James Dickey’s Dream

by David Kirby

           The usual little cloud of asterisks and pound signs
                     and exclamation marks is buzzing and fizzing over my head
           as I try to figure out how to start my writing day,
and just then the phone rings, and it’s Michael Skube,
                     the book editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution,
           and he wants me to write an “appreciation”
of the life and work of the late James Dickey,
                     and I say, “I didn’t know Dickey was dead,”

           and Michael says, “He isn’t” (and, in fact, won’t be
                     for another three years), “it’s just that
           we like to have these things on file so that,
when the inevitable occurs, we’re ready,”
                     although, and my slow start this morning notwithstanding,
           I have a lot on my beer coaster at this time
in my life, so I hem and haw a bit, and Michael says,
                     “That’s okay, I’ve got another poet I can use,”

           only this other poet turns out to be somebody
                     who got drunk at my house a couple of years before
           and made fun of my CD collection, as though I not only
chose the title of Sinatra’s Songs for Swinging Lovers
                     but also somehow fancied myself a swingin’ (i.e., not)
           hepcat when I am actually no cooler or un- than anyone else,
so I say, “Wait a minute, Michael, maybe I’m not as busy
                     as I think,” and so I get started on my day after all,

           except that two or three hours into it,
                     I’m calling Michael back and saying I’m not only
           tangling up my tenses by pretending a living man is dead
but also giving myself a major case of the creeps
                     since I know Dickey is probably looking out a window,
           in Columbia, SC and thinking happily about some poem
he’d written or some deer he’d shot, and here I am
                     writing phrases like “Dickey’s greatest achievement was,”

           so we talk a bit, and I fuss some more, and finally
                     Michael tries to lighten the mood by saying, “Listen,
           usually we pay on publication, but this time I’ll pay
on receipt so you won’t be sitting there hoping
                     Dickey dies and then feeling as though you killed him
           when he does,” so I go back to work and finish the piece
and let it sit for a day or two and “give it a haircut” and file it
                     and get paid and then forget about it for three years,

           until last week, that is, when I read that Dickey
                     has died and say to Barbara, “I killed James Dickey,”
           and she says, “Actually, you gave him a little more life,”
and I think, hmmm, that’s why we marry these smart women,
                     and I go back and read what I’d written earlier,
           and it’s not too bad, but only because it uses
all these great self-descriptions of Dickey’s,
                     like the one from the 1990 interview where he says

           he had an “assumed personality” like Hemingway’s,
                     a “big, strong, hard drinking, hard fighting” persona
           that hides the “timid, cowardly” Dickey, the aesthete
who felt at home with authors like Oscar Wilde
                     and Henry James, but then I think, nah, not Henry,
           because I’d just read that, late in life,
James agreed to visit three Cambridge University men,
                     even though he had never met any of them,

           and that afterwards the novelist wrote a glowing
                     thank-you note, even though he’d cut short his stay
           because one of his hosts kept supplying missing words
whenever James paused to fumble for one, as he was wont to do,
                     so that instead of reproving his new friend or bearing
           the intrusion in silence, James preserved everyone’s pleasure
by leaving earlier than planned, and I asked myself,
                     Would Dickey have done this? and the answer is,

                No, he sure-God would have punched somebody right square
           in the face instead! Amiability, power,
self-effacement: that’s morality in James’s world,
                     whereas in Dickey’s it’s combat and archery and holding
                     your liquor and taking a punch—handling yourself
           like a man, in other words, even if you’ve been raped
up the ass by a bunch of perverted incestuous hillbillies,
                     which standard is rather far removed from the one

           represented by, say, a character like Adam Verver
                     in The Golden Bowl, a good old man whose selfless love
           of others, combined with economic power,
material conservatism, and exquisite taste, is not only
                     the touchstone for Jamesian behavior but also the ideal
           out of which perhaps all books, all art should flow,
though to say that makes me think of the remark
                     Jane Smiley made about how much better it would be

           if American literature had sprung from Uncle Tom’s Cabin
                     instead of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
           and Roy Blount, Jr.’s reply that that’s like saying
it would be better for people to come from heaven
                     than from sex. To put it another way, there are
           no Henry James or Harriet Beecher Stowe impersonators,
though there are plenty of impersonators of Mark Twain
                     and even James Dickey, including me, who saw him

           almost not give a reading here in Tallahassee in 1972,
                     when he came out on stage wobbly-drunk,
           read two poems, thanked everybody for being so nice,
and got halfway to the wing before somebody barked,
                     “Get back out here and read!” which he did magnificently
           and with great sound effects: wolf cries,
the sound of one hunter calling to another in a dark wood,
                     the ssssssssk! of an arrow finding its target.

           He went on for a good forty minutes, seemingly as sober
                     as the rest of us, and when the applause died down,
           said, “Thuh maan of words . . . has no words!”
which is pretty bombastic, but then that’s James Dickey.
                     I was hoping for an invitation to the reception,
           but I was only a new assistant professor
and not fit company for the deans and vice presidents
                     who bore Mr. Dickey away to the country club,

           where, I heard later, he sat drinking all evening
                     and grabbing at every skirt that went past,
           which is typical of the stories you hear about him
that are often pretty horrendous, even though
                     they got a little less so as the years went by
           and then no worse than what you’d hear about other people
and then milder still and then downright tame
                     as he began his long decline and started living more

           in the world of thought than the one of tangible reality,
                     as, for instance, when he had the dream he told a friend
           about just before he died, in which he was playing
high-school football again and scored three touchdowns
                     and ended up with the prettiest girl in the school
           and said to her, “This is the most beautiful day
of my life; too bad it’s only a dream,”
                     and she said, “Yes, but in the dream it’s real.”

           Henry James said of immortality that if you want it,
                     then that’s as good as believing in it,
           because while it’s terrible knowing you’re going to die,
maybe it’s wonderful, too, as you say goodbye
                     to the hard days, the ones that leave you so tired
           you can’t even remember your name, and you go into
the dream instead, and you’re a hero there,
                     and everybody loves you again, and in the dream it’s real.

David Kirby is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor at Florida State University. A Johns Hopkins Ph.D., he is the recipient of five Florida State teaching awards.

from The House of Blue Light. Reprinted with the permission of the author.