The Burden of James Dickey

SUMMER OF DELIVERANCE: A Memoir of Father and Son

JAMES Dickey was hugely gifted and hugely flawed, a tremendous reader and a born writer, an athlete and an intellectual, a deep thinker and a drinker, a composer of burly and extremist poetry, an excessive performer, a hopeless liar, an inveterate womanizer, a father who gave himself airs. This furnished much for a son, especially a talented son, to flee from. Christopher Dickey writes,

The whisky on my father's breath, a smell that seemed to come from deep in the bellows of his lungs, started to frighten me.... I'd smell the whisky and know that whatever I said to him would go past him and whatever he replied would be words spoken to the air. He was my father still, but he was somebody I didn't know.

Though Summer of Deliverance tells more than other books are likely to about the life and death of James Dickey, it should be even better appreciated for what it achieves in telling the truth about the ways a son gives meaning to the weight of a father -- Aeneas carrying Anchises out of burning Troy. American southerners somehow understand more about the truth of the past than northerners do; perhaps because, like William Faulkner, they know that "the past is never dead. It's not even past," and consequently know how to tell us more-resonant stories. Christopher Dickey's book is southern in that it inhabits the past and the present at once: "Was I the grown man talking to his aged father, or the little boy talking to his dad?" Various observers have for years been preparing to write about the life and work of James Dickey, but those who admired his talent -- or the best of his talent -- have doubtless been facing that eventuality with a sinking feeling. Much of the redemptive job of biography has now been done by the poet's elder son.

James Dickey seemed to come out of nowhere in the 1960s, arriving in a flood of poetry -- strange, exalted verse stories. The poems in Drowning With Others (1962), Helmets (1964), and Buckdancer's Choice (which deservedly won the National Book Award in 1966) may have strutted like someone wearing elevator shoes, but they soon justified themselves in the way they set forth one self after another, against the backdrops of war, of lust and growth, of a southern landscape dripping with anticipation. In Poems 1957-1967, Dickey's roaring poems took on various personae: an adulterer, a frenzied pilot, a panther, a sex fiend, a country preacher, and a guitar player. In such fierce lyrics as "Kudzu," "Cherrylog Road," "The Sheep Child," and "Adultery," and on larger canvases like "The Fiend," "Falling," "The Firebombing," and "May Day Sermon," Dickey seemed to be pushing at the frontiers of poetic narrative. In 1967 The Atlantic Monthly published an article in which I compared, with certain reservations, Dickey's poetic stature to that of Robert Lowell, the reigning influence for many of the younger poets of the time.

When, in 1970, Dickey published his first novel, Deliverance, he seemed yet again to be stretching the sort of writing a poet could manage to do. Deliverance was excerpted in The Atlantic, and that macho tale of four middle-class Atlantan males embarked on an unpredictably perilous weekend canoe trip down a wild river in Georgia became one of the runaway best sellers of its year. Soon afterward it was made into a movie -- a star vehicle for Burt Reynolds and a smash hit. But although numerous James Dickey books were published over the next twenty-five years, neither Dickey's poems nor his subsequent novels, Alnilam (1987) and To the White Sea (1993), ever achieved the same level of quality.

tells Christopher Dickey's story of both men, father and son, with an unflinching rigor that most such stories never attain. The challenge of the truth about the poet estranged the younger from the older man, yet in the end, when the son had grown into his forties and the father had descended into his seventies and was dying, they both rose to meet it. There remained, after all, enough love between them to survive all the enmities that must separate father and son. As Christopher writes, "Even when I fled him, I missed him."

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Peter Davison was The Atlantic's longtime poetry editor.

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