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A P R I L   1 9 6 7

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MAY DAY SERMON TO THE WOMEN OF GILMER COUNTY BY A LADY PREACHER LEAVING THE BAPTIST CHURCH

by James Dickey



Also by James Dickey:
For the Last Wolverine (1966)
The Sheep-Child (1966)


Return to James Dickey in The Atlantic.


Return to:
An Audible Anthology
Poetry Pages

Each year at this time I shall be telling you of the Lord
-- Fog, gamecock, snake, and neighbor -- giving men all the help they need
To drag their daughters into barns. Children, I shall be showing you
The fox-hide stretched on the door     like a flying-squirrel     fly
Open     to show you the dark where the one pole of light is paid out
In spring by the loft, and in it the croker sacks sprawling and shuttling
Themselves into place as it comes     comes     through spiders dead
Drunk on their threads     the hogs' fat bristling     the milk
Snake in the rafters unbending through gnats to touch the last place
Alive on the sun with his tongue     I shall be flickering from my mouth
Oil     grease-cans     lard-cans     nubbins     cobs     night
Coming     floating     each May with night coming I cannot help
Telling you how he hauls her to the centerpole     how the tractor moves
Over as he sets his feet and hauls     hauls     ravels her arms and hair
In stump-chains:   Telling:   telling of Jehovah come and gone
Down on His belly     descending     creek-curving     blowing His legs

Like candles, out     putting North Georgia copper on His head
To crawl in under the door in dust red enough to breathe
The breath of Adam into:   Children, be brought where she screams and begs
To the sacks of corn and coal     to nails     to the swelling ticks
On the near side of mules, for the Lord's own man has found the limp
Rubber that lies in the gulley     the penis-skin like a serpent
Under the weaving willow.
                                            Listen:   often a girl in the country,
Mostly sweating     mostly in spring, deep enough in the holy Bible
Belt, will feel her hair rise up     arms rise, and this not any wish

Of hers, and clothes like lint shredding off her     abominations
In the sight of the Lord:   will hear the Book speak like a father
Gone mad:   each year at this time will hear the utmost sound
Of herself, as her lungs cut, one after one, every long track
Spiders have coaxed from their guts     stunned spiders fall
Into Pandemonium     fall     fall     and begin to dance like a girl
On the red clay floor of Hell     she screaming     her father screaming
Scripture     CHAPter and verse     beating it into her with a weeping
Willow branch     the animals stomping     she prancing and climbing
Her hair     beasts shifting from foot to foot about the stormed
Steel of the anvil     the tractor gaslessly straining     believing
It must pull up a stump     pull     pull down the walls of the barn
Like Dagon's temple     set the Ark of the Lord in its place     change all
Things for good, by pain.   Each year at this time you will be looking up
Gnats in the air     they boil     recombine     go mad with striving
To form the face of her lover, as when he lay at Nickajack Creek
With her by his motorcycle     looming     face trembling with exhaust
Fumes     humming insanely -- each May you hear her father scream like God
And King James as he flails     cuds richen     bulls chew themselves white-faced
Deeper into their feed bags, and he cries something the Lord     cries
Words! Words! Ah, when they leap     when they are let out of the Bible's
Black box     they whistle     they grab the nearest girl and do her hair up
For her lover in root-breaking chains     and she knows she was born to hang
In the middle of Gilmer County     to dance, on May Day, with holy
Words all around her     with beasts with insects     O children NOW
In five bags of chicken-feed the torsos of prophets form     writhe
Die out as her freckled flesh     as flesh and the Devil twist and turn
Her body to love     cram her mouth with defiance     give her words
To battle with the Bible's in the air:  she shrieks sweet Jesus and God

