by Philip Gerard

James Dickey once told me over lunch that after the age of forty a man is responsible for his face. He was sober at the time. I don’t know if he was being original or simply voicing a second-hand platitude to account for his own face, seamed and blotchy and swollen, ravaged by drink for all those years.

He was visiting my university’s school of education, and against my better judgment I had been induced to be present at a dinner on the evening he arrived, held in the private room of a fancy restaurant overlooking the beach. Not to belabor the point—for there is no shortage of Dickey-detractors out there who have seen him at his worst—he showed up forty-five minutes late, so far in the bag that he had trouble standing without help, wearing an Aussie-style bush hat with the left brim pinned up. Somehow the hat was the most objectionable detail about his shabby appearance, for he never took it off. He rambled on about Deliverance, the movie—how he had not only written the script but also the music, how he had actually played the banjo part— patent falsehoods that everybody present was too polite to point out.

He told slurry anecdotes for awhile and then, when his gumbo arrived in a big steaming bowl, he simply passed out into it. His handler lifted his head out and mopped the shrimp sauce off his face, then dragooned several of us to help him downstairs to a waiting car. At the last minute, just as we got the back door open, he revived, clawed onto the doorframe like a cat, and threatened to fight any of us who made him get into the car. Then luckily, before things got too physical, he passed out for good and was spirited off into the night.

His campus visit was mostly offensive—he made a pass at one of our young female adjunct faculty, then managed to drive our only African-American undergraduate major in tears from a class he was visiting by telling a particularly offensive joke about “pickaninnies.”

Yet the luncheon was a different matter. I and the dean’s husband had been delegated to escort Dickey from his rental condo to lunch and then to the auditorium for the main event, a celebratory reading. I instructed the waiter at the restaurant to limit my companion to one glass of wine. If he asked for more—and he almost certainly would—the waiter was to promise to fetch it and then just disappear. Which he did several times.

But my point is not to write about James Dickey drunk—but, among other things, James Dickey sober. Sober, he was witty, charming, gallant, even brilliant. As we sat in the quiet restaurant, he recited long passages of poems he had committed to memory so deeply and infallibly that all those toxic years couldn’t touch them: Byron, Coleridge, Pope, Frost, Dickinson—the verses rolled off his tongue sweetly and convincingly, the way a British Shakespearean actor convinces you in three syllables that you are watching not Gielgud or Olivier but Hamlet or Lear. Clearly these poems—and scores more like them from every period, but especially the Romantic—had been nested early in his soul in some safe recess, untouchable, always accessible by his better self, a living secret that in some way seemed to embody the true soul of the man. I could have listened to him for hours. There was something grand, powerful, dramatic, dignified, and irrevocably sad in his recital—the implicit comparison between the beautifully transcendent inner man and his tiresome, vulgar public face.

He made the remark about a man’s face, and then he made it again in the auditorium before he gave a stunning reading from his own poetry. I left after the reading and before the wine was served he lost his grace. Only a couple of years afterward, he was dead.

I did not grasp exactly what he meant about a man’s face, but it has come to me in time. The private history of who we are, the life we have lived, shows in our face—in every sense of that word. Dickey was like an old hump-backed whale prowling the far reaches of the Pacific, his great back encrusted by the barnacles of failed novels, his sides scarred by the harpoons of unkind critics, his fins misshapen from shark bites, no longer graceful. Okay, the metaphor breaks down and was never very good to start with. But one can easily imagine Dickey as a man set upon violently, whose hands are cut and bloody from trying to fend off his attacker—booze—leaving his craft crippled.

And his reputation. At the point where a man loses his sense of embarrassment, when he does not mind being the butt of ugly jokes, when he has grown used to making a public fool out of himself in front of smart people of good will who wish nothing more than to honor and respect him, when time and again he dares those around him to despise him, he has indeed become responsible for his face.

Perhaps it was his own success that scarred him—or, say, the success of one book, Deliverance, a simple, lurid adventure tale of four men surviving in the wilderness of a remote river by reverting to savage ways . He got the taste—best-seller money, a movie deal, even a role in the movie, and true American celebrity of the kind no poet has enjoyed since Robert Frost. And he would never enjoy it again—not for any other book. Can success leave a scar?

