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Volume spans 5 decades of James Dickey's poetry



James Dickey.

Wesleyan/University Press

of New England.

477 pages. $29.95. This volume brings together nearly five decades of poems from the writing career of poet, novelist and critic James Dickey, revealing both his wide range and his thematic consistencies. Included are previously unpublished poems of his early 20s, gathered here under the title "Summons," and the romantic free verse of his first collections, "Into the Stone," "Drowning with Others" and "Helmets."

These are followed by the acclaimed poems of his mid-career -- "Buckdancer's Choice," "Falling" and "May Day Sermon" -- with their long, experimental split lines, and the subsequent poems up to the recently published "The Eagle's Mile." Also included are Mr. Dickey's "approximate" translations, which he calls "Free Flight Improvisations from the unEnglish," and collaborative poems.

Mr. Dickey was born in Atlanta in 1923. He had a promising youthful athletic career, playing football for Clemson University before he enlisted in the Army in 1942. During World War II and again during the Korean War, where he served in the Air Force, he was a pilot, flying bombing missions over the Pacific. Not only do the themes of sports, of contests and of battle figure time and again in his poems, but he also brings an activism and physicality to the making of poetry. Although he studied with Allen Tate at Vanderbilt University after World War II, he rejected the formalism and classicism of the Southern Agrarians. His poetry, intense and romantic, is concerned with large, basic emotions, with physical exhilaration and with death, rebirth and spiritual renewal through nature.

Mr. Dickey is a literary descendant of Walt Whitman. Like Whitman's, his poetry is fiercely grounded in the ego; it reaches out to embrace both the natural world and the social order where men struggle against each other. Also like Whitman, Mr. Dickey dares to risk being excessive, both in his use of language and his appeal to the emotions.

His ear for sound also recalls such poets as Hart Crane, Theodore Roethke and Dylan Thomas, as in these lines from "Sun," a poem from the late 1960s: When the sun fell, I slit my eyeskins/in the dazed ruddy muddle of twilight/And in the mirror saw whiteness/Run from my eyes like tears . . .

The otherness of nature is a recurrent theme through Mr. Dickey's writing, both in his poems and in his 1970 novel "Deliverance." The natural world is seen as instinctive and complete, as in these lines from the early poem, "The Heaven of Animals," which refer to the prey of hunting beasts: Fulfilling themselves without pain/At the cycle's center,/They tremble, they walk/Under the tree,/They fall, they are torn,/They rise, they walk again.

Some of Mr. Dickey's best poems describe his war experiences in memories recollected long afterward with compassion and self-knowledge. In "Drinking From a Helmet," he recalls finding a dead soldier's helmet loose on the ground. As he drinks from its bowl and then dons it, the poet symbolically merges with the slain soldier: Warmed water ran over my face./My last thought changed, and I knew/I inherited one of the dead.

In his famous poem, "The Firebombing," from the collection "Buckdancer's Choice" (which won the 1965 National Book Award), the poet recalls 20 years later his service as a bomber pilot over Japan. Mr. Dickey contrasts the visual beauty of the exploding bombs, the pilot's detachment as he watches them, and the destruction that he wreaks:

One is cool and enthralled in the cockpit./Turned blue by the power of beauty./In a pale treasure-hole of soft light/Deep in aesthetic contemplation./Seeing the ponds catch fire . . .

As the poem moves between the poet's tranquil life in suburban America and his wartime past, Mr. Dickey confesses his moral revulsion at his military self and his ultimate ignorance of the consequences of his actions:

It is this detachment,/The honored aesthetic evil,/The greatest sense of power in one's life,/That must be shed in bars, or by whatever/Means, by starvation/Visions in well-stocked pantries . . ./All this, and I am . . . still unable/To get down there or see/What really happened.

In "Buckdancer's Choice" and in the poems that followed it, Mr. Dickey began to write in the long split lines for which he has become famous, with spaces between words instead of punctuation. In "Falling," a poem inspired by newspaper headlines, Mr. Dickey re-creates a stewardess' accidental fall to her death. Here the long lines imitate the motion of breathing: She is screaming singing hymns her thin human wings spread out/From her neat shoulders the air beast-crooning to her warbling . . ."

In his recent poetry, Mr. Dickey has continued to develop his loose, fluid lines. His latest collection, "The Eagle's Mile," finds him more at ease with the merely human, less likely to adopt heroic and anti-heroic stances: Suddenly there is no limit/To what a man can get out of/His failure to see:/this gleam/Of hair down the nape of the neck, and in it everything/There is of flight/and nothing else . . . ("Night Bird"). This volume, published as Mr. Dickey approaches his 70th birthday, reveals him as quintessentially American, a lyric poet whose best poems are both experiential and philosophical.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer living in New York.

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