Sunday, November 04, 2007

James Dickey Poems: An Online Selection

James and Christopher Dickey, London, August 1954

Some of James Dickey's finest poems have been made available through The Poetry Foundation, along with a thoughtful sketch of his life and work:

At Darien Bridge
Buckdancer’s Choice
Cherrylog Road
For the Last Wolverine
In the Marble Quarry
In the Tree House at Night
The Heaven of Animals
The Hospital Window
The Lifeguard
The Performance
The Sheep Child
The Strength of Fields

For further insights into these poems, see this and related blogs. For instance, a post relevant to "Darien Bridge" can be found on Our Scrapbook. A note about "For the Last Wolverine" can be found below. And a photograph of James Dickey's grave, with the epitaph taken from "In the Tree House at Night" -- "I move at the heart of the world" -- is available at American Byways.

There will be much more. - C.D.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Deliverance/Iraq: Commentaries

The Shadowland column about "Deliverance" and the war in Iraq continues to attract attention. Earlier this week it was cited by Andrew Sullivan on, "The Daily Dish," and now Scott Horton has weighed in with a kind and cautionary note on his Harpers blog, "No Comment":

... Dickey’s relation of Deliverance to the current American dilemma is not an entertainment. It’s an admonition. ...

Monday, October 22, 2007

War and Deliverance

My Newsweek Shadowland column this week, which is published in an abbreviated form in the print magazine, was adapted from a speech I gave last year at the University of South Alabama at the invitation of Sue Walker:

By Christopher Dickey
Newsweek Web Exclusive
Updated: 12:44 PM ET Oct 17, 2007

Probably you know as much as you want to know about the most infamous scene in the 1972 movie "Deliverance," that homosexual rape by the riverside in the backwoods of Georgia—"Squeal piggy!"—it's been a source of hetero horror and sophomoric jokes ever since it first hit the screen 35 years ago. Warner Brothers has just released a deluxe anniversary DVD of "Deliverance," in HD or Blu-ray if you please, so the film's likely to have something of a revival in America's living rooms. Woe to any parents who fail to take the R rating seriously: that one nightmare sequence is so graphic, so carnal, so violent and humiliating that you cannot help but cringe, or laugh. (A lot of people laugh, nervously.) And you just cannot forget it.

Since my late father, James Dickey, wrote the novel "Deliverance" and the screenplay for the movie, I like to think there's more to the story than that, and indeed there is. But it was only last year, when I was asked by my friend Sue Walker at the University of South Alabama (yes, USA) to give a talk about the Middle East, which I normally write about, and also the making of the film “Deliverance,” which people seem to want to hear about, that I started thinking about the movie's particular relevance for the post-9/11 world. My old man and I disagreed about many things, but when I watched the re-released film again just recently, in light of current headlines, I realized just how well he'd tapped into those mind-sets that eventually helped plunge us into the Mesopotamian quagmire.

The basic plot of "Deliverance" is simple enough. Four suburbanites from Atlanta go canoeing up in the mountains. ("This is the weekend they didn't play golf," as the movie's original publicity campaign put it.) Then they find that the wild river and the people around it are much more dangerous than they'd ever bargained for. One of the men from Atlanta is raped, one is killed and the others learn to kill.

The instigator of the expedition is Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds in the movie), and while he talks about getting back to nature and testing himself against the wild, he's really more of a country-club Friedrich Nietzsche: a would-be "├╝bermensch," or "superman," riffing on the 19th-century German philosopher's conceits, constantly training his body and mind to excel, reinventing himself to lead. His destiny—to survive against all odds—will be a triumph of his will. Or so he thinks.

In the end, though, it is not the ├╝bermensch who offers deliverance from the nasty, brutish horrors of the river and the men of the forest. It is the perfectly ordinary man, the just-getting-by guy, Ed Gentry (Jon Voight), who transcends himself to survive. He is not inspired by a vision of the future, he does not aspire to be tested by man and nature. He's motivated by fear, pure and simple, and his desire to return to his normal life without that fear.
In the early parts of the story, Ed thinks Lewis is a little nuts, but he's fascinated by the idea that Lewis might be right about—something—he's not sure what. Obsessions like those of Lewis Medlock can create their own charisma, inspiring fear while pretending to resist it. Untested ersatz fortitude often looks impressive. The other businessmen from Atlanta, the soft-spoken Drew (Ronny Cox) and porcine Bobby (Ned Beatty), think Lewis is a lot nuts. In fact, they think he's dangerous. And they're right.

Me, I think Lewis is Vice President Dick Cheney's closet fantasy of himself, and as such, a sort of model for the Bush administration as a whole. And Ed, he's about the rest of us, just scared and trying to get by. And the river? That's the war in Iraq. ... (more)

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Not Quite to the White Sea ....

In the current issue of Time Magazine, the Cormac McCarthy has a conversation with Joel and Ethan Coen about moves they've made, would like to make, and wish they'd made. James Dickey's "To The White Sea" falls into the latter category.

CORMAC MCCARTHY What would you guys like to do that's just too outrageous, and you don't think you'll ever get to do it?

JOEL COEN Well, I don't know about outrageous, but there was a movie we tried to make that was another adaptation. It was a novel that James Dickey wrote called To the White Sea, and it was about a tail gunner in a B-29 shot down over Tokyo.

C.M. That was the last thing he wrote.