Well, he’s gone now and God rest him, and whatever private torture ruined his face, he is at peace, having managed to leave us a body of work that somehow emerged from that secret, quiet, beautiful place in which heartbreaking poems are made even inside monstrosities.

And I’m not a poet or even a poetry scholar, which leaves me the great luxury of simply enjoying the language and emotion of the poems I like without having to parse them. Instead, let’s talk about scars—the outward signs of the violences, large and small, we have survived.

The life we live wears onto our face—Dickey was right—and in fact our face is really our whole body, the physical presence we project out into the world, by which we are recognized and judged.

Hollywood directors who previously cast major actors based on viewing them in their earlier films report that they now must insist on seeing the actors in person—so many have altered their faces through cosmetic surgery that they no longer look their age. Gone are age lines, sun freckles, the small discolorations like stains on old comfortable clothes. In close-ups, they actually look like fake people—bland and without any backstory.

Somehow we become a physical story as we age—our adventures, our mistakes and passions, our vices and accidents, even our ambitions somehow etched into the living tissue of who we are. Our body becomes a map of experience, of our mistakes and triumphs, a graphic resume, if you like, of our moments of bad judgment, bad luck, bad timing, impulsive behavior, that includes the face but also the rest of us. And sooner or later includes our reputation, as well as our innermost sense of who we are—which can be and, I suppose, usually is very different from how others perceive us.

Lately I have traced the adventure of my life so far on the map of my body, on the face I wear to the world. Not as an act of self-absorption exactly, but with a mixture of curiosity—as if examining, with a certain degree of wonder, the carcass of someone else, a stranger. And partly as a way of counting my blessings after a difficult and stormy passage of my life. Each scar signifies a wound, that’s true, but it’s also a badge of survival, evidence that the body—though wounded—at last healed.

For instance, I have a small pock mark in my forehead just north of the bridge of my nose—the straight, dignified nose inherited from my mother’s mother. Chicken pox when I was a little boy. I also had scarlet fever, the mumps, the measles, strep throat, bronchitis, tonsilitis, and probably other childhood maladies that I’ve long forgotten, all of which collectively have given me—or so I believe—a resistance to illness in adult life. In fact our immune system functions as a kind of physiological memory—storing the body’s knowledge of the toxic cells so it can recognize and fight them ferociously if ever they return. All of those illnesses are contained in that single little pock of a scar.

What did a kid do in a sickroom before there were portable TVs in every room in the house? I read books, that’s what. Adventure stories and detective novels and even a small library of thick literary paperbacks—Dickens’ David Copperfield and Great Expectations, an abridged version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. You get the idea. So that pockmark is also a bookmark.

Now I hardly ever get sick, but whenever I do, I fall hard into fever—delirious dreams, an utter physical time-out that seems to reconsolidate and cleanse me, leaving me light and refreshed, perhaps from the incomparable way that illness has of focusing the spirit, wiping out all distractions as the mind and body retreat to an essential healing survival.

On my back, just under my right shoulder blade, is a corrugated, ragged, roughly T-shaped scar—the skin snagged by rusty barbed wire when I was nine or ten years old as my brothers and I slipped into Mayer’s pasture to explore the creek and woods beyond. It should have given me lockjaw, but I never felt the cut, would never have even noticed the wound except for the torn bloody shirt. It’s a testament to old-fashioned summertimes when boys like me and my two older brothers were simply shooed out of the house in the morning and called home in the evening ravenous for meatloaf or fish sticks or hamburger casserole, with perhaps a brief visit at lunchtime for PBJ sandwiches and lime Kool-Aid.

