Buckdancer's-Choice Poems by James DickeyReading Tom Poland’s fascinating account of his relationship with the author of Deliverance, I was moved to revisit James Dickey the poet, and to wonder what the hell-blaze of war consumed in him, and what it tempered into artistic resolve.

Has any poet better depicted the soul-stripping terror of modern technological warfare than Dickey has done in The Firebombing? This mesmerizing, 1700-word poem leads off Buckdancer’s Choice, the 1964 collection that earned the National Book Award.

The poet here is a night-fighter pilot, at home, 20 years into the suburbs, eating figs in his “half-paid-for” pantry, lost from his daily life – “Where the screwdriver is, where the children get off the bus” – but alive and airborne still in the humidity off the coast of Japan, rummaging in the guilt, thrills and sorrows of old details.

The poem opens with “home” but on an ambiguous, dissonant note. Poems are where experience and imagination team up to explore the truth, which is to say they have no obligation to facts. But the deep emotional well of The Firebombing tells you that James Dickey never truly made it back home. During WWII, he was a night-fighter pilot, alone in a cockpit, harassing the enemy from dark skies. And in the Korean War he returned to duty to train others. The iconography of war and home-place are shuffled like a deck of cards in his memory.

Homeowners unite.

All families lie together, though some are burned alive.
The others try to feel
For them. Some can, it is often said.

Starve and take off

Twenty years in the suburbs, and the palm trees willingly leap
Into the flashlights,
And there is beneath them also
A booted crackling of snailshells and coral sticks.
There are cowl flaps and the tilt cross of propellers,
Then shovel-marked clouds’ far sides against the moon,
The enemy filling up the hills
With ceremonial graves. At my somewhere among these,

Snap, a bulb is tricked on in the cockpit
And some technical-minded stranger with my hands
Is sitting in a glass treasure-hole of blue light,
Having potential fire under the undeodorized arms
Of his wings, on thin bomb shackles,
The “tear-drop-shaped” 300-gallon drop-tanks
Filled with napalm and gasoline.

“At my somewhere among these” is a lost and lonely sound, and paired with ceremonial graves lays bare the unshakable tortured feelings that perhaps many a hero carries. It is the golden thread in this long, vivid, mystical poem. He says at one point, “With this in the dark of my mind, / Death will not be what it should; / Will not, even now, even when / My exhaled face in the mirror / Of Bars dilates in a cloud like Japan.”

The enemy-colored skin of families
Determines to hold its color
In sleep, as my hand turns whiter
Than ever, clutching the toggle –
The ship shakes bucks
Fire hangs not yet fire
In the air above Beppu
For I am fulfilling
An “anti-morale” raid upon it.
All leashes of dogs
Break under the first bomb, around those
In bed, or late in the public baths: around those
Who inch forward on their hands
Into medicinal waters …

As I sail artistically over
The resort town followed by farms
Singing and twisting
All the handles in heaven kicking
The small cattle off their feet
In a red costly blast
Flinging jelly over the walls …

My hat should crawl on my head
In streetcars, thinking of it
The fat on my body should pale …

All this, and I am still hungry,
Still twenty years overweight, still unable
To get down there or see
What really happened.”

Just in these short excerpts, so much is going on. The inescapable personal accountability in the “undeodorized arms” of the wings and bomb shackles … Heaven’s handles in the air, Hell’s flames on the ground … The picture of detachment as vivid in the politics-laden assigned mission – “anti-morale” raid – as in the image of encapsulation in the cockpit’s glass treasure-hole and the joy of sailing artistically over the resort town as if performing in an air show. The images repeat late in the poem:

… Ah, under one’s dark arms
Something strange-scented falls – when those on earth
Die, there is not even sound;
One is cool and enthralled in the cockpit,
Turned blue by the power of beauty,
In a pale treasure-hole of soft light
Deep in aesthetic contemplation,
Seeing the ponds catch fire …

Detachment on high in his “treasure-hole of blue light” … his “treasure hole of soft light” allows beauty and contemplation for the poet … But nevertheless, 20 years later, he is at risk in his own pantry, in his own front yard.

The enemy-colored skin vs. the pilot’s whiter-than-ever hand on the bomb toggle … Children and their things incinerated, families, dogs and cattle shrieking, fleeing, suffering as he flies artistically, majestically away, later to wonder for a lifetime about the fire down below, haunted by the detachment, “the honored aesthetic evil, The greatest sense of power in one’s life, / That must be shed in bars, or by whatever / means, by starvation ….”

The poem rolls along, launched turning, diving, arcing like the night-bomber itself, from experiencing quiet detached beauty in which even the returning gunfire from below becomes “speckles from the river,” to guessing at the horror wreaked: “… another bomb finds a home / And clings to it like a child.”

