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In and Out of Class With James Dickey

ISSUE:  Summer 2000

Lelia’s Court is a steeply descending cul-de-sac that doglegs to the left so that several lots, including James Dickey’s, back on Lake Katherine, a man-made lake beyond which lies Fort Jackson. It was the drumming from this Army base “every / Sun-up, neighbor,” that so discomfited the Dickeys, Jim and Maxine and their two boys, when they settled in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1969: as the embattled suburbanite puts it in “Drums Where I Live,” “now and then I wish I had a chance / To take my chances / With silence.” And when Lake Katherine was drained in the early 1970’s, the vista comprised “A hundred acres of canceled water come down / To death-mud shaking / Its one pool.” Surveying this expanse, the poet in “Remnant Water” could only “wait and make the sound surrounding NO.” Dickey’s house is a late ‘60’s, L-shaped, ranch-style affair, a garage in front making the foot of the L.

The secretary, a middle-aged woman with blond hair, cracks open the front door. Has Dickey neglected to tell her of our appointment? Twice he postponed my visit. “I’ve never known you to be so inaccessible—at least to me,” I finally said, and he promptly set a time for us to meet: today at noon. Out of sight of the doorway, he orders her to let me in. A ledge extending leftward from the slate-floored foyer connects the book-shelf-lined living room with the family room, and there sits Jim, surrounded by waist-high stacks of books, a tomb under construction.

What I notice first, besides the gauntness of his once round face, are the clear plastic tubes in his nostrils: “I didn’t know you were on oxygen,” I say before we’ve even shaken hands. These tubes branch off a very long one connected to a vacuum-cleaner-size oxygen-generating machine on the floor between the two rooms. “I don’t really have to have it,” he says and with a flourish pulls the tubes from his nose. His red knit shirt has “Kinko’s” spelled out across the left breast. His shanks—he’s wearing shorts—are all scaly skin and shin-bone. The brown plastic-rimmed glasses loom on his narrow face. His smile reveals that one of his long front teeth has reddened. . . . As I’m leaving and he’s signing a book for the archives at Centenary College of Louisiana (where I teach), I stand at his elbow and notice amid a pervasive odor of oily, unwashed flesh that it would be possible now, in early summer, 1996, to number each gray plug of transplanted hair on his head. . . .

My father had died in the summer of 1995; now, a year later, I was in Columbia, where I grew up, to dispose of his personal effects—I had sold the condominium he’d purchased after my mother’s death in 1984. “There’s no reason for me to come back,” I told Jim. Since my graduation from the University of South Carolina in 1976, I had at least telephoned him whenever I visited my family. “Yes, there is,” he insisted.

When I was 20, I’d left a party there on Lelia’s Court—the occasion, a visit by Robert Penn Warren—with this line of Dickey’s repeating itself in my mind: “I have just come down from my father.” So begins and ends “The Hospital Window,” in which a son receives from his dying father an empowering benediction when the old man waves from his hospital window. But driving away from Dickey’s house (which was to be sold after the poet’s death in 1997 and bulldozed down to make space for a less dated house), with the burden still of clearing out my father’s clothes from his 17th-floor condominium, I felt as if I had stepped into the role of the son in a similar, autobiographical poem by Warren: “After Night Flight Son Reaches Bedside of Already Unconscious Father, Whose Right Hand Lifts in a Spasmodic Gesture, as Though Trying to Make Contact: 1955.” That gesture, because of its ambiguity, blackens, “snatch[es]” from the son “all things,” his unrealized aspirations as well as his triumphs.

When I was 14 and in the ninth grade, Dickey delivered the commencement address at the University of South Carolina. My father, a graduate of the Law School (as well as the College of Liberal Arts), took me to hear the poet. It was my father’s custom to attend the commencements; he had no special feeling for poetry, boast though he did of winning a bet with a co-worker who insisted that there was to be “no mourning at the bar” when Tennyson “put out to sea.” “No moaning, moaning,” my father would repeat, “no moaning of the bar.”

On June 1, 1968, I’d never heard of James Dickey, but he had already published his Poems 1957—1967, the retrospective selection upon which his critical reputation still mainly rests. (Deliverance appeared in 1970.) He was now completing two terms as the consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress; he was to join the English faculty at the university in 1969.