We were on our own—boyhood was a gang adventure, and no adults looked out for us. We looked out for ourselves, for each other. The scar testifies to disobedience—we were forbidden to pass the barbed-wire fence, though our parents knew we trespassed there almost every day. There were in fact three fences, each the border of a farther reach of our boyhood wilderness. The girls didn’t play out there. We did—with axes and toy guns and fishing poles and home-made boats and cherry bombs. We built forts and waded in the shallows catching crayfish and minnows with our bare hands. We skinned our knees on slippery rocks and cut our hands on blackberry brambles and fell out of trees.

There was danger in that world. There were actual hoboes who would swing down from Penn Central boxcars and straggle down the dirt road next to the barbed wire fence and knock at our front door for a handout. There were snakes in the woods, cottonmouths and snapping turtles in the waterhole of the creek where we swam—we called it a “crick”—and fast cars on the highway we crossed to get to the north end of the creek. And of course almost every hour brought lumbering freights and jet-fast passenger express trains racketing by on the trestle over the creek. We laid pennies on the tracks so the trains would mash them flat. We gathered old rusty spikes from the railroad right-of-way and chucked sharp stones from the roadbed into the crick. And somewhere out there in that gentle, oblivious world were child molesters and escaped felons and rabid dogs and all the other things that can hurt kids, but we managed to survive, or most of us did.

One kid broke his neck diving into the swimming hole. A neighbor girl was killed crossing the highway. She was holding my cousin’s hand at the time the car literally ripped her from her grasp and bumped her body across the asphalt into the ditch. Her brother was later shot by the local cops while trying to steal a Corvette from a car lot. But the barbed wire didn’t get me. I made it out of childhood alive.

When I was a kid, we vacationed on the Elk River at a little community known as Hollywood Beach—a place where some relatives had built board and batten cottages and everybody went barefoot morning to night. It was one of only a handful of places we ever vacationed as a family overnight. What I remember most about those week-long visits we spent during the course of half a dozen years is how much I wanted somebody to take me out on a boat, how everybody but my family seemed to have a boat, how nobody ever took me out. Jim’s Joy, for example, a miraculously varnished Chris-Craft owned by my cousin, bobbing in her slip. The big cabin cruiser owned by other cousins, all the other boats And I wonder if that was the beginning of my fascination with boats—my first 14-foot yellow daysailer that I bought as soon as I was done being a student, the blue Sunfish and Venture-MacGregor 23, the first big Beneteau that sank in a hurricane and her beautiful successor moored less than a mile from my front door, the little Boston Whaler dingy that’s like riding a rocket across the bumpy water. The green canoe on the rack beside Whiskey Creek, which runs right up to my backyard, or the kayak cradled under the house, in which I ran the upper reaches of the Cape Fear River. The Sakonnet Daysailer ship model now framed and ready for planks on my work table, the five others scattered on mantels and shelves around my home and office, the radio-controlled sloop that I sail on the pond near my house.

I was five or six years old, swimming next to the boat dock at Hollywood Beach, and a barnacle cut the bottom of my foot—which foot? I can no longer recall. The pain has long faded. Sometimes it seems like one, sometimes the other. When I look now, I can find the traces of a scar on the bottoms of both feet. What I remember is my father and another man making a basket out of their crossed hands and carrying me to the tailgate of the Wedgewood Blue Ford station wagon, so I would be driven to medical help. How important I felt, how even as I was crying, I was thinking how cool it was to be carried like that up the beach and across the hot asphalt and onto the tailgate. The way you might carry a king.

My right knee is a map of failed athletic ambitions. It took a beating in years of soccer and baseball, and one evening as I was patrolling right field trying to track down a fly ball, my right foot stepped into a gopher hole and the rest of me kept going. The cartilage exploded with a sharp pop that sent people in the bleachers scrambling for cover—they thought it was gunfire. Surgery repaired it for awhile, but I had also torn the ligament, and though the doctor sewed it up, by the time a few more years had passed, the ligament had come unsewn and my joint had simply digested the shreds of it.

So it went under the knife again, this time to reposition a piece of patellar tendon into place to act as a ligament—rearranging body parts. I had to learn to walk all over again, like a doddering infant. And a few years later, arthroscopy cleared out the junk that had accumulated in the joint—floating shards of cartilage and bone. Now my knee has a railroad track of scars running down both sides and a hunk of bone built up on the top of the fibula bulb to grant the knee more stability—the body’s way of regenerating balance and protecting itself from further harm. My right knee bulges with a sharp knob of bone that began growing there when I was twenty-four years old.

