For James Dickey: A birthday interview with his son, Christopher Dickey
Poet, novelist, and critic James Lafayette Dickey was born today, February 2, in 1923. He died 13 years ago, on January 19, 1997, at the age of 74.
In his time, he wrote a ton of magnificent poetry unlike anything his contemporaries produced, and three novels. He won the National Book Award in 1965 for his book of poems, Buckdancer’s Choice, and served as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1966 to 1968.
I had the great good fortune to have studied with Dickey while in graduate school, and benefitted from his mentorship and friendship. I remember him joking at one of his Groundhog Day birthday parties, “The fox knows many things, but the groundhog knows one really big thing,” a quip I heard him repeat a few other times, as he was wont to retell his favorite notions.
Much of Dickey’s poetry has deep connections to nature, and examines thoroughly the exalting and conflicted relationship humans have with nature as they find it, and with their own origins in the natural world.
On what would have been James Dickey’s 87th birthday, I caught up with his eldest son, Christopher Dickey, the Paris Bureau Chief and Middle East Editor for Newsweek magazine, to ask some questions via e-mail about his father’s work, and about his own.
* * *
SB: This is a bit of paraphrasing, but in speaking of the human-created dangers to this planet, your father once said we have more to fear of the “chainsaw and bulldozer than we do the atomic bomb.” Do you think this statement was accurate in its time, and is it less or more accurate now?
CD: Well, God bless. He got it right. I am not sure when he said that, but I think he understood that the threat of a nuclear apocalypse ultimately might be contained by a few people making prudent decisions, which is what finally happened. At the same time he saw that everyday events nobody seemed to notice — the chainsaw and the bulldozer, sure, but also the flood of cars on the highways, the countless belching factories on the horizon — eventually would pose the greatest threat to the fragile balance of life on this planet, and be the hardest to contain.
SB: In poems such as “Springer Mountain,” “Approaching Prayer,” and “The Eye-Beaters,” the narrator imaginatively shape-shifts into wild animals or animal-seeking spirits – a whitetailed deer, a wild boar, and a prehistoric animal-painter respectively. Why is the human-animal bond so central to a good deal of James Dickey’s poetic thinking?
CD: His is a poetry of ecstatic transformation, sometimes into animals as in “For the Last Wolverine,” sometimes into deities, as in “Falling.” And sometimes into animal-deities, like “The Owl King.” He was looking to transcend complacent human experience and get at the animal-god that is inside us, with all its primal sexuality, its hunger, its raw carnality.
SB: While critics too often and too easily fixate on what they frequently call the “brutal” and “violent” aspects of JD’s poetry, why does the physicality of the wild-animal world – mating, birth, fight, flight, killing, death – play such an significant role in a good deal of his work?
CD: Why not? What is it about those critics that shies away from carnality and violence? Do they think they risk becoming uncivilized by reading such poems? Maybe they need a little uncivilizing. If the critics want to complain that in some poems Dickey slips into cliche and almost a parody of himself because he’s trying so hard, so be it. But you don’t write great poetry without taking risks, and sometimes when you take a risk, you fail. For the rest, whether “The Sheep Child” or “The Shark’s Parlor,” “The Firebombing” or “The Performance,” “The Lifeguard” or “The Heaven of Animals,” let those critics who take issue with the portrayal of violence and death show me poems that have more passion for life.
SB: The human-animal bond is a deeply spiritual and transcendent one in JD’s poetry, and also one of great interdependence. Is this bond something that more technologically advanced peoples – those, for example, who live a largely digital life in the year 2010 – run the risk of losing? Is it something without which people cannot properly function?
CD: The human-animal bond in Dickey’s poetry is indeed spiritual, but it is also carnal, and in our digital universe we run the risk of losing touch with both those elements in life. We become voyeurs of sterile violence, participants in aseptic sex, passive auditors or ersatz spirituality.
SB: In the poem “For the Last Wolverine,” JD creates perhaps the most vivid animal scene of all his work: “The New World’s last eagle” mating “to the death” with the last wolverine, atop a spruce tree, where they burst into flame and give birth to “something gigantic legendary. . .that cannot die. . .and will spare no earthly thing.”
What is your interpretation of this – is this monster something meant to wreak vengeance on those who have exploited too greatly the natural world, as the poem suggests?
CD: That’s one interpretation, and fair enough. But do not lose sight of the fact that the wolverine is the poet, and it is the poet’s anger and fear and defiance that are being expressed through that great wild creature’s apocalyptic snarl.
SB: Your first book, With the Contras: A Reporter in the Wilds of Nicaragua (1986), depicts a terrifically physical world – that of the guerilla warfare between the Contra commandos and the military of the FSLN Sandanista Junta. Was there anything that you experienced during that time in the field, or during the writing of this book, that you felt connected thematically to your father’s work?
CD: Sure. In With the Contras and also in my first thriller, Innocent Blood, I realized as I wrote, without having planned it this way, that I was echoing some scenes and some themes from Deliverance. There is an interesting letter in the archives at Boston University, which I did not even remember I had written until they mounted a display of the papers I had given them, in which I tried to explain to my father precisely where I saw the allusions to his first novel in mine. I do not know if I ever sent that letter. If so, I don’t think he ever responded.