In those days the spring commencement took place on the red-brick Horseshoe, the original site of the university, which curved past the president’s house, old dormitories, and the South Caroliniana Library. The Horseshoe encompassed a shady lawn, and it was here that a temporary platform stood, in front of which were rows of folding chairs. “I’ll bet he’s not much of a speaker,” my father predicted when Dickey, a charismatic public performer, rose to the podium.

Afterward I was eager to meet the poet. In contrast to my father, who stood at only five feet eight or nine inches, the black-gowned Dickey, at six three, epitomized “body-authority.” Always one for promoting his kid, my father bragged that I could “dash off” poems. “That’s something I can’t do”—Dickey was shaking his head. In Self-Interviews Dickey says, “I look with absolute amazement at the work of poets who just do two or three drafts and then, brother, there it is! . . . If I had a pretty good poem on the third draft, I would think, “Boy, this is going to be really good when I have really worked on it!”” Real poets didn’t just toss off poems. Even so, the poet autographed my program, “To David Havird—in the community of letters—James Dickey.”

However reticent I sometimes am about acknowledging my father’s alma mater as my own, it was at the University of South Carolina that I studied under James Dickey and met such poets as Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Robert Lowell, Richard Eberhart, and Archibald MacLeish. Stephen Spender, who lectured there on Auden, writes in World within World of his Oxford days: “During this early period of my meetings with the Great, I experienced those agonies of longing for their friendship which can hardly be explained to those who do not understand what it is for a young man to start trembling when he recognizes in a crowd the face of someone who means to him, Poet.” My father, who’d later speak of my “rebellion,” was expecting me to become a lawyer like himself. Now I seemed to need if not the friendship of the Great, the blessing of a poet of my father’s generation.

A month into my second year at the university, on Sept. 28, 1972, I’m sitting in Dickey’s office, across the desk from him, while he peruses some poems of mine: “The prodigious sun’—perfectly beautiful, I think.” But he must “live with these awhile.” Meanwhile, why don’t I join him later at Lum’s, after his classes?

Within walking distance of the university, Lum’s is famous for its hot dogs steamed in beer. Pabst bock is on tap there, and Dickey and I each order an ice-glazed mug. I have with me the Vintage paperback of John Crowe Ransom’s Poems and Essays. Dickey taps its pink and yellow cover. “You know,” he says, referring to the Fugitives, “the one of them that I like best of all is Robert Penn Warren.” The source of Warren’s appeal is his “passion” and “force”—and scatological imagery: “There’s as much shit in Warren as there is in Swift.”

Dickey’s remarks later as well as then composed a variation on this passage from Self-Interviews: Warren, he observes, “is a desperate, ghoulish, nightmarish land of writer with a very Swiftian strain of excremental and other repulsive imagery. Warren’s hysteria and violence are as powerful as anything in American literature, and I like that immensely.” And yet there was another Warren, as Dickey saw him in a review of Being Here: Poetry 1977—1980, “starry-blooded, a night-walker, a night-watcher, a searcher lying motionless,” whom Dickey may have come to regard “as the best Warren of all.” At Maxine’s funeral in 1976, Jim himself read the lovely, visionary conclusion of Warren’s Audubon, “a story of great distances and starlight.” Warren might have been the only living American poet whom Dickey never trashed.

At Dickey’s invitation I begin sitting in on his graduate-level seminar in modern poetry. Its fall semester is devoted to American poetry. Dickey enters the room. Putting down his attache case, he abruptly shouts: ” “We want Daniel, Daniel, Daniel”—let’s hear it, three times!” I understand later that Vachel Lindsay and his poem “Daniel”—he of the lions’ den—figured in Dickey’s previous lecture. Here Lindsay’s lions clamor for the prophet.

Though Dickey frequently ad-libbed, a large, three-ringed, black binder, with typed-out lectures, always lay open on a desk, behind which he sat—except on one occasion when he placed the chair on top of the desk and, with the aid of his female graduate assistant, mounted the throne. These lectures included a biographical sketch and Dickey’s own incisive critical generalizations, which he then illustrated by first setting the scene and then reading aloud a representative poem. Never did his presentation of a poem include a “Brooks and Warren” analysis; he’d typically pause after this or that line and remark with wonder, “Isn’t that good!” I am still hearing after a quarter century Dickey’s “performance” of specific poems, then new to me: “Hurt Hawks” (Robinson Jeffers), “Say Good-bye to Big Daddy” and “Burning the Letters” (Randall Jarrell), “The Vow” (Anthony Hecht).