I'm glad     O my God-darling     O lover     O angel-stud     dear heart
Of life put it in me     give     you're killing     KILLING:  each
Night each year at this time I shall be telling you of the snake-
doctor drifting from the loft, a dragonfly, where she is wringing
Out the tractor's muddy chains     where her cotton socks prance,
Where her shoes as though one ankle were broken, stand with night
Coming     and creatures drawn by the stars, out of their high holes
By moon-hunger driven     part the leaves     crawl out of Grimes Nose
And Brasstown Bald:  on this night only I can tell how the weasel pauses
Each year in the middle of the road     looks up at the evening blue
Star     to hear her say again     O again     YOU CAN BEAT ME TO DEATH
And I'll still be glad:
                                 Sisters, it is time to show you rust
Smashing the lard-cans more in     spring after spring     bullbats
Swifts     barn swallows     mule-bits clashing on walls     mist turning
Up white out of warm creeks:  all over, fog taking the soul from the body
Of water     gaining     rising up trees     sifting up through smoking green
Frenzied levels of gamecocks sleeping from the roots     stream-curves
Of mist:  wherever on God's land is water, roads rise up the shape of rivers
Of no return:  O sisters, it is time     you cannot sleep with Jehovah

Searching for what to be, on ground that has called Him from His Book:  
Shall He be the pain in the willow, or the copperhead's kingly riding
In kudzu, growing with vines toward the cows     or the wild face working over
A virgin, swarming like gnats     or the grass of the west field, bending
East, to sweep into bags and turn brown     or shall He rise, white on white,
From Nickajack Creek as a road?  The barn creaks like an Ark     beasts
Smell everywhere the streams drawn out by their souls     the flood-
sigh of grass in the spring     they shall be saved     they know as she screams
Of sin     as the weasel stares     the hog strains toward the woods
That hold its primeval powers:
                                                 Often a girl in the country will find herself
Dancing with God in a mule's eye, twilight drifting in straws from the dark
Overhead of hay     cows working their sprained jaws sideways at the hour
Of night all things are called:   when gnats in their own midst and fury
Of swarming-time, crowd into the barn     their sixty-year day consumed
In this sunset     die in a great face of light that swarms and screams
Of love.
                Each May you will crouch like a sawhorse to make yourself
More here     you will be cow-chips     chickens croaking for her hands
That shook the corn over the ground     bouncing     kicked this way
And that, by the many beaks     and every last one of you will groan
Like nails barely holding     and your hair be full of the gray
Glints of stump-chains.     Children, each year at this time you will have
Back-pain, but also heaven     but also     also this lovely other life-
pain between the thighs:  woman-child or woman in bed in Gilmer
County     smiling in sleep like blood-beast and Venus together
Dancing the road as I speak, get up     up in your socks and take
The pain you were born for:   that rose through her body straight
Up from the earth like a plant, like the process that raised overhead
The limbs of the uninjured willow.
                                                        Children, it is true
That the kudzu advances, its copperheads drunk and tremendous
With hiding, toward the cows     and wild fences cannot hold the string
Beans as they overshoot their fields:   that in May the weasel loves love
As much as blood     that in the dusk bottoms young deer stand half
In existence, munching cornshucks     true that when the wind blows
Right     Nickajack releases its mist     the willow leaves stiffen once
More     altogether     you can hear     each year at this time you can hear
No     Now, no     Now     Yes     Again     More     O     O my God     
I love it     love you     don't leave     don't     don't stop O GLORY
Be:
      More dark     more coming     fox-fire crawls over the okra-
patch     as through it a real fox creeps to claim his father's fur
Flying on doornails     the quartermoon on the outhouse begins to shine
With the quartermoonlight of this night     as she falls and rises,
Chained to a sapling like a tractor     WHIPPED for the wind in the willow
Tree     WHIPPED for Bathsheba and David     WHIPPED for the woman taken
Anywhere     anytime     WHIPPED for the virgin sighing     bleeding
From her body     for the sap and green of the year     for her own good
And evil:
               Sisters, who is your lover?   Has he done nothing but come
And go?   Has your father nailed his cast skin to the wall as evidence
Of sin?   Is it flying like a fox in the darkness     dripping pure radiant venom
Of manhood?  
                         Yes, but heis unreeling in hills between his long legs
The concrete of the highway     his face in the moon beginning
To burn     twitch     dance like an overhead swarm     he feels a nail
Beat through his loins far away     he rises in pain and delight, as spirit
Enters his sex     sways     forms     rises with the forced, choked red
Blood of her red-headed image, in the red-dust, Adam-colored clay
Whirling and leaping     creating     calling:  O on the dim, gray man-
track of cement flowing into his mouth     each year he turns the moon back
Around on his handlebars     her image going all over him like the wind
Blasting up his sleeves.   He turns off the highway, and
                                                                                          Ah, children,
There is now something else to hear:  there is now this madness of engine
Noise in the bushes     past reason     ungodly     squealing     reverting
Like a hog turned loose in the woods     Yes, as he passes the first
Trees of God's land     game-hens overhead     and the farm is ON
Him     everything is more     more     MORE as he enters the black
Bible's white swirling ground     O daughters     his heartbeat great
With trees     some blue leaves coming     NOW     and right away fire
In the right eye     Lord     more     MORE     O Glory     land
Of Glory:  ground-branches hard to get through     coops where fryers huddle
To death, as the star-beast dances and scratches at their home-boards,
His rubber stiffens on its nails:  Sisters, understand about men and sheaths:

About nakedness:  understand how butterflies, amazed, pass out
Of their natal silks     how the tight snake takes a great breath     bursts
Through himself and leaves himself behind     how a man casts finally
Off everything that shields him from another     beholds his loins
Shine with his children forever     burn with the very juice
Of resurrection:  such shining is how the spring creek comes
Forth from its sunken rocks     it is how the trout foams and turns on     
Himself     heads upstream, breathing mist like water, for the cold
Mountain of his birth     flowing     sliding in and through the ego-
maniacal sleep of gamecocks     shooting past a man with one new blind
Side     who feels his skinned penis rise like a fish through the dark
Woods, in a strange lifted-loving form     a snake about to burst
Through itself on May Day     and leave behind on the ground     still
Still     the shape of a fooled thing's body:
                                                                   he comes on     comes
Through the laurel, wiped out on his right by an eye-twig     now he
Is crossing the cow track     his hat in his hand going on before
His face     then up     slowly over     over like the Carolina moon
Coming into Georgia     feels the farm close its Bible and ground-
fog over him     his dark side blazing     something whipping
By, beyond sight:   each year at this time I shall be letting you

Know when she cannot stand     when the chains fall back on
To the tractor     when you should get up     when neither she nor the pole
Has any more sap     and her striped arms and red hair must keep her
From falling     when she feels God's willow laid on her, at last,
With no more pressure than hay, and she has finished crying to her lover's
Shifting face     and his hand when he gave it     placed it, unconsumed,
In her young burning bush.   Each year by dark she has learned

