing and coming”—and landscapes, too, their boundless “Joy like short grass,” which makes me recall Maxine Dickey’s depiction once of her husband asleep in the backyard on the grass … “Stretch and tell me, Lord; / Let the place talk. // This may just be it.”
Finally, reading now for the first time, I am hearing again Dickey himself reading to me on the phone a new poem (in The Complete Poems, the penultimate poem of certain date: winter 1997): “The Confederate Line at Ogeechee Creek,” where Dickey, unreconstructed, as if to make his own last stand, breathlessly summons “Every underground breath” to speak: “Tecumseh”—William Tecumseh Sherman, that is—“Tecumseh, not this time.” (As I picture him, Dickey is wearing a belt whose oval, yellow brass buckle reads “CSA” in relief—Confederate States of America—which he once told me was cast from a mold of an authentic relic found by brother Tom, as in “Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek,” another copy of which he promised to get from Tom for me.) Several weeks later, in January, Dickey died. Read in this order, the poems have provided me a gratifyingly nostalgic, autobiographical experience of my own.
The poet himself, Briggs writes, “would never have authorized a complete edition of his poems and would never have agreed to this chronological ordering.” I do not doubt that this is so, and I have some sympathy with Dickey’s point of view. However, before exploring the issue, I wish to stress that what we have with The Complete Poems of James Dickey is an indispensable edition—assuming, that is, that it provides, as Briggs’s apparently exhaustive catalogue of variants promises (if not guarantees), accurate texts of all of Dickey’s published poems. What is more, the editor’s extensive commentary, if sometimes deficient despite its ambition, supplements and corrects a variety of biographical sources, Hart’s 2000 biography not least among them, but also the statements made by Dickey himself in Self Interviews and a host of other recorded statements such as those collected in The Voiced Connections of James Dickey: Interviews and Conversations (1989). The notes are therefore invaluable. Finally, the publication of The Complete Poems, the poems chronologically ordered, answers a need that even I as an undergraduate intuited: to be able to track the poet’s development as the publication of individual poems, collected and uncollected alike, presents it—a pursuit that Dickey himself would never have enabled. Why?
Let me begin to answer that question by asserting that just as The Whole Motion does not replace the elegant, hermetic Poems 1957-1967, neither does The Complete Poems, this scholarly edition, replace The Whole Motion, textually unreliable though it is. What is missing from Briggs’s omnium-gatherum is in brief the sense of an artistic construction, an aesthetic whole—that is to say, a body of work whose molded shape itself is the product of the maker’s plastic imagination. I do not have in mind only the poet’s arrangement of his poems within the sections (typically the books as published by Dickey) that compose the whole. Consider also this: The Whole Motion opens with “The Baggage King,” a previously unpublished poem (one of this new complete collection’s poems of uncertain date), and it ends with “Word,” a revision of Aleixandre’s “La palabre”: together these two poems represent the poles of the trajectory that Dickey’s career in poetry follows—as he, through his own arrangement of the poems, gives us to understand.
Briggs’s note points out that Dickey “arrived in New Guinea,” where “The Baggage King” is set, in 1945. This fact I think explains the first of the two dates bracketing The Whole Motion. (Dickey told me in conversation that 1945, rather than specifying any poem’s date of composition, signified the earliest time in his life when any of the poems took place—which wasn’t exactly accurate; there are autobiographical poems set in childhood. I conclude that it was from 1945 that Dickey dated his birth as a poet, at least in retrospect. As Briggs observes, “Dickey’s letters and biography make clear than an unstudious, unartistic, reserved, and girls-and-sports-obsessed southern boy ‘with no more talent for poetry than Joe Louis’ was transformed into a poet by World War II,” and he quotes approvingly Harold Bloom, who “noted that when Dickey said the fragmentary parts of ‘Drinking from a Helmet’ (1963) are set between the battlefield and the graveyard, he gave ‘no inaccurate motto for the entire cosmos of what will prove to be the Whole Motion, when we have it all.’”) “The Baggage King,” then, set in New Guinea in 1945, depicts a 19- year-old Dickey—in reality he was 22—one of the “never-failing replacements” who have arrived by freighter, unable to find “My bag, my flying gear, my books” amid a “mountain of baggage,” which he ends up sitting atop “in trashy triumph”:
… 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.