At Lum’s, Dickey slapped down a five-dollar bill, which more than covered the tab. A wide-brimmed black felt hat on his head, he drove away in a sapphire-blue Jaguar XKE, its rag top down. Later, in 1976, while drunk and en route to a trysting place, he wrapped this sports car around a telephone pole.

In the early ‘70’s Dickey, who liked big hats, seemed to favor a black felt hat with a four-inch brim and pinched crown, stuck in whose band was a turquoise, white, and red feather.

“Say, Mister, I love the way you wear that hat”—I am remembering a line from the movie Deliverance that Bobby speaks to the hillbilly pumping gas. We’re waiting for an elevator in the lobby of the humanities classroom building. Dickey squints down at me. I’m expecting the hillbilly’s contemptuous reply, “You don’t know nothing”; instead, he removes the hat from his head and holds it upside down so that I can read the small, silver lettering on the sweatband: The Shadow. Dickey intones, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?”

There was about Dickey a demonic or, better, a Dionysian aura; it had the scent of alcohol and sometimes garlic. As Dickey’s drunken alter ego in The Zodiac insists, “Whiskey helps./ But it does. It does”—fuels, that is, the creative act. During my first year at the university, Deliverance—the movie—appeared; one wondered at the perverted psyche that had dreamed it up. Of course we guys in moments of tomfoolery would grab one another’s ears: “Squeal like a pig . . .wee, wee!” One similarly wondered at the demented brain that had given birth to such poems as “The Sheep Child” (spoken in part by a “woolly baby / Pickled in alcohol,” the product of sexual congress between a Georgia “farm boy” and a sheep) and “The Fiend” (whose third-person narrator depicts empathetically the night life of a homicidal peeping-tom, “a worried accountant,” outside an apartment complex). It was easy for the adolescent mind with at best a scant knowledge of literature not to see that such poems, self-consciously allusive as they were, had endured a long gestation within a literary, even scholarly intellect. Dickey embodied the allure of forbidden knowledge. We were emboldened by his authority to descend into those shadowy, profane settings within our own unconscious psyches. There we would discover our divinity. Whether its character was fiendishly bestial or Messianic—it did not matter. We had no doubt that we would not merely survive the catabasis, but emerge intensified. It remained for the wakeful, inventive poet-as-craftsman to channel that volatile “night life” into a form that conserved its force, such as the three-beat anapestic line, the “night-rhythm,” of Dickey’s own sober, formal, early stanzas.

Dickey’s authority depended not only on his authentic genius, but also on the theatrical figure that he cut—a sometimes melodramatic figure that strained for effect, courting absurdity, daring ridicule. Still, you had the suspicion that Dickey saw also that this figure was sometimes ludicrous, but what the hell? Someone told me—but how could he have known?—that Dickey, on a hunting trip, had killed with a bow and arrow a rabbit whose blood he then smeared on his face. No hunter myself, I did know from Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses that this ritual followed your killing of your first deer. In that novel young Ike McCaslin, under the tutelage of Sam Fathers, kills his first buck, and this archetypal Wise Old Man dyes the boy’s face with the sacrificial blood. The story about Dickey and his rabbit became entangled in my mind with this and a later hunting episode in Go Down, Moses, and the result was a poem, “Ike McCaslin: An Epilogue.” Here, in a moment of self-delusion the old Ike of Faulkner’s “Delta Autumn” becomes again young Isaac “by Sam Fathers’ side” and downs his prey, only to discover while smearing his face with its blood that he has killed not a deer, but a rabbit.

“We’re going with that one,” Dickey announces. (During the early 70’s Dickey was the poetry editor for Esquire; he was accepting “Ike McCaslin: An Epilogue” for publication there.) It’s November 1973, a Sunday evening, and I’m standing with some friends at a party we students are hosting for Robert Penn Warren and his wife, Eleanor Clark. They’ve spent the weekend with the Dickeys at Litchfield Plantation, a complex of condominiums on the South Carolina coast. Just returned, Dickey’s wearing a blue-jean jacket, the back of which is emblazoned with an American eagle holding in its claws a banner that reads not “Liberty,” but “Poetry”—that “one word, raggedly blazing with extinction.”