I don’t have a copy of that letter. But, in With the Contras there is a scene where we are crossing a river from Nicaragua back into Honduras, and the Sandinistas open fire on us. All of it is literally true as written, but, looking back, I realized it was as if I had lived the water and the danger and the mountains of Deliverance in the wilds of Central America. Then, in Innocent Blood, the climb up the outside of the Omni center is a fairly clear allusion to the climb up the side of the cliff in Deliverance.
SB: What were your father’s work habits? Was he a morning writer? A night-writer?
CD: He used to be a late night writer, when I was very young and he was in the ad business. “Selling my soul to the devil during the day and buying it back at night,” he liked to say. But in his later years he tried to make writing more of a morning thing. Often he’d crash at seven in the evening or earlier in hopes he’d be fresh enough to face the page around dawn.
SB: Both you and your father were on the set of the filming of Deliverance, he in the role of Sheriff Bullard, and you as a kind of technical assistant and observer. Why do you think this novel and its film version captured the American imagination so thoroughly, both in the time they debuted, and for so many years afterward?
CD: I was a stand-in, a warm body walking through the positions taken by the actors in a given scene so the lights and cameras could be set up while they contemplated their performances. It’s a great position from which to see the process of moviemaking. But that doesn’t answer the question. The movie Deliverance touches a fundamental suburbanite fear of the great wild out-there world beyond the interstates and the shopping malls.
If you look at the pictures being made back then, there were two environments that evoked horror: the inner city, in countless movies about urban jungles, and the outside-the-city violence in Deliverance, or for that matter Easy Rider, In the Heat of the Night, and many other films. They all showed us worlds that made us feel as if the Ozzie and Harriet burbs were isolated islands in seas of danger. Then added to that is the “squeal like a pig” stuff that hits a chord of fear in most men, I’d guess, leaving them wondering whether to laugh or cry or, well, squeal.
What’s oddly missing from the movie, however, is precisely that sense of nature and of personal transformation that is central to the book. In the movie, the key scene is the rape. In the book it is the climb up the face of the cliff, in intimate contact with the natural world. One of the most arresting scenes in the book, the vision of the owl’s claws coming through the top of the tent that first evening by the river, then the sound of the owl hunting all night, does not appear in the movie at all.
SB: Your father’s last work, the novel To the White Sea, is probably his least known. Is the main character of that novel, Muldrow, possibly an extension of the title character in the poem “The Fiend,” who is a loner, voyeur, and surely a killer in the making?
CD: Actually, his least known book is probably Alnilam, which also takes place during WWII. But, yes, there is definitely something of “The Fiend” in Muldrow.
SB: What are your favorite poems of your father’s, or, perhaps, the ones that come to your mind the most? Why so?
CD: “The Firebombing,” for its stunning imagery and its prescience about modern warfare; “The Lifeguard,” which was the first poem of his I thought I understood when I was a little boy, and which I find heartbreaking whenever I reread it; “Cherrylog Road,” for its last lines — what teenage boy is not wild to wreckage forever; “The Sheep Child,” for its strange and effective combination of farm-boy lore, Southern decor, and Attic mythology.
SB: What did you discover about the process of writing fiction as you wrote your two novels, Innocent Blood and The Sleeper? Did this give you new insights into your father’s way of working?
CD: In writing them, and in thinking about them after they were written, I came to appreciate more than I ever had before the excitement of just making things up, and the way fiction — what he somewhat archly called “the lie” — gets us into places inside ourselves we would not otherwise have gone.
SB: What has drawn you to your professional study of espionage, terrorism, counter-insurgency, and state security, as seen in your reporting, blogging, and fiction?
CD: I like to peel away the lies of politicians and pundits and expose them for what they are, especially if they’re the kind that get people killed. But it is often the case that all sides are lying, and all telling the truth — as they see it. And then I like to explore the shadowland that remains to see if I can mine it for some truth of my own.
SB: What is the one thing you would tell the world about James Dickey – the man or his work – that we don’t really know at all?
CD: Given that his virtues and sins were so public, and after having written about him intimately and at length in Summer of Deliverance, [CD's memoir of the making of the film] I am not sure what we could say the world “doesn’t really know at all” about James Dickey. But I do hope people will come back to the poetry, especially the poems we’ve mentioned here, and read them and reread them, and read them to other people out loud, and discover again that voice on the page that electrified so many audiences forty years ago. Lord, let him die, but not die. . .out.
* * *
To hear those words, “Lord let me die, but not die out,” from James Dickey’s poem “For the Last Wolverine,” watch this promo-clip, made for the film version of Deliverance (1972; the novel come out in 1970). It’s called “The Dangerous World of Deliverance,” and it’s a bit arch, in that 70’s documentary way, but it’s also an interesting “behind the scenes” glimpse. At 3:18 you get to hear how powerful JD could be when he read his own stuff.
Cinematic footnote: Boorman enjoyed so much success with Deliverance that he could pick anything he wanted to direct next. He made Zardoz.