Thursday, October 31, 2013

Excerpts: Complete Poems of James Dickey reviewed by Times Literary Supplement (London)

Excerpts from the full-length essay in The Times Literary Supplement:

Am I still drunk?
By JULES SMITH, 25 October 2013
The Times Literary Supplement

James Dickey, THE COMPLETE POEMS, Edited by Ward Briggs 960pp. University of South Carolina Press. $85.

In the concluding scenes of John Boorman's film Deliverance (1972),
James Dickey (who wrote the screenplay and the novel it is based on) appears as the local sheriff, telling the north Georgia river's surviving canoeists "Never come back up here.” Dickey's poems share certain qualities of that character: a folksy, expansive machismo, capable of humour yet having an undercurrent of menace. The violent ecofable of Deliverance - suburban man confronted by savage nature - was also emblematic of Dickey's poetry, animated by visceral sensory experience, filled with scenes of hunting, fishing, war, sports and sexual obsession. A bizarre and poignant 1966 poem "For the Last Wolverine,” for example, invokes "the wildness of poetry,” urging the extinction-threatened wolverine and eagle to "mate / To the death in the rotten branches.” …

What this weighty Complete Poems convincingly shows is that Dickey's writing was always as much fictional as confessional, making emotive impact by rhetorical means, like the advertising copywriter he also was. Dickey once remarked that the poet "is not trying to tell the truth. He's trying to make it.” His favoured form was therefore the dramatic monologue, in which the poem "is both an exploration and an invention of identity.”

Consider the editor Ward Briggs's statement that Dickey was "transformed into a poet by World War II". The war provided a rich subject, certainly, yet many details in the works it inspired are invented, notably the beheading of an American airman by the Japanese in "The Performance" (1959). One of Dickey's most bitterly controversial poems, "The Firebombing" (1964), questions "aesthetic evil" in the thoughts of a pilot dropping napalm on civilians "In bed, or late in the public baths" when "One is cool and enthralled in the cockpit, / Turned blue by the power of beauty.”

The culpability of flawed characters runs through Dickey's writing, sometimes uncomfortably close to home, as with the lengthy, lurid flagellation scenes of "May Day Sermon" (1967) to the women of Gilmer County, Georgia, by a Baptist preacher exhorting punishment for sexual sins. … Dickey's descriptive powers are peculiarly distinctive when moving through landscape or suggesting a hunter's mystic sense of communion with his target, "like a beast loving / With the whole god bone of his horns: / The green of excess is upon me" ("Springer Mountain"). …

Ward Briggs's edition contains all 331 poems, in chronological order of publication, a structure that shows how he developed from clumsy early rhyming towards free verse dramas via continual experiments with poetic forms. Briggs meticulously lists publication data and textual variants and gives explanatory notes, incorporating Dickey's statements though also correcting them.

In later years, Dickey's tone became mournful. He reacted to the death of his first wife Maxine with poems about visiting her grave to seek forgiveness, and he lingered over his brother Tom's deathbed in "Last Hours" (1994). In a beautiful elegy to mark F. Scott Fitzgerald's centenary, "Entering Scott's Night,” he modestly places himself
among guests at one of Gatsby's parties, "A dark-glowing field of folk, the dead, the celebrants.” James Dickey claimed: "What I want to do most as a poet is to charge the world with vitality.” Despite what Richard Howard has called his "conflicted spirit,” and self-mythologizing - or because of it - this definitive edition proves that he succeeded.”


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