I wasn’t done with baseball—or its flabbier cousin, softball. One night ten years later, as I tried to score from second base on an outfield single, a 240-pound catcher blocked the plate—illegal under our rules—and sent me flying over his shoulder. At the emergency room, the doctor called his orthopod friend down from upstairs. “You can get a paper out of this,” he said. A little sickle-shaped bone, the lunate (for in x-rays it resembles a quarter moon), inside my left wrist had gotten turned around with the force of the collision and was now impinging on the nerve. If it cut that nerve, I would lose all use of that hand for good.

After the most painful ride of my life over the potholed interstates leading into downtown Chicago—each jolt shooting a small electrocution up my arm—I wound up in another ER, waiting among stabbing victims and gunshot wounds and bloody faces, and was tended by a resident who looked like she was about twelve. She cinched my fingers into a windchimy thing of mesh tubes resembling Chinese handcuffs—the kind that if you tug only become tighter—and hung weights on my elbow to pull the joint loose and rotate the bone. Can’t give you any pain meds, she apologized. You have to be able tell me when it stops hurting. I remember the pain, electricity shooting up the arm, flashing sharp and white across the eyes, then how, all at once, it stopped. She saved my hand.

Surgery was complicated and risky—because so many things could go wrong, they needed me alert and able to give permission to fuse my wrist or do whatever else might become necessary. So they couldn’t give me a general anesthesia. Instead, they laced a tourniquet on my arm and assigned one of the team to do nothing but count down the clock to zero: after four and a half hours, the tourniquet needed to come off, whatever the progress of the operation, or else risk gangrene and amputation of the arm. The anesthesiologist gave me something local to help the pain, then for two hours told me one disgustingly filthy joke after another—not one of which, unfortunately, I can remember—so that I was laughing like a fool as the nurse counted down, “Three hours, forty-five minutes. . . Three hours, forty minutes. . .”

Then he was relieved by a second guy with no sense of humor, and time stalled.

But the clock ran out before they had me sewed up, and the tourniquet came off, and I felt the tug of the needle stitching in and out of the tender flesh on my wrist—leaving behind one curvy three-inch-long scar on the top of my wrist and hand, a straight four-inch-long scar broken by a sharp V on the underside ending in the middle of my palm, and three holes in the side where stainless steel pins held the fragile mess of bones and muscle and tendons together under an L-shaped cast that covered my arm from shoulder to knuckles for six weeks.

I drove a stickshift with one hand, alternating between gearshift and wheel, my arm out the open window, tossed coins at the toll basket with my right hand until the right number went in, left the others pinging around against the toll barrier.

I discovered that all sorts of little things that we take for granted become feats of heroism with only one hand: opening a can of dogfood—the two big dogs moiling hopefully around my legs, whining encouragement, as I squeezed the levers together one-handed and then turned the crank with the same hand, then squeezed the levers again, so that it took an excruciating ten minutes to open the can and another minute or so to turn it upside down and squeeze it enough times that the can-shaped mess inside plopped out into a dog dish on the counter—or occasionally sprayed out all over the front of my shirt.

Tying shoes at first proved impossible—but I learned you could get by simply by tucking the laces down into the sides. Typing even a short note took several times as long. Using the bathroom required the dexterity of an acrobat. And getting dressed—forget it. None of my shirts fit over the cast, and have you ever tried to button anything one handed? My triumphal moment came when—one-handed—I actually tied a bowtie around my collar—not a clip-tie, but an actual ribbon of silk that must be knotted into a four-in-hand. I didn’t want to take it off. Ever.

