- Birthday, Books, Poetry, Quotes, Reading, Writing

“Poetry is just naturally the greatest god damn thing that ever was in the whole universe.”

A selection of poems by James Dickey on his birthday:

In the Tree House at Night

And now the green household is dark.
The half-moon completely is shining
On the earth-lighted tops of the trees.
To be dead, a house must be still.
The floor and the walls wave me slowly;
I am deep in them over my head.
The needles and pine cones about me
Are full of small birds at their roundest,
Their fists without mercy gripping
Hard down through the tree to the roots
To sing back at light when they feel it.
We lie here like angels in bodies,
My brothers and I, one dead,
The other asleep from much living,
In mid-air huddled beside me.
Dark climbed to us here as we climbed
Up the nails I have hammered all day
Through the sprained, comic rungs of the ladder
Of broom handles, crate slats, and laths
Foot by foot up the trunk to the branches
Where we came out at last over lakes
Of leaves, of fields disencumbered of earth
That move with the moves of the spirit.
Each nail that sustains us I set here;
Each nail in the house is now steadied
By my dead brother’s huge, freckled hand.
Through the years, he has pointed his hammer
Up into these limbs, and told us
That we must ascend, and all lie here.
Step after step he has brought me,
Embracing the trunk as his body,
Shaking its limbs with my heartbeat,
Till the pine cones danced without wind
And fell from the branches like apples.
In the arm-slender forks of our dwelling
I breathe my live brother’s light hair.
The blanket around us becomes
As solid as stone, and it sways.
With all my heart, I close
The blue, timeless eye of my mind.
Wind springs, as my dead brother smiles
And touches the tree at the root;
A shudder of joy runs up
The trunk; the needles tingle;
One bird uncontrollably cries.
The wind changes round, and I stir
Within another’s life. Whose life?
Who is dead? Whose presence is living?
When may I fall strangely to earth,
Who am nailed to this branch by a spirit?
Can two bodies make up a third?
To sing, must I feel the world’s light?
My green, graceful bones fill the air
With sleeping birds. Alone, alone
And with them I move gently.
I move at the heart of the world.

A 29-year-old stewardess fell … to her
death tonight when she was swept
through an emergency door that sud-
denly sprang open … The body …
was found … three hours after the
accident.                                             
                              —New York Times