That home is to hang in     home is where your father cuts the baby
Fat from your flanks for the Lord, as you scream for the viny foreskin
Of the motorcycle rider.  Children, by dark     by now, when he drops
The dying branch and lets her down     when the red clay flats
Of her feet hit the earth     all things have heard -- fog, gamecock
Snake, and lover -- and we listen:  Listen children, for the fog to lift
The form of sluggish creeks into the air:   each spring, each creek
On the Lord's land flows in two     O sisters, lovers, flows in two
Places:   where it was, and in the low branches of pines where chickens
Sleep in mist     and that is where you will find roads floating free
Of the earth     winding     leading unbrokenly out of the farm of God
The father:
                   Each year at this time she is coming from the barn     she
Falls once, hair hurting her back     stumbles walking naked
With dignity     walks with no help to the house     lies face-down
In her room, burning     tuning in     hearing in the spun rust-
groan of bedsprings, his engine root and thunder like a pig,
Knowing who it is     must be     knowing that the face of gnats will wake,
In the woods, as a man:   there is nothing else this time of night
But her dream of having wheels between her legs:   tires, man,
Everything she can hold, pulsing together     her father walking
Reading     intoning     calling     his legs blown out by the ground-
fogging creeks of his land:  :  Listen     listen like females each year
In May     O glory     to the sound     the sound of your man gone wild
With love in the woods     let your nipples rise     and leave your feet
To hear:  This is when moths flutter in from the open, and Hell
Fire of the oil lamp shrivels them and     it is said
To her:   said like the Lord's voice trying to find a way
Outside the Bible     O sisters     O women and children who will be
Women of Gilmer County     you farm girls and Ellijay cotton mill
Girls, get up     each May Day     up in your socks     it is the father
Sound     going on about God     making, a hundred feet down,
The well beat its bucket like a gong:  she goes to the kitchen,
Stands with the inside grain of pinewood whirling on her like a cloud
Of wire     picks up a useful object     two     they are not themselves
Tonight     each hones itself as the moon does     new by phases
Of fog     floating unchanged into the house     coming atom
By atom     sheepswool     different smokes     breathed like the Word
Of nothing, round her seated father.   Often a girl in the country,
Mostly in spring     mostly bleeding     deep enough in the holy Bible
Belt     will feel her arms rise up     up     and this not any wish
Of hers     will stand, waiting for word.   O daughters, he is rambling
In Obadiah     the pride of thine heart hath deceived thee, thou
That dwelleth in the clefts of the rock, whose habitation is high
That saith in his heart     O daughters     who shall bring me down
To the ground?   And she comes down     putting her back into
The hatchet     often     often     he is brought down     laid out
Lashing     smoking     sucking wind:   Children, each year at this time
A girl will tend to take an ice pick in both hands     a lone pine
Needle     will hover     hover:  Children, each year at this time
Things happen quickly     and it is easy for a needle to pass
Through the eye of a man bound for Heaven she leaves it     naked goes
Without further sin through the house     floating in and out of all
Four rooms     comes onto the porch on cloud-feet     steps down and out
And around to the barn     pain changing     her old screams hanging
By the hair around her:   Children, in May, often a girl in the country
Will find herself lifting wood     her arms like hair rising up
To undo locks     raise latches     set gates aside     turn all things
Loose     shoo them out     shove     pull     O hogs are leaping ten
Million years back through fog     cows walking worriedly     passing out
Of the Ark     from stalls where God's voice cursed and mumbled
At milking-time     moving     moving     disappearing     drifting
In cloud     cows in the alders already lowing far off     no one
Can find them each year:  she comes back to the house and grabs double
Handfuls of clothes
                                  and her lover, with his one eye of amazing grace
Of sight, sees her coming as she was born     swirling     developing
Toward him     she hears him grunt     she hears him creaking
His saddle     dead-engined     she conjures one foot whole from the ground-
fog to climb him behind     he stands up     stomps     catches     roars
Blasts the leaves from a blinding twig     wheels     they blaze up
Together     she breathing to match him     her hands on his warm belly
His hard blood renewing like a snake     O now     now as he twists
His wrist, and takes off with their bodies:
                                                                   each May you will hear it
Said that the sun came as always     the sun of next day burned
Them off with the mist:   that when the river fell back on its bed
Of water     they fell from life     from limbs     they went with it
To Hell     three-eyed     in love, their legs around an engine, her arms
Around him.   But now, except for each year at this time, their sound
Has died:   except when the creek-bed thicks its mist     gives up
The white of its flow to the air     comes off     lifts into the pine-poles
Of May Day     comes back as you come awake in your socks and crotch-hair
On new-mooned nights of spring     I speak     you listen and the pines fill
With motorcycle sound as they rise, stoned out of their minds on the white
Lightning of fog     singing     the saddle bags full of her clothes
Flying     snagging     shoes hurling away     stockings grabbed-off
Unwinding and furling on twigs:   all we know     all we could follow
Them by was her underwear     was stocking after stocking where it tore
Away, and a long slip stretched on a thorn     all these few gave
Out.   Children, you know it:   that place was where they took
Off into the air     died     disappeared     entered my mouth     your mind
Each year     each pale, curved breath     each year as she holds him
Closer wherever he hurtles     taking her     taking her     she going forever
Where he goes     with the highways of rivers     through one-eyed
Twigs     through clouds of chickens     and grass with them bends
Double     the animals lift their heads     peanuts and beans exchange
Shells in joy     joy like the speed of the body and rock-bottom
Joy:   joy by which the creek-bed appeared to bear them out of the Bible
's farm     through pine-clouds of gamecocks where no earthly track
Is, but those risen out of warm currents     streams born to hang
In the pines of Nickajack Creek:  tonight her hands are under
His crackling jacket     the pain in her back enough to go through
Them both     her buttocks blazing in the sheepskin saddle:   tell those