The rest of the territory that is my body is also mapped by scars. The end of my right middle finger was nearly severed by the naked blade of a meat-slicer one night while I was working my way through college as a probationary member of the meatcutter’s local. The doc sutured it back on with sixteen stitches and one of the two nurses assisting him fainted from the sight of all that spurting blood. When I called my mother from my apartment to tell her what had happened and not to worry, she said, “You’re not telling me everything—did you cut your finger off? You did, didn’t you!” And she was crying and I was crying, half-convinced I’d really lost a finger and would never play the guitar again.

The back of my right hand bears an irregular translucent purply patch, the residue of an I.V. tube inserted there. Two of my right toes have flat horny patches where, when I was a young man, a doctor cut off two warts—and when one of them grew back, burned it off with freezing liquid nitrogen. My groin has a long curve scar from a congenital hernia repair, and another sort of triangular dark patch where they inserted a tube and wormed it up my artery and left a steel-mesh stent just under my heart.

Some scars are gone but I still feel them, like the strawberry on my left leg, got from sliding into second base in shorts: my mother poured Seabreeze on it—alcohol with a deceptively soothing name—and I nearly passed out from the burn.

All scars are not equal. Contracture scars are caused by burns—the skin tightens, contracts, in some cases can impair your ability to move. Getting burned can do that.

Hypertrophic scars rise in a thick red hump over the site of the injury. Over time, this kind of scar may gradually shrink and fade.

The worst is a keloid scar. This is the body’s healing defense gone haywire: the scar covers the injury, then keeps growing in a red or pink shiny lump, creating more protective tissue long after it is useful. The keloid scar itself becomes a kind of injury to the body, an unsightly and constricting mass of tissue.

Disappointment leaves a scar, a little stabbing blade that can ambush you even in memory. All the wonderful things that never came true, the things you had no right to expect but wished for anyway, believing in miracles or at least luck. The job you didn’t get, the award you didn’t win, the book that didn’t sell, the pretty girl who wouldn’t go to your senior prom with you. Heartbreak feels like a wound that won’t ever close. Worse, if you have caused it in someone else.

A scar is a kind of armor, rough protective tissue that closes a wound. When the wound is deep and invisible, a cut to the pride, a bruise to the ego, a blow to the heart, the scar tissue is the personality’s way of shielding itself from further damage, new wounds. Physical trauma is referred to in medical jargon as an “insult” to the body. The spirit can be insulted, too, and sent reeling. In the case of terrible emotional trauma, the scar tissue may crust over the damaged place so thickly that no one can ever touch it again. Like a keloid scar, it just seems to grown and thicken, the spirit’s protective impulse on overdrive.

And yet if I could clear my body of scars, I would not, just as I would not want to wipe clean my memories, even the painful ones, even the memories of loss and disappointment and rejection and grief. Those internal scars, the ones that are invisible to the world and plain only to the ones we love most and with whom we share the stories behind them, ground me, outline my identity, remind me how I got from that barbed-wire fenced pasture to this office where my fingers, including the one that is partially numb at the tip from nearly being severed by a meat slicer, type these words.

Each scar is the shorthand for a story—a kind of pictograph. Hidden under clothes, some of them, livid or faded with age, smeared and stretched and indistinct, hieroglyphs that only a medical examiner could read with accuracy without our accompanying narrative.

And the internal scars, the ones that matter the most, show only on our face, coded in lines and the look in our eye and our smile or grimace. Not always, not when we’re young and our muscles are still taut and elastic enough to form a mask guarding our interior truths. But with age, the truth of who we are and what we have done betrays our story: the laughlines at our mouth, the furrow lines of worry above our brow, the sadness of hard experience in our eyes, the cant of a head used to either triumph or fear or disappointment.

The sag of skin at the cheeks, gravity tugging us gently but insistently toward the grave. The mouth that quietly, reflexively forms the remembered words of a beloved poem.

PHILIP GERARD is the author of three novels and four books of nonfiction, as well as numerous essays, short stories, and radio commentaries. He chairs the Department of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and is co-editor with his wife, Jill Gerard, of Chautauqua, the literary journal of Chautauqua Institution, N.Y. His new book on the Cape Fear River is forthcoming from University of North Carolina Press, and the collection of essays that will include “Scars” will be published by Hub City Press in 2012 .