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Gordon Van Ness: Remembering James Dickey
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PrintGordon Van Ness, Remembering James Dickey

James Dickey was a name before he was a voice.

In 1982, I was a part-time, thirty-two-year-old graduate student at the University of Richmond, completing the required courses for my Master’s degree while attempting to discover, without much success, a topic on which to write my thesis. Dr. John Boggs, in whose twentieth-century American literature course I was presently enrolled, handed me after class one afternoon a 62-page book of poetry that he suggested might interest me as a thesis topic. I have always wondered in the intervening years what intuition or perhaps predisposition compelled him to identify and offer me that particular volume. Strange are the ways of professors. I thanked him in any event, looked at the oddly-shaped book wider than it was long, titled The Zodiac, underneath of which it said, simply, “by James Dickey.” That evening I read what turned out to be, to my surprise, not a collection of poetry but rather a single poem divided into twelve sections, little realizing just where that volume was going to take me.

When I look at my Rand McNally Atlas, I see that it took me almost 400 miles down Interstate 95 to South Carolina, with its abundance of wildlife and flora, tall pines, invading kudzu and old automobiles giving off their color with the timing of rust, a place where Southern history is more alive than in my native Virginia, though Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, and where the Stars and Bars still flies above the Capitol building in Columbia. In a more fundamental and abiding sense, however, the state was not simply geographically deeper in Dixie but truly another world—a place of creation where things literally shone with a different light, revealing new thresholds, new anatomies—the possibilities of the world as I always knew it must be, where a poet could look up at the universe, at God’s scrambled zoo, and say of its constellations, floating there in the icy coldness of space, as James Dickey had done in his poem, “The great, burning Beings melt into place/A few billion-lighted inept beasts/Of God—/What else is there?” What else indeed.

Compulsively working on my thesis, I had written Dickey, telling him in anxious embarrassment of my project and of my ideas, and asking if I might interview him, all the while fearing that he would laugh at my interpretations and declare in a perfect Southern drawl, “No, Mr. Van Ness, that is not what I meant at all. At all,” before politely declining. Instead he had immediately agreed to my request, sending me an inscribed, limited-edition boxed copy of The Zodiac. One week later I called and we talked for over an hour, the tape recorder slowly turning its spool over on itself, catching his Southern intonations and inflections. Now, twenty years later and almost a decade after his death, his voice still holds, still floats magically in the air, and holds me, compelling me to confront who he was and what he said, his words drifting up from my outdated machine and telling me now what I didn’t recognize then.

Dickey was a voice before he was a face.

A year after our conversation I was sitting with other students in the Humanities Classroom Building of the University of South Carolina in Columbia, waiting for the arrival of a man I’d never seen, on the first class day of Dickey’s 700-level American and British Poetry course. When Dickey did enter, dressed in blue jeans and a white, cotton knit turtleneck, he was lugging an obviously heavy suitcase whose contents he soon spilled onto the desk—books, some two dozen of them, a rich collection of prosody, anthropology, philosophy, non-fiction, and poetry by J.B. Priestly, Herbert Read, André Malroux, Stanley Edgar Hyman, Joseph Campbell, Henry Miller, Virgil, Homer, Lucretius, Dante, and Milton—all of which looked well-read because they were well-worn. Immediately, I felt intimidated, out of place. Why is the sense of starting over so important to me, I thought, that I would put myself in this situation? I looked at Dickey, not at the writer but at the person; I looked closely. He was a big man, six feet three inches in height and weighing well over two hundred pounds, the “Jimbo” who had once been a football player at Clemson A & M and who was agile enough to run the hurdles at Vanderbilt University after his service in the Pacific during the Second World War but now a man almost sixty years old whose stomach rolled over the waistband of his jeans. He moved easily, comfortable with himself and where he was, and I sensed that he was as excited to be there teaching as I was at being taught. He settled himself into the chair behind the desk, put on his glasses, and began to read the roll. When he called my name, I raised my hand and then sat as immovable as a stone when he told me to come up to his desk. He had to repeat his request: “Come here.” Nothing in my experience had ever prepared me for this. I walked slowly to where he looked at me from behind the turrets of the books he had arranged before him, and as I reached the desk, he extended his hand, firmly enclosing mine in his handshake, and said in a voice as soft as it was solid, “Welcome.”

