Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Truth & Consequences

By Leonard Gill

AUGUST 10, 1998: 

Summer of Deliverance, By Christopher Dickey, Simon & Schuster, 278 pp., $24

No artist is bound by the truth,” Monroe Spears instructed his writing students at Vanderbilt in the 1940s, and by this he meant that the poet must write according to the necessities of the poem and not according to the dictates of actual experience. Thus was James Dickey introduced, in his words, to “the creative possibilities of the lie.” That realization was, again Dickey’s words, “the bursting of a dam for me.”

“I have written some fair poems,” he wrote his wife as early as 1953, “but no really good ones this summer. But, in each, I am nearer what I want: each one has more of the fast, athletic, imaginative, and muscular vigor that I want to identify as my particular kind of writing. I am learning how to do it.”

By 1962 and his first book of poems, Dickey had learned “how to do it,” and the achievement did not go unrecognized: by critics, who talked of him in a league with Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, and Theodore Roethke; by the awarders of a Guggenheim Fellowship; and by 1966, by the powers-that-be who appoint the Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress.

Dickey had by this time, though, gotten himself far from his jobs in advertising, far from life in the suburbs, and into a number of teaching posts, with a wife, Maxine, and two sons, Christopher and Kevin, faithfully in tow. But along the way he had also positioned himself as a star performer on the reading circuit, an activity – Dickey called it “barnstorming for poetry” – that, for this poet at least, entailed on a typical night equal parts art, alcohol, and showmanship and on a good night, to hear his elder son Christopher tell it and Dickey himself admit to it in Summer of Deliverance, whoring – as much of his talent as among his female admirers.

Then, in 1970, a “line of demarcation”: Deliverance. The novel was an instant critical and commercial success and, in Christopher’s estimation, “the definitive end of my childhood.” That end to what was in ways a dream childhood under a “father-poet-god” had the seeds of a nightmare from the very beginning – a father’s odd twistings of the truth, flashes of temper, lots of booze, weird streaks of competitiveness, cruelty – and before the beginning if we consider the “screen of contempt” the poet threw up around his own father.

Gene Dickey, a “dilettante lawyer and devoted gambler” with roots in the north Georgia woods, was a man of sport – blood-sport of a ungentlemanly kind: cockfights, to name one, and coon-on-a-log, in which bets were placed on a chained raccoon forced against a pack of hounds, to name another. What hardened in James Dickey’s view of his father was not only the blood-sport but the figure of a man adrift, indifferent to the value in things, the consequences of action. When his grandfather died, Christopher Dickey writes, “barely a ripple passed through the family,” and what James Dickey confessed to wanting to do in verse (“obliterate” his father), old age in 1974 did for him in the flesh.

With Deliverance the movie in 1971, Dickey was well into opposite gear: obliteration of the poet. Behind the cameras he convincingly played a nuisance, and before the cameras he convincingly played a man of the law. The role of respectable author, with work in poetry and this in prose fully deserving our respect, he played with rather less distinction.

And so it went, on stage and off, for the next 25 years, depending on where and when you happened to catch Dickey in the act of being James Dickey: as man of letters, as man at the end of his tether, or as man in trouble juggling both.

That middle role – performed halfway or wholly bombed, alarmingly self-destructive, delusional, distrusting, manipulative, guilt-ridden but forcing those around him into repeated declarations of forgiveness – is a part Dickey played to the hilt, to the heartbreak of his wife and sons. It’s also what we’re treated to, in full-length portrait, in this book. It’s not a pretty picture and it turns downright dangerous when Maxine dies in 1976 (an alcoholic), when Dickey immediately turns to a woman “rougher than a night in jail,” three months younger than Christopher, and two months later the second Mrs. James Dickey (a violent cocaine freak), and when Christopher tries and does not succeed in keeping up with his father’s drinking, tries and does not succeed in bedding one of his father’s mistresses, marries at 18, fathers a son at 19, and tries and does succeed, against the odds, in building a career in journalism, first at The Washington Post and then as a foreign correspondent for Newsweek, where he elects to report from every hot-spot known to man (Nicaragua, El Salvador, Lebanon, Libya, Egypt) but one: underroof in South Carolina with James Dickey.

There is a final up-side to all this, and it comes in the two years Dickey had left to him (he died in January 1997 of pulmonary fibrosis complicated by alcoholic hepatitis) when the poet, fastened to an oxygen supply, cantankerous but sober, confronts himself in the company of a grateful, reconciled son.