The states when they black out and lie there rolling    when they turn
To something transcontinental    move by    drawing moonlight out of the great
One-sided stone hung off the starboard wingtip    some sleeper next to
An engine is groaning for coffee    and there is faintly coming in
Somewhere the vast beast-whistle of space. In the galley with its racks
Of trays    she rummages for a blanket    and moves in her slim tailored
Uniform to pin it over the cry at the top of the door. As though she blew
The door down with a silent blast from her lungs    frozen    she is black
Out finding herself    with the plane nowhere and her body taken by the throat
The undying cry of the void    falling    living    beginning to be something
That no one has ever been and lived through    screaming without enough air
Still neat    lipsticked    stockinged    girdled by regulation    her hat
Still on    her arms and legs in no world    and yet spaced also strangely
With utter placid rightness on thin air    taking her time    she holds it
In many places    and now, still thousands of feet from her death she seems
To slow    she develops interest    she turns in her maneuverable body
To watch it. She is hung high up in the overwhelming middle of things in her
Self    in low body-whistling wrapped intensely    in all her dark dance-weight
Coming down from a marvellous leap    with the delaying, dumfounding ease
Of a dream of being drawn    like endless moonlight to the harvest soil
Of a central state of one’s country    with a great gradual warmth coming
Over her    floating    finding more and more breath in what she has been using
For breath    as the levels become more human    seeing clouds placed honestly
Below her left and right    riding slowly toward them    she clasps it all
To her and can hang her hands and feet in it in peculiar ways    and
Her eyes opened wide by wind, can open her mouth as wide    wider and suck
All the heat from the cornfields    can go down on her back with a feeling
Of stupendous pillows stacked under her    and can turn    turn as to someone
In bed    smile, understood in darkness    can go away    slant    slide
Off tumbling    into the emblem of a bird with its wings half-spread
Or whirl madly on herself    in endless gymnastics in the growing warmth
Of wheatfields rising toward the harvest moon.    There is time to live
In superhuman health    seeing mortal unreachable lights far down seeing
An ultimate highway with one late priceless car probing it    arriving
In a square town    and off her starboard arm the glitter of water catches
The moon by its one shaken side    scaled, roaming silver    My God it is good
And evil    lying in one after another of all the positions for love
Making    dancing    sleeping    and now cloud wisps at her no
Raincoat    no matter    all small towns brokenly brighter from inside
Cloud    she walks over them like rain    bursts out to behold a Greyhound
Bus shooting light through its sides    it is the signal to go straight
Down like a glorious diver    then feet first    her skirt stripped beautifully
Up    her face in fear-scented cloths    her legs deliriously bare    then
Arms out    she slow-rolls over    steadies out    waits for something great
To take control of her    trembles near feathers    planes head-down
The quick movements of bird-necks turning her head    gold eyes the insight-
eyesight of owls blazing into the hencoops    a taste for chicken overwhelming
Her    the long-range vision of hawks enlarging all human lights of cars
Freight trains    looped bridges    enlarging the moon racing slowly
Through all the curves of a river    all the darks of the midwest blazing
From above. A rabbit in a bush turns white    the smothering chickens
Huddle    for over them there is still time for something to live
With the streaming half-idea of a long stoop    a hurtling    a fall
That is controlled    that plummets as it wills    turns gravity
Into a new condition, showing its other side like a moon    shining
New Powers    there is still time to live on a breath made of nothing
But the whole night    time for her to remember to arrange her skirt
Like a diagram of a bat    tightly it guides her    she has this flying-skin
Made of garments    and there are also those sky-divers on tv    sailing
In sunlight    smiling under their goggles    swapping batons back and forth
And He who jumped without a chute and was handed one by a diving
Buddy. She looks for her grinning companion    white teeth    nowhere
She is screaming    singing hymns    her thin human wings spread out
From her neat shoulders    the air beast-crooning to her    warbling
And she can no longer behold the huge partial form of the world    now
She is watching her country lose its evoked master shape    watching it lose
And gain    get back its houses and peoples    watching it bring up
Its local lights    single homes    lamps on barn roofs    if she fell
Into water she might live    like a diver    cleaving    perfect    plunge
Into another    heavy silver    unbreathable    slowing    saving
Element: there is water    there is time to perfect all the fine
Points of diving    feet together    toes pointed    hands shaped right
To insert her into water like a needle    to come out healthily dripping
And be handed a Coca-Cola    there they are    there are the waters
Of life    the moon packed and coiled in a reservoir    so let me begin
To plane across the night air of Kansas    opening my eyes superhumanly
Bright    to the damned moon    opening the natural wings of my jacket
By Don Loper    moving like a hunting owl toward the glitter of water
One cannot just fall    just tumble screaming all that time    one must use
It    she is now through with all    through all    clouds    damp    hair
Straightened    the last wisp of fog pulled apart on her face like wool revealing
New darks    new progressions of headlights along dirt roads from chaos
And night    a gradual warming    a new-made, inevitable world of one’s own
Country    a great stone of light in its waiting waters    hold    hold out
For water: who knows when what correct young woman must take up her body
And fly    and head for the moon-crazed inner eye of midwest imprisoned
Water    stored up for her for years    the arms of her jacket slipping