Nothing yet struck. Here, then, is Dickey in the 1950s, not yet at the top of any heap but ambitious—you bet—to be there, eying his youthful self with wry humor, 19 years old (or 22) without a link to his past (his baggage lost) and utterly alone—who, thanks to his commanding position, is also vulnerable, vulnerable literally to enemy fire or some analogous, death-delivering flash (“the painless explosion that kills one,” as Dickey describes it in “A Letter,” a much later poem). If no lights do come through from the water and nothing does strike, then the Baggage King becomes a survivor. Sure enough, as Briggs quotes Dickey as saying, “I have come, pretty much, to look at existence from the standpoint of a survivor: as someone who is alive only by the inexplicable miracle of chance.” (The poet’s self-description in the poem—one of the “replacements”—reminds us that Dickey saw himself as the replacement for older brother Eugene, “Dead before I was born,” as Dickey puts it in “The String,” one of the best of his early poems.)
So, the Baggage King is not only vulnerable but also available, available to something other, other lights, to “Something” (as Dickey describes it in “The Flash,” a later poem) “far off buried deep and free / In the country [which] can always strike you”—not dead—but “dead / Center of the brain,” and therewith announce your chosenness, to which it is an affirmation of your calling for you to respond also with a flash, which is “your long-awaited, / Blinding, blood-brotherly / Beyond-speech answer.” (In “The Flash” Dickey is literally describing the flash of light, from some distance off, that you’ll sometimes see when driving along a rural highway with open country on either side—you pass right where an object, itself unseen, throws sunlight, “day-lightning,” your way.) In other words, Dickey’s 19-year-old self, positioned as he is, embodies an open invitation to something to strike.
I see him now not as a solitary soldier “[a]t the top of the heap, in the dark,” exposed to enemy fire, but rather as a would-be poet out in the open, inviting, say, lightning to strike. In 1945, a lifetime ahead of him, he is set to be that poet of Randall Jarrell’s “who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times: a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.” (My baker’s dozen: “Listening to Foxhounds,” “Springer Mountain,” “Kudzu,” “The Firebombing,” “Reincarnation [I],” “Pursuit from Under,” “Sled Burial, Dream Ceremony,” “Mangham,” “The Fiend,” “Falling,” “The Sheep Child,” “For the Last Wolverine,” “The Bee”—all of them, I see, from Poems 1957-1967.)
Alone in his commanding position, the Baggage King, “my shirt open down to my balls,” burlesques “eternity,” the godhead as depicted in “Word”: “eternity, which naked, every time / Will call on lightning / To say it all: No after / Or before,” a word of utter originality. At 19 neither has Dickey been struck by that lightning nor has he struck as God strikes: “nothing yet struck.” But in “Word,” at the end of his motion, Dickey can say (speaking collectively of poets, makers): “Our voice / Fails, but for an instant / Is like that other; breath alone / That came as though humanly panting / From far back, in unspeakably beautiful // Empty space // And struck: at just this moment / Found the word ‘golden.’” Inspiration, that breath, has struck as lightning does and found its word—as if it were the imperative “Light!” of Genesis engoldening the void. As for that young replacement, it is as if a stroke of lightning from God in 1945 had found him, a saving, sanctifying flash in place of enemy fire—gave him a voice that sometimes seemed divine. “Golden”—the poet’s last word, after which his voice is mute, and silence golden? Let it be a shattered-by-“golden” silence, in which the poet’s words resound as clamorous gold. This poem, “Word,” invites us to attend anew to a body arranged by the poet, his corpus, a “copious, clamorous amassment” (as Richard Howard finds this one arranged by year to be), whose words, while sometimes “possess[ing] a savage dissidence” from the “virtues” of “music, order and repose,” are also sometimes nearly beyond-speech golden.