Warren is in Columbia to receive the University of South Carolina Award for Distinction in Literature, the brainchild of Jim Mann, a graduate student in English, and Professor George Garrett. (The award honored Allen Tate in the spring of ‘73. Lowell will follow Warren as its recipient in April of ‘74.)

Warren arrived at the airport, incognito as it were, sporting a Vandyke. As he remembered in a letter 12 years later, “I had a sort of white beard left over from our canoe trip into the upper Canadian wilds. The trip to Columbia made me cut it right off. You guys would courteously seize my elbows to get me across the street or up the stairs. Great God, you were rushing me into my grave. Or into a wheel-chair.” I’d walked him down the hill from Capstone House, the women’s dorm that boasted hotel-style guest accommodations, to the apartment on Green Street where several of us students were giving the party in the Warrens’ honor. The roots of huge trees that occupied the space between sidewalk and street had caused the concrete to buckle; and given that it was dusk and that Warren could see out of one eye only, it seemed prudent to steer him around or over the upheavals. He jerked his elbow from my grip.

When Jim Mann and I, who fetched the Warrens at the airport, got them to the Dickeys’ on Friday, Dickey was just stepping out of the shower, and so the four of us chatted with Maxine in the foyer. When he did emerge from his toilet, he went straight for Warren, ignoring Jim and me. I studied Dickey, his swept-over mat of brown hair still wet from the shower, but stiff with spray—looked hard at him, hoping in vain that my stare would draw from him at least an acknowledgment of my presence.

On Friday, then, I might as well have been invisible as there in Dickey’s house with Robert Penn Warren. Understandably perhaps. But despite the beer at Lum’s—much less that inscription from the 1968 commencement—I’d never had a name; I’d always been “my boy.” Now it’s only two days later, Sunday, and at our party for the Warrens Dickey is announcing his acceptance of “Ike McCaslin” for Esquire. . . . It never appeared there. Had Dickey’s acceptance of the poem been a charade or was his designation as Poetry Editor a sham? I never dared to ask.

The Dickeys themselves host a party after Warren’s Monday-night reading. An elderly, white-jacketed Negro man tends bar in the family room; Maxine has made guacamole and hot clam dip. Most of the guests are English professors. Some of us, including Warren, are sitting there, Dickey and I together on a sofa, Warren at a right angle to us in a black leather-and-aluminum director’s chair. Dickey seizes from the glass-topped coffee table a volume of his own—the spotlight, so the gesture says, has shone on Warren long enough—he opens it and proceeds to introduce “Under Buzzards.” The poem carries a dedication to Warren, and Dickey identifies him as the “companion” who accompanies the speaker, Dickey himself, into the piney woods of North Georgia. “Do I have to go?” Warren’s face crinkles with mischief. Dickey snaps, “You’re going, my man!”

“Under Buzzards,” in The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead, and Mercy is one of a pair of poems whose collective title is “Diabetes.” Dickey has never had diabetes, has never taken insulin, as does the speaker of “Diabetes.” But here he is in “heavy summer” on Hogback Ridge; buzzards, the “birds of death,” are circling, sensing as they do the lethal sugar in his blood. Should he inject himself with insulin and so maintain a healthy balance in his blood—between too little sugar and too much? Affirm life as a middle way? Or should he embrace glory, first by crushing the syringe with a rock and then demanding that his companion “open that beer”? That gesture—an ad-man-turned-poet’s endorsement of the Miller High Life. But then Warren in Brother to Dragons also affirms that “drink’s a kind of glory . . ., though sleazy.”

Other guests have gathered around us. Marine’s mother, Mrs. Tipton, is standing behind me, leaning against the sofa, one haunch resting on the back, and swaying. Dickey’s introducing another poem, “Blood.” It’s about “screwing—you’ve been screwing, and you’re drunk; you wake up, and there’s blood all over the sheets, the room, and you think, My God, has someone been murdered—because, you know, you’re drunk, you’ve been passed out; but then you realize, because you’ve been screwing, that she’s having her period, and it’s not the blood of death, but the blood of life—the blood of life.” The emotion in Dickey’s voice ranges from shouted desperation at the beginning of the poem—”mercy, MERCY!”—to cloying tenderness at the end, when the speaker, ignorant of the woman’s identity, insists that it’s of “no matter,” for “she is safe” (portentous pause): “She is safe [pause] with me.” In fact, she is safe with him because his “weapon”—that is to say, his phallus—”will never recover its blood”: the episode has rendered him impotent. . . . Dickey later told me that the incident behind the poem took place at Allen Tate’s house; I didn’t believe him.