Other poems in Buckdancer’s Choice tremble beautifully with the same death obsession, with the unity of humankind in death. “All ages of mankind unite / Where it is dark enough,” he wrote in The Common Grave, which includes this possibly self-referencing refrain:

The mover of all things struggles
in the green-crowded, green-crowned nightmare
of a great king packed in an acorn …

And in Faces Seen Once arrives this haunting image:

Through the bent, staring, unstable dark
Of a drainpipe, Unity hears you –

A God-roar of hearing – say only
“You are an angel’s too-realized

Unbearable memoryless face.”

Author James DickeyDickey was a large and garrulous – charming, humorous, and burdened, I thought, with a restless melancholy, perfect for his cameo role as a sheriff. I met and talked with him once, covering the premier of the movie Deliverance, for The AP in 1972. I found him fascinating and a little daunting. Even with the then-ascendant Burt Reynolds on hand, the poet held the stage.

At a critical juncture during the screening, the audience tensed with anticipation as Burt Reynolds stood quivering with drawn bow, set to rescue a friend under torture. Dickey, seated with then-Gov. Jimmy Carter, half-rose and bellowed, “Shoot!”

Shattering the tension, getting the laugh, bringing the drama back to his tortured self.

Suggested Reading:


The Firebombing
By James Dickey

 

Homeowners unite.

All families lie together, though some are burned alive.
The others try to feel
For them. Some can, it is often said.

Starve and take off

Twenty years in the suburbs, and the palm trees willingly leap
Into the flashlights,
And there is beneath them also
A booted crackling of snailshells and coral sticks.
There are cowl flaps and the tilt cross of propellers,
Then shovel-marked clouds’ far sides against the moon,
The enemy filling up the hills
With ceremonial graves. At my somewhere among these,

Snap, a bulb is tricked on in the cockpit

And some technical-minded stranger with my hands
Is sitting in a glass treasure-hole of blue light,
Having potential fire under the undeodorized arms
Of his wings, on thin bomb shackles,
The “tear-drop-shaped” 300-gallon drop-tanks
Filled with napalm and gasoline.

Think forward ten minutes
From that, there is also the burst straight out
Of the overcast into the moon; there is now
The moon-metal-shine of propellers, the quarter-
moonstone, aimed at the waves,
Stopped on the cumulus.

There is then this re-entry
Into cloud, for the engines to ponder their sound.
In white dark the aircraft shrinks; Japan

Dilates around it like a thought.
Coming out, the one who is here is over
Land, passing over the all-night grainfields,
In dark paint over
The woods with one silver side,
Rice-water calm at all levels
Of the terraced hill.
Enemy rivers and trees
Sliding off me like snakeskin,
Strips of vapor spooled from the wingtips
Going invisible passing over on
Over bridges roads for nightwalkers
Sunday night in the enemy’s country absolute
Calm the moon’s face coming slowly
About
the inland sea
Slants is woven with wire thread
Levels out holds together like a quilt
Off the starboard wing cloud flickers
At my glassed-off forehead the moon’s now and again
Uninterrupted face going forward
Over the waves in a glide-path
Lost into land.

Going: going with it

Combat booze by my side in a cratered canteen,
Bourbon frighteningly mixed
With GI pineapple juice,
Dogs trembling under me for hundreds of miles, on many
Islands, sleep-smelling that ungodly mixture
Of napalm and high-octane fuel,
Good bourbon and GI juice.

Rivers circling behind me around
Come to the fore, and bring
A town with everyone darkened.
Five thousand people are sleeping off
An all-day American drone.
Twenty years in the suburbs have not shown me
Which ones were hit and which not.

Haul on the wheel racking slowly
The aircraft black around
In a dark dream that that is
That is like flying inside someone’s head

Think of this think of this

I did not think of my house
But think of my house now

Where the lawn mower rests on its laurels
Where the diet exists

For my own good where I try to drop
Twenty years, eating figs in the pantry
Blinded by each and all
Of the eye-catching cans that gladly have caught my wife’s eye
Until I cannot say
Where the screwdriver is where the children
Get off the bus where the new
Scoutmaster lives where the fly
Hones his front legs where the hammock folds
Its erotic daydreams where the Sunday
School text for the day has been put where the fire
Wood is where the payments
For everything under the sun
Pile peacefully up,

But in this half-paid-for pantry
Among the red lids that screw off
With an easy half-twist to the left
And the long drawers crammed with dim spoons,
I still have charge – secret charge –
Of the fire developed to cling
To everything: to golf carts and fingernail
Scissors as yet unborn tennis shoes
Grocery baskets toy fire engines
New Buicks stalled by the half-moon
Shining at midnight on crossroads green paint
Of jolly garden tools red Christmas ribbons:

Not atoms, these, but glue inspired
By love of country to burn,
The apotheosis of gelatin.