Who look for them     who follow by rayon stockings     who look on human
Highways     on tracks of cement and gravel     black weeping roads
Of tar:  tell them that she and her rider have taken no dirt
Nor any paved road     no path for cattle     no county trunk or trail
Or any track upon earth, but have roared like a hog on May Day
Through pines and willows:  that when he met the insane vine
Of the scuppernong     he tilted his handlebars back and took
The road that rises in the cold mountain spring from warm creeks:
O women in your rayon from Lindale, I shall be telling you to go
To Hell     by cloud     down where the chicken-walk is running
To weeds     and anyone can show you where the tire-marks gave out
And her last stocking was cast     and you stand as still as a weasel
Under Venus     before you dance     dance yourself blue with blood-
joy looking into the limbs     looking up into where they rode
Through cocks tightening roots with their sleep-claws. Children,
They are gone:  gone as the owl rises, when God takes the stone
Blind sun off its eyes, and it sees     sees hurtle in the utter dark
Gold of its sight, a boy and a girl buried deep in the cloud
Of their speed     drunk, children     drunk with pain and the throttle
Wide open, in love     with a mindless sound     with her red hair
In the wind streaming gladly for them both     more than gladly
As the barn settles under the weight of its pain     the stalls fill once
More with trampling like Exodus     the snake-doctor gone the rats beginning
On the last beans     and all the chicks she fed, each year at this time
Burst from their eggs as she passes:
                                                          Children, it is true that mice
No longer bunch on the rafters, but wade the fields like the moon,
Shifting in patches     ravenous     the horse floats, smoking with flies,
To the water-trough     coming back less often     learning to make
Do with the flowing drink of deer     the mountain standing     cold
Flowing into his mouth     grass underfoot     dew     horse or what
ever he is now     moves back into trees where the bull walks
With a male light spread between his horns     some say screams like a girl
And her father yelling together:
                                                   Ah, this night in the dark laurel
Green of the quartermoon I shall be telling you that the creek's last
Ascension is the same     is made of water and air     heat and cold
This year as before:   telling you not to believe every scream you hear
Is the Bible's:  it may be you or me     it may be her sinful barn-
howling for the serpent, as her father whips her, using the tried
And true rhythms of the Lord.   Sisters, an old man at times like this
Moon, is always being found     yes found with an ice pick on his mind,
A willow limb in his hand.   By now, the night-moths have come
Have taken his Bible and read it     have flown, dissolved, having found
Nothing in it for them.   I shall be telling you each moon     each
Year at this time, Venus rises     the weasel goes mad at the death
In the egg, of the chicks she fed for him by hand:  mad in the middle
Of human space he dances     blue-eyed     dances with Venus rising
Like blood-lust over the road     O tell your daughters     tell them
That the creek's ghost can still     O still can carry double
Weight of true lovers     any time     any night as the wild turkeys claw
Into the old pines of gamecocks, and with a cow's tongue, the Bible calls
For its own, and is not heard     and even God's unsettled great white father
head with its ear to the ground, cannot hear     know     cannot pick
Up where they are     where her red hair is streaming through the white
Hairs of His centerless breast:  with the moon     He cries with the cow all
Its life penned up with Noah in the barn     talk of original
Sin as the milk spurts     talk of women     talk of judgment and flood
And the promised land:
                                      Telling on May Day, children:  telling
That the animals are saved without rain that they are long gone
From here     gone with the sun     gone with the woman taken
In speed     gone with the one-eyed mechanic     that the barn falls in
Like Jericho at the bull's voice     at the weasel's dance     at the hog's
Primeval squeal     the uncut hay walks when the wind prophesies in the west
Pasture the animals move     roam, with kudzu creating all the earth
East of the hayfield:  Listen:  each year at this time the county speaks
With its beasts and sinners     with its blood     the county speaks of nothing
Else each year at this time:  speaks as beasts speak to themselves
Of holiness learned in the barn: Listen     O daughters     turn     turn
In your sleep     rise with your backs on fire     in spring     in your socks
Into the arms of your lovers:   every last one of you, listen one-eyed
With your man     in hiding     in fog where the animals walk through
The white breast of the Lord     muttering     walk with nothing
To do but be     in the spring laurel in the mist and self-sharpened
Moon     walk through the resurrected creeks     through the Lord
At their own pace     the cow shuts its mouth and the Bible is still
Still open at anything     we are gone the barn     wanders over the earth.



Copyright © 1967 by James Dickey. All rights reserved. By permission of the Literary Estate of James Dickey.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 1967; May Day Sermon to the Women of Gilmer County by a Lady Preacher Leaving the Baptist Church; page 90-97.

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