Lord, I thought, Where am I?

Over the next four years, I worked my way through the doctoral program, coursing through its academic currents like the fighter pilot I never was, enrolling initially in Dickey’s Verse Composition course. “We don’t live long enough to become poets,” he told his students in explanation of why he had thus titled the course. In that first fall he required his students to write specific poetic forms, one each week, including the sonnet, villanelle, lyric, and ballad, as well as poems utilizing epigrammatic couplets, blank verse, and satire. In the spring, students wrote a poem in free verse and then revised it for the remainder of the semester. Though I won an Academy of American Poets prize while at South Carolina, my poems were never more than derivative, though occasionally I like to believe that I stumbled upon an image that I would not have believed possible, an image that heightened my awareness of life, made reality more real than mere facts. The line between What Is and What Might Be, I was beginning to understand, was always wavering, like the shimmer of heat rising off desert sands from a sun pounding down harder than resurrection is up. Language opened Possibility because illusion and reality were always dancing hand in hand.

His survey on American and British poetry (he alternated the focus each semester) was not a literary survey in the usual sense of a chronological study of selected poets who represent “the tradition,” but rather a systematic analysis of the nature of the artistic impulse and the conditions under which it thrives, beginning with the prehistoric cave paintings in Lascaux, France and Altamira, Spain. The origin of the creative impulse, he asserted in his lectures, lay in man’s religious nature, which flourished even amid his brutal and terrifying life, his living like an animal in the depths of caves. That religious nature manifested itself in a fascination with the objects and animals he worshipped, particularly the latter’s strength, speed, or skill, and in a tendency to distort or accentuate features such as the horns of a buffalo. Dickey viewed this characteristic as early evidence of the human need not simply to imitate but to create—“man’s delight in tinkering and playing with things,” as he phrased it. Man, then, was a defective animal; when he boasted, man pictured himself by referencing the animal world, a tendency that stressed the child within as a source of genius and the Jungian urge to tap into the collective memory that is the lifeblood of the past. Listening to Dickey talk, not a lecture, really, but rather as if he were communicating some secret knowledge that he wanted his students to understand, I felt larger than I was, connected to something outside myself.

In college I had originally been a physics major, enamored of the heavens and the way mathematics could tell me, exactly, my position in the universe no matter where I stood or moved. It was a measured world, held in and held up by natural, immutable laws that could be discovered and that would be as true today or tomorrow as when First Light glowed in the nuclear fires of hidden stars detected by large telescopes. Complicated equations about forces such as gravity and electromagnetism, involving cosines, sines, tangents—the crux of theoretical calculus—that advanced general relativity and quantum physics, delineated this world and any other; the scientific method became for me a religious mantra. Now, under Dickey’s blaze, however, something had changed, altered forever. Behind, beneath an Aristotelian duality of motion and flux and change articulated precisely by science was a force larger, more mysterious, more magical. “Poets,” Dickey had said, “are not trying to tell the truth. They are trying to show God a few things He maybe didn’t think of. It takes us to supply that. We are not trying to tell the truth. We are trying to make it.” The world, I came to understand, is what we want or need it to be. And I had thought immediately of that moment when, driving home, I had seen an Air Force cargo plane, huge and lumbering, rise up suddenly like some large prehistoric bird from behind a grove of trees, and for a moment I felt something akin to what primitive man must have experienced, a sense of awe and fear and wonder. Give me my spear, I thought, and there was nothing rational about it.