Behind me having risen the Southern Cross
Set up by chaplains in the Ryukyus –
Orion, Scorpio, the immortal silver
Like the myths of king-
insects at swarming time –
One mosquito, dead drunk
On altitude, drones on, far under the engines,
And bites between
The oxygen mask and the eye.
The enemy-colored skin of families
Determines to hold its color
In sleep, as my hand turns whiter
Than ever, clutching the toggle –
The ship shakes bucks
Fire hangs not yet fire
In the air above Beppu
For I am fulfilling

An “anti-morale” raid upon it.
All leashes of dogs
Break under the first bomb, around those
In bed, or late in the public baths: around those
Who inch forward on their hands
Into medicinal waters.
Their heads come with a roar
Of Chicago fire:
Come up with the carp pond showing
The bathhouse upside down,
Standing stiller to show it more
As I sail artistically over
the resort town followed by farms
Singing and twisting
All the handles in heaven kicking
The small cattle off their feet
In a red costly blast
Flinging jelly over the walls
As in a chemical war-
fare field demonstration.
With fire of mine like a cat

Holding onto another man’s walls,
My hat should crawl on my head
In streetcars, thinking of it
The fat on my body should pale.

Gun down
The engines, the eight blades sighing
For the moment when the roofs will connect
Their flames, and make a town burning with all
American fire.
Reflections of houses catch;
Fire shuttles from pond to pond
In every direction, till hundreds flash with one death.
With this in the dark of the mind,
Death will not be what it should;
Will not, even now, even when
My exhaled face in the mirror
Of bars, dilates in a cloud like Japan.
The death of children is ponds
Shutter-flashing; responding mirrors; it climbs
The terraces of hills
Smaller and smaller, a mote of red dust
At a hundred feet; at a hundred and one it goes out.
That is what should have got in
To my eye

And shown the insides of houses, the low tables
Catch fire from the floor mats,
Blaze up in gas around their heads
Like a dream of suddenly growing
Too intense for war. Ah, under one’s dark arms
Something strange-scented falls – when those on earth
Die, there is not even sound;
One is cool and enthralled in the cockpit,
Turned blue by the power of beauty,
In a pale treasure-hole of soft light
Deep in aesthetic contemplation,
Seeing the ponds catch fire
And cast it through ring after ring
Of land: O death in the middle
Of acres of inch-deep water! Useless

Firing small arms
Speckles from the river
Bank one ninety-millimeter
Misses far down wrong petals gone

It is this detachment,
The honored aesthetic evil,
The greatest sense of power in one’s life,
That must be shed in bars, or by whatever
Means, by starvation
Visions in well-stocked pantries:
The moment when the moon sails in between
The tail-booms the rudders nod I swing
Over directly over the heart
The heart of the fire. A mosquito burns out on my cheek
With the cold of my face there are the eyes
In blue light bar light
All masked but them the moon
Crossing from left to right in the streams below
Oriental fish form quickly
In the chemical shine,
In their eyes one tiny seed
Of deranged, Old Testament light.

Letting go letting go
The plane rises gently dark forms
Glide off me long water pales
In safe zones a new cry enters
The voice box of chained family dogs

We buck leap over something
Not there settle back
Leave it leave it clinging and crying
It consumer them in a hot
Body-flash, old age or menopause
Of children, clings and burns
Eating through
And when a reed mat catches fire
From me, it explodes through field after field
Bearing its sleeper another

Bomb finds a home
And clings to it like a child. And so

Goodbye to the grassy mountains
To cloud streaming from the night engines
Flags pennons curved silks
Of air myself streaming also
My body covered
With flags, the air of flags
Between the engines.
Forever I do sleep in that position,
Forever in a turn
For home that breaks out streaming banners
From my wingtips,
Wholly in position to admire.

O then I knock it off
And turn for home over the black complex thread worked through
The silver night-sea,
Following the huge, moon-washed steppingstones
Of the Ryukyus south,
The nightgrass of mountains billowing softly
In my rising heat.
Turn and tread down
The yellow stones of the islands
To where Okinawa burns,
Pure gold, on the radar screen,
Beholding, beneath, the actual island form
In the vast water-silver poured just above solid ground,
An inch of water extending for thousands of miles
Above flat ploughland. Say “down,” and it is done.

All this, and I am still hungry,
Still twenty years overweight, still unable
To get down there or see
What really happened.
But it may be that I could not,
If I tried, say to any
Who lived there, deep in my flames: say, in cold
Grinning sweat, as to another
As these homeowners who are always curving
Near me down the different-grassed street: say
As though to the neighbor
I borrowed the hedge-clippers from
On the darker-grassed side of the two,
Come in, my house is yours, come in
If you can, if you
Can pass this unfired door. It is that I can imagine
At the threshold nothing
With its ears crackling off
Like powdery leaves,
Nothing with children of ashes, nothing not
Amiable, gentle, well-meaning,
A little nervous for no
Reason a little worried a little too loud
Or too easygoing nothing I haven’t lived with
For twenty years, still nothing not as
American as I am, and proud of it.

Absolution? Sentence? No matter;
The thing itself is in that.

From Buckdancer’s Choice, Poems by James Dickey, Winner of National Book Award. Wesleyan University Press. 1964

###

Dallas Lee

Dallas Lee, former writer and editor for The Associated Press and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, retired as a speechwriter from Bank of America. He is author of The Cotton Patch Evidence: The Story of Clarence Jordan and the Koinonia Farm Experiment (Harper & Row 1971).