J.C. Last thing he wrote. So this guy's in Tokyo during the firebombing, but the story isn't really about that. He walks from Honshu to Hokkaido, because he grew up in Alaska and he's trying to get to a cold climate, where he figures he can survive, and he speaks no Japanese, so after the first five or 10 minutes of the movie, there's no dialogue at all.

C.M. Yeah. That'd be tough.

J.C. It was interesting. We tried to make that, but no one was interested in financing this expensive movie about the firebombing of Tokyo in which there's no dialogue.

ETHAN COEN And it's a survival story, and the guy dies at the end.

C.M. Everybody dies. It's like Hamlet.

E.C. Brad Pitt wanted to do it, and he has this sort of remorse or regret about it. But he's too old now.

J.C. But you know, there's something about it--there were echoes of it in No Country for Old Men that were quite interesting for us, because it was the idea of the physical work that somebody does that helps reveal who they are and is part of the fiber of the story. Because you only saw this person in this movie making things and doing things in order to survive and to make this journey, and the fact that you were thrown back on that, as opposed to any dialogue, was interesting to us.

There's much left unsaid here. Some $50 million had been raised by producer Richard Roth and others to produce the film and locations already had been scouted that summer of 2001. I ran into Brad Pitt at a party in Italy and talked to him about it. He was indeed enthusiastic (although George Clooney, who was also there, kept asking him why he'd make a movie that had almost no dialogue at all). The problem, as we were told eventually by Roth, is that the Coens wanted a budget that was maybe 50 percent higher, mainly for special effects during the firebombing of Tokyo. And that money just wasn't there. - C.S.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

"Deliverance" 35th Anniversary DVD Reviews

Visit Warner Brothers' Official Site to watch the trailer:

The new DVD of James Dickey's "Deliverance," issued on September 18, is getting very good press. A few examples are below:

Jon Voight on making Deliverance review | Film Reviews - Times Online
A thoughtful interview from the London Times. - Cinematic Happenings Under Development
This interesting review is by a writer who was born the year "Deliverance" hit the screen.

Deliverance - Trailer - Showtimes - Cast - Movies - New York Times
A positive notice in The New York Times, along with the trailer.

Deliverance - Movie - Review - New York Times
A very negative review of the movie from Vincent Canby in 1972. Apparently he just didn't get it. And, as usual, he attributed to James Dickey some of the execrable cliches interpolated in the script by John Boorman.

New on DVD:
A useful little blurb.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

The "New" Deliverance DVD... at last!

The review in "DVD Talk" is a rave:

... Hollywood just can't make films like Deliverance anymore; this type of recklessness is now reserved for independent filmmakers.

Rough and unflinching, Deliverance doesn't pull many punches and is still a fairly shocking story in retrospect. Dickey's imagination spawned this fictional tale of violation, murder and survival, but the visualization by Boorman and company raises the stakes even higher. The story starts off relaxed and deliberately paced, but the arc boils before the halfway point and refuses to let up for quite some time. It's as much about the aftermath of traumatic events as it is the events themselves, dragging our protagonists through the mud and watching their attempts to wash themselves clean. For these reasons and many more, Deliverance is much more than the sum of its parts: it's a taut, tense thriller that remains one of the decade's most visceral adventures.... (the full review)

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Not the Last Wolverine

Poet, naturalist and friend John Lane, having finished his most recent book, "Circling Home," about his house and its environs in Spartanburg, S.C., went to Alaska earlier this month. He and Betsy Teter, his wife and partner in many adventures, visited rivers, mountains and glaciers, and recorded some of their experiences on John's Web site: The Kudzu Telegraph.

On Friday the 13th, John wrote me a note: "We went up to Denali and stayed in a back country lodge a few days. We saw amazing animals -- caribou, grizzly, black bear, dhal sheep. I wanted to see a wolverine in a park so I could write a poem called 'My First Wolverine,' but no luck."

Then a couple of days later, at the Totum Inn, Valdez, where the owner has a passion for taxidermy (if not orthography), there the wolverine was: stuffed on top of display case.

Betsy told John that dead animals don't count, and of course she's right about that. But I think this dark setting, a little reminiscent of the Sheep Child's shelf in an Atlanta museum "where dust whirls up in the halls for no reason ... piling deep in a hellish mild corner," is just about perfect. Look at the caribou horns behind the snarling face, and the totem wings on the wall. In its way, this snapshot captures magnificently the spirit of James Dickey's "For the Last Wolverine," which was as much about the survival of the poet-beast as it was of the weasel god:

... 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


Lord, let me die but not die


To view the original poems on line Atlantic Monthly subscribers can go to

The specific links are:
For the Last Wolverine, published in May 1966
The Sheep Child, published in August 1966

These two poems will also be among the first audio publications issued by the Digital Dickey project that John Lane has organized.

-- C.D., Paris, 22 July 2007
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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Leesburg Proof Sheets

Much of the novel "Deliverance" was written in this house on North King Street in Leesburg, Virginia, from the summer of 1966 to the summer of 1968, when James Dickey was the poetry consultant at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

While digging through some old documents, we recently came across proof sheets of photographs taken in about 1967 by Christopher Dickey, who was then 16 years old.

They show the house in good weather and bad (with Maxine sweeping snow off the steps and boxwoods). If you explore them you get a sense of what life at home was like in those days, with Jim writing in his office on the top floor, or hosting other writers at the Library of Congress, among them John Updike and Peter Taylor.
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