James Dickey is an American paradox: a college football player, a fighter/bomber pilot in World War II, a writer of advertisements for Coca Cola, a poet.
Six-foot, three inches tall, Dickey sits in a barber's chair in Columbia, South Carolina, where he lives and teaches. He hears a redneck barbershop patron accuse him of being a middle-aged hippie. In defiance Dickey flaunts his denim jacket, embroidered with an eagle holding in its talons a banner that reads "Poetry." As he exits, he half expects that he and his jacket will be ripped apart for rags.
Rednecks take warning. As a wartime pilot, Dickey was three times decorated for bravery. He's a brave poet, too, taking risks in these long elegiac and narrative poems, poems that look like totem poles, spreadeagled broadly down the page on an invisible center line. Dickey risks the sentimental, the verbose, the inflated. Here, drawing a bath, he sounds like uncut Dylan Thomas:
These are your fifty years Of fingers, cast down among The hard-driven echoes of tile In the thresholding sound of run water.
Or, once having seen, at an impressionable age, a girl dive into a river in Georgia, the poet remembers her like this: She came flying Down from the Eugene Talmadge Bridge, just to long for as I burst with never Rising never Having seen her except where she worked For J. C. Penney in Folkston. Her regular hours Took fire, and God's burning bush of the morning Sermon was put on her . . .
Some risk! Some nose-dive!
But Dickey more than makes up for it when he tells an anecdote of the war, tells how, lost and all but out of fuel, he set down his million dollar, brand new nightfighter on a makeshift landing strip in Cebu: We drifted in full Flaps nose-high easing easing Cleared the first lighted jeep Hit and Bounced came down again hit a hole And doubled-bounced the great new night- gathering binoculars came unshipped and banged me in the head As I fought for hot, heavy ground Trying to go straight for the rest of my life For the other jeep . . .
There is an unevenness in this book of 13 poems and 15 "Improvisations from the unEnglish," by which Dickey means something like translations, or poems co-authored with others. The improvisations work. Especially one from Vicente Aleixandre which begins, "Swordfish, I know you are tired; tired out with the sharpness of your face." Ultimately the great fish is borne aloft in "Flight partaking of tunnels fins, of quills and air foils."
At his best, Dickey comes through as an anecdotalist, letting the poem tell itself, without comment, whether he is playing his guitar in the rain, or whether he is running in the Manhattan marathon. At such times, Dickey tells an unimprovable story. Rare and comic indeed is the bald-headed store mannikin who watches the marathon joggers pass, as she stands in her store window naked, pleading in her wax For the right, silent words to praise The hard-hammering pulse of our sneakers, And the time gone by when we paced River-sided, close packed in our jostled beginning o my multitudes.
That's Dickey having enough fun with the language to justify sextillions of risks.