Guest poem submitted by David Wright. Note that the second half of the poem, beginning with 'I am here', should be in italics.
(Poem #507) The Sheep-Child
Farm boys wild to couple With anything with soft-wooded trees With mounds of earth mounds Of pine straw will keep themselves off Animals by legends of their own: In the hay-tunnel dark And dung of barns, they will Say I have heard tell That in a museum in Atlanta Way back in a corner somewhere There's this thing that's only half Sheep like a woolly baby Pickled in alcohol because Those things can't live his eyes Are open but you can't stand to look I heard from somebody who ... But this is now almost all Gone. The boys have taken Their own true wives in the city, The sheep are safe in the west hill Pasture but we who were born there Still are not sure. Are we, Because we remember, remembered In the terrible dust of museums? Merely with his eyes, the sheep-child may Be saying saying I am here, in my father's house. I who am half of your world, came deeply To my mother in the long grass Of the west pasture, where she stood like moonlight Listening for foxes. It was something like love From another world that seized her From behind, and she gave, not Iifting her head Out of dew, without ever looking, her best Self to that great need. Turned loose, she dipped her face Farther into the chill of the earth, and in a sound Of sobbing of something stumbling Away, began, as she must do, To carry me. I woke, dying, In the summer sun of the hillside, with my eyes Far more than human. I saw for a blazing moment The great grassy world from both sides, Man and beast in the round of their need, And the hill wind stirred in my wool, My hoof and my hand clasped each other, I ate my one meal Of milk, and died Staring. From dark grass I came straight To my father's house, whose dust Whirls up in the halls for no reason When no one comes piling deep in a hellish mild corner, And, through my immortal waters, I meet the sun's grains eye To eye, and they fail at my closet of glass. Dead, I am most surely living In the minds of farm boys: I am he who drives Them like wolves from the hound bitch and calf And from the chaste ewe in the wind. They go into woods into bean fields they go Deep into their known right hands. Dreaming of me, They groan they wait they suffer Themselves, they marry, they raise their kind.
My first brush with this strange and haunting poem was to hear it read aloud by a professor, not of literature, but of theater. Every now and then I'll remember it, like some dimly recalled story or episode from my own youth. (No, I never went near the sheep. I'm a city boy.) Much of the poem's appeal for me lies in its eerie narrative pull, the sort of ghastly shocker that reads well late at night by a campfire. There is an irrepressible element of ghoulish fun here, the pull of a freak show. It is such a terse distillation of Southern gothic grotesquery, an etude that evokes all the dark themes of Faulkner's symphonic works. The poem's procreative lushness, the ruined Eden, the struggling clasp of man against nature, including his own, and the grim fixation on miscegenation, are the same forces that drive Light in August. Amid all this rankness, there is a moment of blessedness, the remembered instant of life, which reminds me of an old metaphor for life: a night bird that flies in one window, dazzled with the light and show of the house, and straight out the facing window, into night again. (Samuel Beckett's has a darker version: 'We are born astride a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps.') James Dickey is best known for his novel Deliverance, or rather, the movie of that novel. You can hear a recording of Dickey reading the poem at http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/poetry/dickey/sheep.htm He reflects here that "I don't know what other defects or virtues this poem might have, but I think it can hardly be faulted from the standpoint of originality of viewpoint". Indeed! If anyone else knows of a poem narrated by a pickled monster, I'd love to hear about it. A few brief essays on the poem can be found at http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/dickey/sheep.htm There is a nice set of links at http://james.dickey.com/. David Wright.