My relationship with Dickey broadened, and deepened, as the semesters passed. He was kind enough to offer me access to the correspondence he had written during the war for use in my dissertation, an acknowledgment, I like to believe, that I was correct in thinking that it had been the war itself, in its primitive brutality, that had forged the twenty-year-old Dickey into a poet. Matthew Bruccoli, a close friend and colleague of Dickey’s who had written or edited more books than I had birthdays and who was one of the best professors at the University of South Carolina, directed it. I met Dickey’s wife Deborah and then his young daughter Bronwen, a name, he declared to me, that was Gaelic for “white-chested,” adding, “And it is, too.”

On a number of occasions, I took him out to lunch, partly out of gratitude for everything he had offered me and partly because I relished the time spent alone with him, away from the domestic problems I sensed existed in his home, away from student sycophants who were forever hovering near him to catch his presence, to where we could talk about everything from politics to painting, from movies to music, from poets and poetry to astronomy and sports. He was always gracious and respectful in our conversations, soliciting my opinions on every topic, opinions which were occasionally at variance with his though he never sought to change them or, for that matter, challenge them, and I suspect now that he was almost always drunk, an observation that, if true, nevertheless did not affect his acumen or brilliance.

At one such lunch, we had talked about Randall Jarrell, who had written so much good criticism but whose poetry never quite lived up to his reputation. Dickey had said to me, “I can’t remember one line from any of his poems. He didn’t write anything memorable.” Dickey as usual had ordered spare ribs and eaten only a bite or two, having the remainder boxed to bring home to Deborah. He had also as usual ordered a double Manhattan and a beer. As we left the restaurant, an up-scale establishment with low undulating brick walls that lined the approach to the oaken front doors and that enclosed landscaped gardens, Dickey suddenly stopped, lifted himself up, and stretched out on the wall. As large a man as he was, he overpowered the setting. Putting both his hands behind his head to cushion himself against the brick, he made himself comfortable, and said, “I see everything in my life as combat.”

Dickey was a face before he was a Presence.

Before I left South Carolina to return to Virginia and my first tenure-track job, I visited Dickey for what I thought, time and circumstance being what they were, might be the last time. Driving up to his tree-shrouded ranch house beside Lake Katherine, I parked on the street and walked down the driveway, which sloped to his double-front doors. Shards of broken glass glittered on the concrete in the Southern sun. I never inquired from Dickey, my Southern sense of propriety being what it was, as to the cause of the broken glass; he never mentioned it as we sat talking in his living room. He was seated in the big easy chair of his personal library, the working collection of a major author who never stopped reading, discussing, and writing, surrounded by a castle of books consisting of approximately a thousand volumes in towers more than four feet high. On the other side of the living room were seventeen thousand additional books, all part of a personal library fifty years in the making. After an hour I asked if I might take a few pictures of him, so we sauntered into his back yard. Conscious of his appearance, he combed his thinning hair, sucked in his stomach and leaned up against a tall pine tree, looking at me, as they say in the South, “straight-on.” I took several photographs and we shook hands warmly. I didn’t know what to say and, for once, I don’t think he did either. The man of words had no words. The next morning, I finished loading up the Volkswagen bus and drove north. It was May 1987.

That wasn’t, however, the last time we saw one another. There was correspondence and telephone calls that I made to him every month or so. Then once, while I was in my office grading student essays, the telephone rang, and it was Jim, as I now called him. “Van,” as he always called me, “I’ve got to ask you something.”

I waited.

“Debba and I were wondering if you’d agree to being my literary executor along with Matt Bruccoli.”

As had happened during the first class I had taken with him, I found myself unable to say anything. There was only silence holding the line.

“Hello?” Jim said. “Hello?”

I cleared my throat and pushed words forward. “Jim,” I finally responded, “I’m honored. I’ll do anything you need me to do.”

The following summer I returned to Columbia, where we again had lunch. Admitted to his house, I stood waiting in the foyer while he finished typing in a room he called “the cave of making.” I had seen the room once. It held a large table around which half a dozen or more typewriters sat silently waiting his attention, each holding a draft page of a project on which he was currently working. When he came out, we hugged, my arms not even coming close to encircling him while his easily wrapped around me, an unspoken camaraderie that ran deep, at what he would have called blood-level. There was conversation, good human talk on poetry and other vital subjects that mattered, not the silliness with which people in rural Southside Virginia, gathering for large swathes of time at Walmart, concern themselves—limited, and limiting, discussions of the weather, the football scores, the price of tobacco.

