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The Sheep-Child -- James Dickey

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.
-- James Dickey
     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  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

There is a nice set of links at

David Wright.

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