Abruptly Dickey turns to me: “David”—which he pronounces Devid—“I want you to hear a new version of “Dueling Banjos.”” He stands; I stand, ready to follow. “Anyone else,” he says off-handedly, “is welcome.” A number of us, not including Warren, follow Dickey out of the family room and down the hall to his study. Dickey sits me down at his desk, which faces a window that looks out in the daytime on the back yard and Lake Katherine. Several guitar cases lie on the floor, along with various bows; a photo on the wall boasts the autographs of three Apollo astronauts. Dickey manipulates a large reel-to-reel at my feet. We listen to some impressive flat-picking whose tune, to my ear, bears no resemblance to that one from Deliverance. Dickey, a faint, tense smile on his lips, is scrutinizing me, assuring himself that I’m responsive to what I’m hearing. . . .

This invitation had really been mine alone; the other guests had been insufficiently alert to this fact, or else they had not had the courtesy to decline it. I had acquired a name. “I have just come down from my father”—for a long time afterward, this line from “The Hospital Window” ran, a refrain, in my mind.

I was then, in 1974, the editor of the student literary magazine, and in honor of Warren’s visit to the university, the staff dedicated to him the fall issue of The Crucible. In it there was a poem of mine, and Warren observed, “It is a poem— looks like one, feels like one, tastes like one. Must be.” This encouragement emboldened me to send him others, whose jerky rhythm and tortuous syntax looked for their model to the two sonnets, “Sirocco” and “Gull’s Cry,” that open Warren’s Promises. “ You are booming along,” he wrote in March of 1974. “What impresses me, at first look anyway, is the subtlety of rhythm and the way you play off complicated syntax in a stanza form . . . I do feel that you are the real thing. Most I feel this because the poet behind these poems feels bigger than the poems.” He typically added, “Any others handy?”

After three of my poems appeared in Poetry in 1976, Warren generously observed, “You have certainly come far in fluency and the feel of poetic texture. Real poetry.” But he cautioned,

If I had to say something on the critical side, I’d say that I’m not sure that your allusiveness always works—for me, now and then, some defect in continuity, perhaps even lack of contact (perhaps my fault) with a basic idea. . . . I’m not pulling for an 18th-century prose mind you—but I do think the author ought to be able to give a good reason for the way things are in his poem. Not a bad question to ask oneself. You might say the same thing back to me about certain poems of my own, and certainly I’m not maintaining that “logical progression” is the key to poetic structure. But I’d say that it is an element.

What encouraged me was that his qualified praise, because it was ambivalent—even the negative criticism, because it was itself generous —seemed to testify to his sincerity when he added on another occasion, “You are bound, my hunch is, to make it just fine.”

During those formative years when I was a student of Dickey’s, I was writing as much for Warren’s approval as for his. And yet with Warren as my guide I missed the exalted sense of mission that I felt when Dickey shadowed me. In that poem of Warren’s with its ungainly, journalistic precis of a title (“After Night Flight. . .”), the father’s “spasmodic gesture,” that eclipsing failure of recognition that comes with death, condemns the son to a repetition of the old man’s failures. In contrast to Warren’s “son of Adam,” Dickey’s persona in “The Hospital Window” becomes, thanks to his father’s benediction, the resurrection and the life.

No, it wasn’t Warren’s poems that I wanted to have written. Nor really even Dickey’s. Of the Great whom I met in my adolescence, Robert Lowell was the one whose poems, as soon as I discovered them, made me burn to meet the poet. To their relentless beat, their defiant enjambements, my response was kinesthetic, visceral. I had felt my muscles flex as soon as I cracked open for the first time Lord Weary’s Castle and read in the stacks,

There was rebellion, father, when the mock
French windows slammed and you hove backward, rammed
Into your heirlooms, screens, a glass-cased clock,
The highboy quaking to its toes. You damned
My arm that cast your house upon your head
And broke the chimney flintlock on your skull.

I concealed from Dickey my passion for Lowell. Presciently so. On the eve of the older poet’s visit to the university in April of 1974, Dickey was referring to Lowell as “my oldest friend [portentous pause] and rival.”