On the majestic remarks made by Dickey before a class of students, his last, on their setting out as poets – remarks Christopher Dickey records in Summer of Deliverance as they were delivered – I have neither the heart nor the ability to reduce to paraphrase. Read them yourself, reread the poems, and reconsider what James Dickey, at his height, could make of “the creative possibilities of the lie.”

Memories • by Jackson Baker

On Experiencing the Dickeys

Fifteen years ago, almost to the week, I was in the (quite literally) embattled country of El Salvador, in the middle of one of those get-arounds that, if you work for the Congress, you call a “fact-finding” tour to distinguish it from a vacation.

One night at the bar of the Hotel Camino Real in San Salvador, I met the Washington Post’s Christopher Dickey, an alert, focused-looking man who, then in his early 30s, was making a reputation for himself as an authority on the then-raging civil wars and conflicts of Central America. Sipping fastidiously from his drink, Dickey told me what to expect in Nicaragua, then still ruled by a Sandinista junta and my next stop.

Disregard the Latin-flavored revolutionary hoopla, Dickey advised me, and look carefully for signs of the creeping Marxist-Leninist bureaucracy that in some ways had already begun to resemble that of Eastern Europe. Dickey was no Cold Warrior, just a careful observer, and I thought about his advice later on while at a politely regimented “model” prison farm and while on an overnight walkabout of Managua with some civil guardsmen doing surveillance on the houses of suspected counter-revolutionaries.

And all the while I reflected on the contrast between this quiet, sobersided Dickey and the one I had met in Memphis some years earlier, the incandescent James Dickey, whose poetry was visionary and – in more senses than one – super-fueled. It wasn’t until the other day when I picked up a copy of Summer of Deliverance that I realized they were father and son.

And it wasn’t until I read the book that I realized how tight the kinship was, not only between the two Dickeys but between the poet and the journalist as types. The operative phrase – as quoted of the father by the son – is, “Poetry comes when the utmost reality and the utmost strangeness coincide.”

I had encountered Dickey Sr. back in the spring of 1975 when he had come to Rhodes College (then Southwestern) as a featured participant in the college’s “Dilemma 75” series of seminars. I was teaching creative writing at the University of Memphis, and, some hours before Dickey was scheduled to give an evening reading at Southwestern, went with a colleague, Gordon Osing, down to the Midtown Holiday Inn where we’d heard the eminent poet was staying.

We knocked on the door of his room and, somewhat to our surprise, he came to the door right away and with a broad smile invited us in. We had earlier heard that Dickey had flown in that afternoon with a load on and had promptly gone to bed.

Whatever the case, he was alert and precise as could be as the rangy poet-cum-novelist-cum-aviator-cum-archer started getting dressed – in his trademark buckskin jacket and broad-brimmed Western-style hat – and invited us out to dinner, nay, informed us we were going out to eat.

We put our heads together and determined on the old Grisanti’s at Airways and Lamar. And it was there that Osing and I – accompanied now by my wife and his girlfriend and by Barbara Lust, our English Department colleague – had what I still regard as a peak experience. For two hours we supped and sipped with a man who was clearly master of both strangeness and reality.

In his best Atlanta drawl, he re-enacted for us scenes from the movie of his novel Deliverance and talked about poets and poetry and his late advertising career.

He dealt with us in the same way he discussed his peers, non-judgmentally and with generous attention. He actually heard what we said and responded in kind, listening always for the kernel of truth under the conversational chaff but giving the throwaway stuff some liberty, too. He knew how to flirt with other peoples’ wives and girlfriends – graciously, so that nobody felt vulnerable. His eagle eyes took in everything, and, as with any genius, his small talk seemed to redefine the world. He ate linguini and clam sauce and had, as each of the rest of us did, two drinks – count ’em, two. He paid the check himself. Then we drove him to his reading.

Later on, we found ourselves at the center of a short-lived local legend. We had “kidnapped” Dickey, Got Him Drunk. A local newspaper report suggested that he had “stumbled over words [and] repeated himself” at the reading when all he did was read (at my request) “Sleeping Out at Easter,” a driving, incantatory poem which employs the device of repetitive verses – notably in the haunting refrain, “For the king’s grave turns you to light.”

James Dickey, a king of letters, and of the magic-making space between letters and life, is in his grave now, but, as his journalist son records so vividly, and with his accustomed precision, can still turn you to light, and do it over and over again. We should all be so drunk.

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