I had published my first book on Dickey and was then editing his early notebooks, written in the fifties while he was teaching at Rice A & M and the University of Florida. In doing so, I began to understand, in a way I had not earlier, just how extensive his readings were, for the task of annotating the entries was complex and time-consuming, and involved tracking down works in philosophy, literature, criticism, art, history, mythology, and anthropology. I had discovered the notebooks among his papers, fifty or more uncataloged boxes stored in the attic shelves of the South Carolinian Library to which he had given me access and which I had periodically explored. I inquired whether we might include in the book largely unpublished poems written during those early years. Dickey had agreed, and one late morning we met to decide which poems from among the dozens I had discovered among his haphazardly stored papers we should select. We sat down in his glassed sun porch over a lunch of sweetened iced tea and bologna and cheese sandwiches prepared and served by Mayrie MacLamore, the housekeeper who had cooked, cleaned, and cared for the Dickey household since 1987. It was much later, as the Southern sun was setting, that we finally determined the twenty-four that were eventually included. As far I know, he only read one to a gathered audience, “The Wish to Be Buried Where One Has Made Love.”

The last time I saw Jim Dickey, he was suffering from fibrosis of the lungs which had developed independently from the liver problems that had earlier resulted in severe jaundice. He was sitting among his books, connected now to a respirator from which all the oxygen in the world did not seem enough to fill his embattled lungs. Occasionally he would take a bite of cereal—I remember thinking at the time that it looked like Sugar Pops—from a bowl that otherwise sat on the arm of his easy chair. His talk was labored, but he wanted to tell me all the news—the plans for filming To the White Sea, his work on “Two Poems for the Survival of the Male Body,” the sequel to Alnilam that he had titled “Crux.” None of these would be completed, but he talked as if he were pushing ahead on these projects, and I listened, mesmerized by the vision his words held, half believing that Jim Dickey would persevere in spite of his debilitation, and overwhelmed by the contrast between his commitment to the future and the frail skeleton of the man whom I had known for years. I remember the swagger that had been in his steps when, in my green, graduate-school years, I had looked out my office window to see him stride across the university campus. As ever, we talked books.

Jim Dickey was a Presence even when he was an Absence.

One morning in January 1997, as I sat at my office desk preparing to teach my morning classes, my sister called, saying simply, “I’m sorry.”

“For what?” I asked.

“Dickey died,” she said.

Her words washed over me like a river I had always swum in.

“I didn’t know,” I said.

When my father had died three years earlier, Jim had called and offered consolation. A man feels his own mortality for the first time, I had once been told, when his father dies. Now my second father was gone.

In the months and years since Jim’s death, I often think of our times together, scattered as they were. “We have death, and the day’s light,” he once told me. His eyes could hold any person, eyes which opened onto a vast restless country, and his voice, the force of his words and the rhythms of its cadence, could transfix a listener. I could see in his absence what I was only beginning to sense while he lived—that he had always been a man on fire with Time, and he knew that—a man who wanted to sit in the sun and feel both life and death outlined and waiting, a man who was always daring his skin to die. It had to die, of course, and he knew that, too. He wanted Life, nothing less, wanted to know, as he wrote in an early poem, “the fires/Of the sun and the earth,/When they were one, burning plotless, unequalled, from the stone.”

His words are still there. I sometimes play the tape recording that I made years ago as a graduate student, the words, which are all that we have, really, against our own certain deaths, coming back to me through time and geography, as in a certain, half-remembered dream. They are always finding ways to help me in my efforts to connect—with the world, with students, with colleagues, and, Lord forbid, even with administrators. I hear Jim’s soft Southern drawl, stringing itself out like taffy, and I know he is with me. I hear who he was, and is.