Lowell was bemused: “I only met Jim a few years ago,” he observed when I reported to him that characterization. The coltishness of Dickey’s sense of competition revealed itself during Lowell’s daytime visit with Dickey on Lelia’s Court. Maxine suggested to the three of us students who had accompanied Lowell that we give the two poets time to themselves—they were strolling toward the dock. There, at Dickey’s initiative, they both removed their shirts. Dickey boasted the superior physique. Lowell’s skin was very pale and slack—”and he’s supposed to be so attractive to women?” Maxine was incredulous. Lowell was wearing bedroom slippers—as Auden did, Maxine explained. After a while, we students joined them on the dock. Jim Mann and I sat flanking Dickey on a wooden bench. Lowell, in brown corduroy Levis, sprawled on his side on the planks of the dock, a red flannel shirt and an incongruous blue suit jacket folded beneath his bare torso. Our friend Janet Lee snapped pictures. As I began to read aloud one of the 14-liners from For Lizzie and Harriet, Lowell murmured, “That’s not how I would read it.”

“Cal,” Dickey said emphatically, “will you let the boy read?”

I am to introduce Lowell at his reading and present him with the university’s Award for Distinction in Literature. Dickey approaches me in the lobby of the auditorium: he’s wanting to say a few words beforehand—”to bring,” as he explains, “the people to their feet.” The moment arrives; he’s stressing how privileged we are: hearing Lowell is “like hearing [portentous pause] Milton [pause] read.” Honored it may be, but the audience sits on its hands. Dickey pleads, “I want you all to stand; will you do that for me, please?” We obey.

Lowell’s plan is to begin with poems by others, all of them Southerners: “Aeneas at Washington” (Tate), “Next Day” (Jarrell), “Original Sin” (Warren), “Adultery” (Dickey). I have lent him The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, which includes the poems by Tate and Jarrell. He introduces them, then stoops to retrieve the book from his brief case. Now his domed head, with it tousle of whitening hair, oily strands of which have been sticking out ever since he removed the be-ribboned medal from around his neck, is emerging from behind the podium: “A nightmare thing has happened,” he mutters. “I left the anthology in the motel room.” (“Funniest thing I ever saw at a reading”—Dickey laughed about it on many occasions, mimicking Lowell’s weirdly Southern murmur: “”A nightmare thing has happened.”“) No Tate and no Jarrell. But in his briefcase there are copies lent to him of Warren’s Selected Poems New and Old and Dickey’s Poems 1957—1967. It is important, Lowell maintains before reading Dickey’s “Adultery,” for a poet to have a good “prose style”; arranged in 11, three-line stanzas, this poem’s free verse, Lowell implies, exemplifies that commendable quality. Here a male speaker addresses his female lover during an assignation in a motel room: “Although we come together, / Nothing will come of us”; yet, the speaker insists, “Guilt is magical.”

After the reading, Lowell observes that Dickey, “really a very intelligent man,” disparaged him in some forum as a “slick” confessional poet—how curious the comparison with Milton! I nod, say nothing. . . . Dickey, who sneers on film at Milton, was stoking Lowell’s vanity. “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” is Lowell’s revision of Milton’s Lycidas, and in Notebook (selections from which Dickey has read aloud in class) Lowell recalls “calming my hot nerves and enflaming my mind’s / nomad quicksilver by saying Lycidas” right before assaulting his father.

“I think you’re right,” the letter from Howard Moss begins. “The influence of Lowell is felt in these poems. But something else is, too. . . .” During the winter recess I traveled to New York with a music professor and a group of students. Beforehand Dickey casually advised, “You ought to look up my editor.” Moss I knew from the selection of his poems in Hall, Pack, and Simpson’s New Poets of England and America, a text in Dickey’s graduate course on modern poetry. I had by heart “Father, whom I murdered every night but one, / That one, when your death murdered me.” I dialed a number for a Howard Moss in the Manhattan telephone directory. The right Moss answered and in the course of conversation cordially observed that he was at home right now—yes, I knew that—but if I’d call him in the morning at “the office,” we could meet during his lunch hour. He gave me the number. The office, as I discovered when I placed the call, was The New Yorker; I had assumed that Moss was an editor at Doubleday, which had published Self-Interviews, The Eye-Beaters, and Sorties.