Air up her sleeves to go    all over her? What final things can be said
Of one who starts her sheerly in her body in the high middle of night
Air    to track down water like a rabbit where it lies like life itself
Off to the right in Kansas? She goes toward    the blazing-bare lake
Her skirts neat    her hands and face warmed more and more by the air
Rising from pastures of beans    and under her    under chenille bedspreads
The farm girls are feeling the goddess in them struggle and rise brooding
On the scratch-shining posts of the bed    dreaming of female signs
Of the moon    male blood like iron    of what is really said by the moan
Of airliners passing over them at dead of midwest midnight    passing
Over brush fires    burning out in silence on little hills    and will wake
To see the woman they should be    struggling on the rooftree to become
Stars: for her the ground is closer    water is nearer    she passes
It    then banks    turns    her sleeves fluttering differently as she rolls
Out to face the east, where the sun shall come up from wheatfields she must
Do something with water    fly to it    fall in it    drink it    rise
From it    but there is none left upon earth    the clouds have drunk it back
The plants have sucked it down    there are standing toward her only
The common fields of death    she comes back from flying to falling
Returns to a powerful cry    the silent scream with which she blew down
The coupled door of the airliner    nearly    nearly losing hold
Of what she has done    remembers    remembers the shape at the heart
Of cloud    fashionably swirling    remembers she still has time to die
Beyond explanation. Let her now take off her hat in summer air the contour
Of cornfields    and have enough time to kick off her one remaining
Shoe with the toes    of the other foot    to unhook her stockings
With calm fingers, noting how fatally easy it is to undress in midair
Near death    when the body will assume without effort any position
Except the one that will sustain it    enable it to rise    live
Not die    nine farms hover close    widen    eight of them separate, leaving
One in the middle    then the fields of that farm do the same    there is no
Way to back off    from her chosen ground    but she sheds the jacket
With its silver sad impotent wings    sheds the bat’s guiding tailpiece
Of her skirt    the lightning-charged clinging of her blouse    the intimate
Inner flying-garment of her slip in which she rides like the holy ghost
Of a virgin    sheds the long windsocks of her stockings    absurd
Brassiere    then feels the girdle required by regulations squirming
Off her: no longer monobuttocked    she feels the girdle flutter    shake
In her hand    and float    upward    her clothes rising off her ascending
Into cloud    and fights away from her head the last sharp dangerous shoe
Like a dumb bird    and now will drop in    SOON    now will drop
In like this    the greatest thing that ever came to Kansas    down from all
Heights    all levels of American breath    layered in the lungs from the frail
Chill of space to the loam where extinction slumbers in corn tassels thickly
And breathes like rich farmers counting: will come along them after
Her last superhuman act    the last slow careful passing of her hands
All over her unharmed body    desired by every sleeper in his dream:
Boys finding for the first time their loins filled with heart’s blood
Widowed farmers whose hands float under light covers to find themselves
Arisen at sunrise    the splendid position of blood unearthly drawn
Toward clouds    all feel something    pass over them as she passes
Her palms over her long legs    her small breasts    and deeply between
Her thighs    her hair shot loose from all pins    streaming in the wind
Of her body    let her come openly    trying at the last second to land
On her back    This is it    this
                                                          All those who find her impressed
In the soft loam    gone down    driven well into the image of her body
The furrows for miles flowing in upon her where she lies very deep
In her mortal outline    in the earth as it is in cloud    can tell nothing
But that she is there    inexplicable    unquestionable    and remember
That something broke in them as well    and began to live and die more
When they walked for no reason into their fields to where the whole earth
Caught her    interrupted her maiden flight    told her how to lie she cannot
Turn    go away    cannot move    cannot slide off it and assume another
Position    no sky-diver with any grin could save her    hold her in his arms
Plummet with her    unfold above her his wedding silks    she can no longer
Mark the rain with whirling women that take the place of a dead wife
Or the goddess in Norwegian farm girls    or all the back-breaking whores
Of Wichita. All the known air above her is not giving up quite one
Breath    it is all gone    and yet not dead    not anywhere else
Quite    lying still in the field on her back    sensing the smells
Of incessant growth try to lift her    a little sight left in the corner
Of one eye    fading    seeing something wave    lies believing
That she could have made it    at the best part of her brief goddess
State    to water    gone in headfirst    come out smiling    invulnerable
Girl in a bathing-suit ad    but she is lying like a sunbather at the last
Of moonlight    half-buried in her impact on the earth    not far
From a railroad trestle    a water tank    she could see if she could
Raise her head from her modest hole    with her clothes beginning
To come down all over Kansas    into bushes    on the dewy sixth green
Of a golf course    one shoe    her girdle coming down fantastically
On a clothesline, where it belongs    her blouse on a lightning rod:
Lies in the fields    in this field    on her broken back as though on
A cloud she cannot drop through    while farmers sleepwalk without
Their women from houses    a walk like falling toward the far waters
Of life    in moonlight    toward the dreamed eternal meaning of their farms
Toward the flowering of the harvest in their hands    that tragic cost
Feels herself go    go toward    go outward    breathes at last fully
Not    and tries    less    once    tries    tries    AH, GOD—

