James Dickey and Me

james-l-dickeyIntro

Like hundreds of other po-dunk wannabe poets, I took James Dickey’s verse seminar course when he was poet-in-residence at the University of South Carolina. That semester — the Fall of ’76 – ended up being a significant one for Dickey, who in the course of its 15 weeks became a widower and a bridegroom.

I had first heard of Big Jim Dickey from my high school English teacher Mrs. Clarice Foster, who described him as “a brilliant young poet who had written a fairly good novel.” The novel, of course, was Deliverance, which came out in ’70, my senior year, two years before the release of the movie. Deliverance the movie made Dickey famous, a drinking buddy with Burt Reynolds, but perhaps exacerbated his propensity of making a colossal ass of himself.

Big Jim Dickey (by Robert Fowler)

Who started calling

Big Jim Dickey

Big Jim Dickey?

Big Jim Dickey,

That’s who.

Bobby’s poem summarized what the slumming literary crowd I hung around thought about Dickey. The cat could write dazzling poems, but his my-genius-gives-me-the-license-to-breach-the-customs-of-polite-society got old fast. He could make you feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, like your own father could in your late teens when you started to figure out a lot of what he pontificated was bullshit. I lacked compassion back then, I thought I knew more than I did, and I now rue my lack of respect.

James Dickey was a near great, if not great poet, and I squandered a chance to learn more from him.

From “Cherrylog Road”

We left by separate doors

Into the changed, other bodies

Of cars, she down Cherrylog Road

And I to my motorcycle

Parked like the soul of the junkyard

Restored, a bicycle fleshed

With power, and tore off

Up Highway 106, continually

Drunk on the wind in my mouth,

Wringing the handlebar for speed,

Wild to be wreckage forever.

James Dickey

dickey with hatFall Semester 1976

Smiling, stooped, gregarious, he sat at the head of the seminar table wearing two or three watches on both wrists. Dickey was often – I wouldn’t call it drunk – but more like inebriated – eloquent, narcissistic, rarely bothering to comment on the fixed-form ditties he had us crank out each week.

More typically, he’d talk about himself, famous poets he’d known, the goings-on of the set of Deliverance.   He called the good-looking females in the class “Sugar Face.” One week on Tuesday and Thursday, without providing us the text to see, he read aloud the same essay by Sir Herbert Read.   No one mentioned to him the error on that Thursday when he began reading the piece for the second time – not I-and-I, not the hanger-on poets who attended the class every semester without registering, not his grad assistant.

In short, he was a terrible teacher that semester, that is, until some veins in his wife’s esophagus ruptured, which he described in class with a graphic eloquence that was at once paradoxically impassioned and detached. It was like watching a poem coming to be in 3-D – he at first thinking a burglar had attacked her when he encountered her limp body bleeding profusely on the floor of their house. He held her in his arms there on the floor as she lost half her body’s blood.

Warning: the Following Contains Off-Putting Name Dropping

Several years ago our friend Jo Humphreys, author of Dreams of Sleep and Rich in Love, invited Judy and me to a party in honor of her mentor Reynolds Price. After Jo introduced us, Mr. Price and I got on the subject of James Dickey who had recently died. Price told me he had great affection for “Jim” but that Jim was “insane” in a way that was hard to characterize and that it was impossible to be a woman and to be his friend.   Mr. Price also said that one time at a party, Dickey had picked him up off the ground and said something to the effect of that though he — Dickey — didn’t sleep with men, if he ever were to, he’d want to sleep with him — Price.

Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell

Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell

Fall Semester, continued

Mrs. Maxine Dickey survived that night and hung on for a month or so before she died. While she was in the hospital, Elizabeth Bishop came to campus for a reading. Dickey — or his graduate assistant — arranged for us during our class time to meet Bishop and hear her read a poem or two.   The meeting hadn’t been announced, so we followed Dickey, leading the way down the street from our classroom to a Victorian house a block away.