A fay, bald-headed man in black plastic frames, Moss is eating a sandwich at his desk. Rollie McKenna photographs of The Modern Poets decorate one wall, the one to Moss’s right, of the small, drab office. “I used to ask Lowell, whenever I’d see him, to send us something,” Moss says between bites, “but he never did.” As I’m preparing to leave, he asks me if I write poems. I mumble that I’m trying to. “Have you ever considered sending them to The New Yorker?” . . .Yes, he’s serious; address the submission to him personally, since he has a reader. . . . In the letter that soon accompanies my submission, I defensively acknowledge the “Lowell hand.”

Dated Jan. 28, 1975, the letter from Moss has just arrived. “I’ll be in The New Yorker by the end of the year,” I boast to Dickey on Groundhog Day. It’s his birthday, February 2; he’s wearing his presents from Maxine, burnt orange double-knit slacks and a white, cable-knit sweater. With my friend, Ashley Mace, whose family owns a cottage at nearby Murrell’s Inlet, I’m spending the morning with the Dickeys at Litchfield Plantation. He narrows his eyes. The laugh—is it skepticism, ridicule? Or the wordless, vocal equivalent of the go-for-it slap on the back? Surely the latter.

In fact, I was then writing the poem, “End of a Year,” that Moss accepted in early March. It tells about some wasps—two dozen by my count—that swarmed into my bedroom in October through a “cleft wood awning.” In the course of the poem, which moves from fall to winter, all that remains of this “grim platoon” of wasps is a straggle of camp followers (the speaker’s “old lovers”), while the troops themselves, like the ranks of the pharaoh, advance on Bethlehem. It had intrigued me to learn in a seminar on Colonial American literature with Calhoun Winton that South Carolina was on the same latitude as the Holy Land. In Lowell’s “Where the Rainbow Ends,” “the scythers, Time and Death, / Helmed locusts, move upon the tree of breath.” So my wasps compose an orbiting nimbus around the head of the infant Christ. Though Moss apparently found the “Lowell hand” less evident in this poem than in the earlier ones, my poem’s oracular concluding lines echoed the last stanza of “Near the Ocean.”

“Is it a short poem?” Dickey asks. Hardly anyone else has yet arrived for class. “Well,” I reply, “it’s 50 lines.” Dickey’s eyebrows rise. . . . If he ever read this “long” poem, as he then described it, which had met with the approval of his editor, he did so in The New Yorker where it appeared in November. Having got the bachelor’s degree in the middle of the academic year, I am, in the spring of 1975, a first-semester MA candidate, now formally enrolled in the second semester of Dickey’s course on modern poetry. But I’ve been hearing from Ashley Mace about the submissions to his Seminar in Verse Composition from the mysterious Silver Skin. The fall semester of this two-course sequence focused on form: the epigrammatic couplet, the quatrain, the sonnet—villanelles and sestinas awaited the ambitious students. The spring semester stresses revision. For the first assignment the student submits two prose narratives—of a dream and a masturbation fantasy—and a free association. Dickey then chooses for each student the most inventive one of these—the one that most seems to promise a poem. The process of revision, which begins with the isolation of evocative diction and arresting images, then commences. This spring, contributions have been arriving from a student unable to attend the workshop, fragments signed “SS,” for Silver Skin. The pseudonym, as Dickey has explained, bespeaks the disfiguration that afflicts this non-traditional student thanks to his years of working a South American silver mine.

Dickey has himself been detaching phrases from obscure poems, ranging from a sonnet by Frederick Goddard Tuckerman to stanzas, which rather sound like Dickey’s anapests, by a contemporary Australian poet unknown to American readers. At the end of the term, these phrases will appear in the finished poems.

Having asked to see me after class, Dickey is now proposing that I appear as Silver Skin on the last day of the workshop; he’ll then expose the ruse. He will supply a costume. . . . That afternoon, we arrive at the classroom ahead of everyone else; he shuts the door, withdraws the get-up from a grocery sack. When the students do enter, there I am, crouching, head down, hugging my knees, in a corner—on my feet a huge pair of huaraches; a purple fringed suede jacket hangs from my shoulders, covers tent-like my bent legs; on my head that wide-brimmed black hat whose sweatband spells out The Shadow. When I raise my head, I’m holding, pressing against my face, a silver life mask of Dickey himself. With only one hand free, I struggle to my feet before I take it off.


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