The Strength of Fields

… a separation from the world,
a penetration to some source of power
and a life-enhancing return …
Van Gennep: Rites de Passage

Moth-force a small town always has,
          Given the night.
                                                What field-forms can be,
         Outlying the small civic light-decisions over
               A man walking near home?
                                                                         Men are not where he is
      Exactly now, but they are around him    around him like the strength
Of fields.    The solar system floats on
    Above him in town-moths.
                                                         Tell me, train-sound,
    With all your long-lost grief,
                                                         what I can give.
    Dear Lord of all the fields
                                                         what am I going to do?
                                        Street-lights, blue-force and frail
As the homes of men, tell me how to do it    how
    To withdraw    how to penetrate and find the source
      Of the power you always had
                                                            light as a moth, and rising
       With the level and moonlit expansion
    Of the fields around, and the sleep of hoping men.
       You?    I?    What difference is there?    We can all be saved
       By a secret blooming. Now as I walk
The night    and you walk with me    we know simplicity
   Is close to the source that sleeping men
       Search for in their home-deep beds.
       We know that the sun is away    we know that the sun can be conquered
   By moths, in blue home-town air.
          The stars splinter, pointed and wild. The dead lie under
The pastures.    They look on and help.    Tell me, freight-train,
                            When there is no one else
   To hear. Tell me in a voice the sea
         Would have, if it had not a better one: as it lifts,
          Hundreds of miles away, its fumbling, deep-structured roar
               Like the profound, unstoppable craving
            Of nations for their wish.
                                                                    Hunger, time and the moon:
         The moon lying on the brain
                                                                    as on the excited sea    as on
          The strength of fields. Lord, let me shake
         With purpose.    Wild hope can always spring
         From tended strength.    Everything is in that.
            That and nothing but kindness.    More kindness, dear Lord
Of the renewing green.    That is where it all has to start:
         With the simplest things. More kindness will do nothing less
             Than save every sleeping one
             And night-walking one
         Of us.
                         My life belongs to the world. I will do what I can.

In the Marble Quarry

 
Beginning to dangle beneath
The wind that blows from the undermined wood,
      I feel the great pulley grind,
      The thread I cling to lengthen
And let me soaring and spinning down into marble,
      Hooked and weightlessly happy
      Where the squared sun shines
Back equally from all four sides, out of stone
      And years of dazzling labor,
      To land at last among men
Who cut with power saws a Parian whiteness
      And, chewing slow tobacco,
      Their eyebrows like frost,
Shunt house-sized blocks and lash them to cables
      And send them heavenward
      Into small-town banks,
Into the columns and statues of government buildings,
      But mostly graves.
      I mount my monument and rise
Slowly and spinningly from the white-gloved men
      Toward the hewn sky
      Out of the basement of light,
Sadly, lifted through time’s blinding layers
      On perhaps my tombstone
      In which the original shape
Michelangelo believed was in every rock upon earth
      Is heavily stirring,
      Surprised to be an angel,
To be waked in North Georgia by the ponderous play
      Of men with ten-ton blocks
      But no more surprised than I
To feel sadness fall off as though I myself
      Were rising from stone
      Held by a thread in midair,
Badly cut, local-looking, and totally uninspired,
      Not a masterwork
      Or even worth seeing at all
But the spirit of this place just the same,
      Felt here as joy.

 

John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

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