Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 06:51AM
National Book Foundation

Buckdancer’s Choice: Poems

By James Dickey

Original and Current Publisher: Wesleyan University Press

Patrick Rosal writes:

There’s something to be admired in James Dickey’s impressive capacity for formality and expression. When he’s at his best in Buckdancer’s Choice, the poems carve exquisite rhythms and images. In “Reincarnation,” for example, he breaks the long syntax, enjambing the long lines, to portray a cosmic metaphor: a man reincarnated, transformed into a simpler deadliness, a snake. The poem’s other primary image is a rusting wheel—technology upon which the earliest civilizations were built—in utter decay and on its side. At the same time, in the mulch, this writhing being thrives, having concocted its toxic spit “from bird eggs and thunderstruck rodents, / Dusty pine needles, blunt stones, horse dung, leaf mold.” The serpent has the decaying wheel as “the place to wait” for its victim. In contrast to its eyes as a man, the snake’s eyes are “unclosable.” The natural ability to keep one’s eyes open seems an equal and opposite curse to the compulsion (physiological and metaphorical need) to close one’s eyes from anywhere between an instant and many hours at a time.

The poem that follows begins in a quiet, night-time narrative and quickly transforms into terror and astonishment, as a trucker finds himself circling a hospital, able to hear from his cab those who are suffering inside the building. He eventually enters the hospital and walks through the nightmarish cold of labs and hallways. The anguish of all the injured and the infirmed is stifled, which makes all their ghoulish wailing louder to the trucker:

An awakening, part-song sound
Calling anyone out of the life
He thought he led: a sound less than twelve
Years old, which wakes to the less-than-nothing
Of a bent glass straw in a glass

With small sleepless bubbles stuck to it:
Which feels a new mouth sewn shut

In a small body’s back or its side
And would free some angelic voice

From the black crimped thread,
The snipped cat-whiskers of a wound—
A sound that can find no way
To attack the huge, orderly flowers.

The vision bursts open with a door through which the trucker encounters the loved ones of those he’s seen in the hospital. (I can’t help but think of Dante—at least the second oblique reference to The Inferno in the collection—and the fifth circle of sullenness and rage, i.e. anger suppressed and anger expressed.) The italicized ending becomes a sort of phantasmic chorus—chilling.

But the book is filled with affecting personal lyrics as well, gorgeously composed, many of them meditations that take place in Southern landscapes and settings. I’ve read that Dickey squarely identified as a Southerner, though he rejected the romanticism of the Southern Agrarians who preceded him and didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a regional poet. It’s clear the land of the south gave him a fertile history, a way to contemplate grief and complicate memory: from the grotesque thrill of a carnival he and his parents attended when he was a child to the burial place of his forebears: “From my great-grandmother on, My family lies at Fairmount…” The speaker buys his own plot at that ground “For thirty-seven dollars and a half.” In this poem, “The Escape,” we realize about a third of the way into the piece that the speaker is standing at the edge of the burial grounds and just behind him is a modern hospital. That is, he stands between madness and death and he pronounces: “I have escaped from Fairmount…”  The rest of the poem hinges on the hospital’s towering presence, its windows reflecting the sun except for one open window.  It’s the light that’s missing, the speaker says, through which he has escaped.

I can’t abandon this blog entry without mentioning the controversy that surrounded the book; perhaps the most well-known of the poems in the collection is “The Firebombing,” a lyric that flashes from a suburban present to the bomber pilot’s experience of firebombing the Ryuku Islands in World War II. Among the poem’s most vocal critics was Robert Bly, who was strongly anti-war as the conflict in Vietnam was entering its most deadly years.

Reading the poem now, as a poet in a country at war, I’m astonished by the poem. It is, frankly, marvelously made. The language is not just scintillatingly violent; it cuts from memory to present and back without obvious transitions, splicing together the innocuous-kitchen-cupboard life of the speaker with the horrors of his war-time experience.  There is a moment, late in the poem, where the speaker seems to praise his own actions as a soldier, or at least grieve for little more than his own failure to feel: “It is this detachment, / This honored aesthetic evil, / The greatest sense of power in one’s life / that must be shed in bars.” Here, I think, the poem does become problematic. The imagination stops short, fails, and in its own language, detaches itself.

A few years ago, I sat for the first time in front of a full class of Asian-American poets at the Kundiman Summer Retreat. I wish I’d known this poem as well back then. I would have liked to know what the young poets there thought of it. My own relationship to it is complicated, having lost two uncles (dug their own graves and then were stabbed in the back by bayonets) and other relatives who fought as scouts alongside Americans in the Pacific theater. And only two generations before that, two of my granduncles were hung to death by American tribunals who were trying to establish colonial control of the Philippine Islands. I often ask my students what’s at stake in their writing. I am learning there is always more. I think a poem isn’t everything. So there is always more.

Patrick Rosal is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive (Persea, 2003), which won the Members' Choice Award from the Asian American Writers' Workshop, and most recently My American Kundiman (Persea, 2006), which won the Association of Asian American Studies 2006 Book Award in Poetry and the 2007 Global Filipino Literary Award. Awarded a Fulbright grant as a Senior U.S. Scholar to the Philippines in 2009, he has had poems and essays published widely in journals and anthologies, including Harvard Review, Tin House, American Poetry Review, The Literary Review, the Beacon Best, and Language for a New Century. (Photo credit: Stephen Sullivan)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

Poetry Judges that Year: Ben Belitt, Phyllis McGinley, Elder Olson

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