So we met Elizabeth Bishop, I ignorant of what an honor it should be. She looked like an Episcopalian grandmother with her neatly coiffed white hair and  matching plaid blazer and skirt. Her demeanor utterly contrasted with Dickey’s, like George Will versus Screaming Jay Hawkins.

What I didn’t know was that Elizabeth Bishop and her friend Robert Lowell held Dickey in contempt. Later that night after the official reading, Dickey asked Bishop to sign some books and pose for a photograph with him and refused, saying, “Sir, I do not pose for pictures.”

One of the great things about having Dickey on campus was the writers he could summon. During my time in Columbia, in addition to Elizabeth Bishop, I got to hear Robert Penn Warren, Archibald MacLeish, and Robert Lowell.

For the Last Wolverine

They will soon be down

To one, but he still will be

For a little while    still will be stopping

The flakes in the air with a look,

Surrounding himself with the silence

Of whitening snarls. Let him eat

The last red meal of the condemned

To extinction, tearing the guts

From an elk. Yet that is not enough

For me. I would have him eat

The heart, and, from it, have an idea

Stream into his gnawing head

That he no longer has a thing

To lose, and so can walk

Out into the open, in the full

Pale of the sub-Arctic sun

Where a single spruce tree is dying

Higher and higher. Let him climb it

With all his meanness and strength.

Lord, we have come to the end

Of this kind of vision of heaven,

As the sky breaks open

Its fans around him and shimmers

And into its northern gates he rises

Snarling   complete    in the joy of a weasel

With an elk’s horned heart in his stomach

Looking straight into the eternal

Blue, where he hauls his kind. I would have it all

My way: at the top of that tree I place

The New World’s last eagle

Hunched in mangy feathers    giving

Up on the theory of flight.

Dear God of the wildness of poetry, let them mate

To the death in the rotten branches,

Let the tree sway and burst into flame

And mingle them, crackling with feathers,

In crownfire. Let something come

Of it    something gigantic     legendary

Rise beyond reason over hills

Of ice   SCREAMING    that it cannot die,

That it has come back, this time

On wings, and will spare no earthly thing:

That it will hover, made purely of northern

Lights, at dusk    and fall

On men building roads: will perch

On the moose’s horn like a falcon

Riding into battle    into holy war against

Screaming railroad crews: will pull

Whole traplines like fibers from the snow

In the long-jawed night of fur trappers.

But, small, filthy, unwinged,

You will soon be crouching

Alone, with maybe some dim racial notion

Of being the last, but none of how much

Your unnoticed going will mean:

How much the timid poem needs

The mindless explosion of your rage,

The glutton’s internal fire    the elk’s

Heart in the belly, sprouting wings,

The pact of the “blind swallowing

Thing,” with himself, to eat

The world, and not to be driven off it

Until it is gone, even if it takes

Forever. I take you as you are

And make of you what I will,

Skunk-bear, carcajou, bloodthirsty

Non-survivor.

                                        Lord, let me die       but not die


Out.

James Dickey

the author in 1976 photo by Judy Birdsong

the author in 1976 photo by Judy Birdsong

Fall Semester completed

In the other class Dickey was teaching that semester, Dickey had met his soon-to-be new wife.   He married her, one of his students, Deborah Dodsen, two months after Maxine’s death.

I myself had met and fallen in love with my future wife Judy Birdsong that semester.

Later Contact

When I started teaching high school in the mid-Eighties, I called Dickey to ask him if it would be all right if I had a student writing a paper on Deliverance phone and interview him to so he could use the author as a source.

Mr. Dickey — as I addressed him over the phone — couldn’t have been nicer. He asked what year he had taught me, who my friends were, claimed to remember me, and welcomed the student’s call.

The last time I saw Dickey was in ’97. He had selected a poem of mine to be included in anthology of his students’ work published by USC Press. There was a reception for the poets where we could buy books and have him sign them.

He was a changed man, thinner, the combover replaced by a buzz cut;  he was calmer, almost courtly. We chatted as he signed three books I had bought for my parents, my in-laws, and a friend.

I really regret that I didn’t have him sign one for me, but the line was long, and I didn’t want to be that person.