California Literary Review

A Long Day’s Day with James Dickey

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March 26th, 2007 at 3:30 pm

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James Dickey

Some twenty years ago, my friend Milton Hebald, a sculptor who lived in Rome since the 1950s, visited. He was well on by then and naturally full of recollections of his youth, so it was a delight to hear him on events from the years when I was not yet ten myself. He had a duplex studio in lower Manhattan in the Depression’s WPA days, when he worked on statues for civic sites. One of his students was my own later friend, Elaine (née Fried) de Kooning, who he said would go upstairs with a young painter named Milton Resnick [d.2002], where they would rattle bedsprings overhead until the wee hours. Hebald laughed at the memory of their terrific fucking. Meanwhile, often enough, he would be up most of those same nights listening to Huddie Ledbetter, who played for hours and sang for a pint of rye and an armchair to sleep it off till morning. Milton heard him in his great years, and it was unforgettable. “Midnight Special, and “Take This Hammer,” “Rock Island Line,” “Boll Weevil,” “John Henry,” “Goodnight Irene,” “C C Rider” and what all else, songs that were popular during and after WW II with middle-class college students, mainly Jewish in New York, along with a peppering of Black males, like Jimmy Baldwin, and others from Harlem doing a socialist fox trot with yearning, radical Jewish girls, directed by the CP and various “Socialist” parties’ “youth leaders.” Such music and couplings were for authentic “folk” to admire, not the “masses” necessarily, but “the folk,” who might one day lead America to the just and classless society, everything else of course being “fascist,” including the Nazis, who were not Fascisti, but…Nazi. Whatever: Leadbelly was the real thing.

Pass over the decades of Hebald’s recollections to a later period. It must have been in 1969-1970 (I count by the academic calendar) that I met James Dickey. I had had him invited to read at UCLA. Whoever heard him read, will agree that he was masterly on the platform, all charm and power, skill and informal ease. When he stood on the platform of the small auditorium in UCLA’s Rolfe Hall, leaned over the lectern, grasping its front edge with both blonde, hairy-knuckled hands, as if to hold it, or himself in place, smiled out and down at a full house of perhaps 300, and commenced to work them over, it was easy and smooth from the first breath he took, though the reek of that breath wasn’t taken in from below.

It had already been a couple of days for me though. Only remnants of that time remain in memory today, a few moments and remarks, more or less vivid and lively. I can’t order the scenes that present themselves to me; so I’ll take them as they return.

I see us walking around the UCLA campus after a lunch at the Faculty Center, Dickey telling me what he had been long suffering with, some damned novel he got a big advance for, and had been hacking at for years. “It’s not like writing poetry at all,” he said, “There are these damn doors you have to open and close for your characters, chairs you have to get them into and out of, and those ‘he said’ and ‘she said,’ and all that moving them around and explaining the obvious to my reader. I hope I can finish it and get the hell out of it, and never try that sort of thing again — I mean, plotting and scenes and chapters and all that endless filler prose.”

I recall agreeing with him heartily, since I’d written short stories for years, and an anti-novel that I wouldn’t see any publisher ever risking to put out, since it was prose brut and altogether anti-literary. “Is that so?” he said. “In a word,” I told him what it was about — “Well, a quest for beauty…in the post-war Bronx.” “Mine’s about redneck hunters and murderers — you don’t hunt, I expect?” No, I didn’t hunt, and hadn’t any opinion about hunting or hunters either, not having been brought up to it — in the Bronx. “City feller,” Dickey grunted, throwing in a sibilant “Professor” now and then, as a sort of putdown, despite my reminding him more than once that I didn’t think that title was necessarily honorific, illustrating my point with an anecdote about the time Dylan Thomas had come to read at UCLA in the early ‘50s: trundling into a reception, tea and cakes, the Welsh angel turned yobbo, he’d said to the tall Tennessean in charge, one Majl Ewing (whose egregious snobbery was never earned), “Take off those tweeds, you English professor, you!” [Thomas was always rumpled in that filthy, much too-tight, too short over his enlarged bottom, Harris tweed, checkerboard coat; but he was a poet, whereas Ewing was, well, an improbable, unproductive head of the Department, a pretentious æsthete, who had in his latter years married a much older woman who gushed old Los Angeles oil money, a true lady named Carmelita Rosecrans.

I can hear Dickey’s, “Call me Jim!” — “Yes, well, if you call me Jascha” — “Okay, okay, Professor. Oops!” — that sly false Good Ol’ Boy snideness. I can see him in our backyard that bright afternoon when I brought him and Maxine to meet my wife. Drinks were passed out and we began our long day’s journey…. One thing he wanted to know right off was how come I hadn’t written to ask him for poems in that anthology I’d done [AMERICAN POEMS: A CONTEMPORARY COLLECTION, S. Illinois UP, 1964]. I had been worried about that when I signed up for it in 1959. My answer was easy: I’d decided to limit the poets represented in it, over a dozen, to writers under 40, and that selection was made by 1960, some years before the book finally came out. He was too well-known known by then, and too successful to need help from any anthology, I told him. He took that answer, mollified; but it didn’t satisfy him. Maybe it was true; but so what? He wanted in on principle. Well, so would any of us: who likes to be left out, no matter what rationale?

He was rather too-loud energy after that exchange, uncomfortably groping for a way to talk to us easily, who were a decade younger, if not more. When he spotted a butt set up against our garage wall at the end of the driveway, Jim immediately asked who practiced archery here? I said I had for the hell of it bought a big reflex bow made of rosewood on sale because it was a second on account of some gnarls in the grain, so as to do something with my son now and then by way of easy sport. “Deer hunting, that’s the great thing! I’m licensed for bow hunting; it’s the only way to get a real kick. Shooting’s for lazy fellers; no sport at all. Get that bow out and let’s see what’s what.” I did, and he began to instruct me how to string the damn thing, which had an 80lb. pull. “Damn! You could kill bear with that bow! Can you draw it?” I could, if only for target practice at 40 paces. Dickey let me get my leg round it to string it, instructing me on how to do something so simple. I knew that much at least, even if I was just 39 to his 45, but he was a veteran of WWII and Coca Cola’s PR department, so he had the right to instruct a po’ city feller like me. “Who do you think made Coke famous everywhere after the war?” he said. “I did! I wrote the finest ad slogan ever: The pause that refreshes!” He seemed disappointed that neither my wife nor I genuflected, since we’d never even had a bottle of the stuff in the house — worse, at 39 I could count on the fingers of one hand how many Cokes I opened in my life! “Boy, you tell me now whatever do you drink when it’s hot?!” I sang him the Pepsi jingle I knew from the mid-1930s: …12 full ounces/That’s a lot/Twice as much for a nickel, too//Pepsi Cola is the drink for you…! I read his expression clearly enough: Cheapskate Northerner (subtext: Jewboy). We fooled around putting a couple of arrows each into the rings. When he asked my wife to take a turn, she told him she preferred not to, since she was still chary of putting her back out again: she’d had an arduous recovery from a bad horseback jolting two years earlier.

“Where’d you hurt yourself, honey?” he asked her, as we stood by the butt comparing hits. My wife motioned at her lower back, and he declared, “Why, that’s just where I put mine out in the woods last year. Here, lemme see! Without so much as a By-your-leave, Ma’am, he zipped her dress down to the small of her back and started pressing at vertebrae with his thumbs, working his way down from the waist to the cleft of her buttocks. Embarrassed, she stood stock still and tolerated his groping, “No, no, no; yes, there!” “Just where I got hurt too, deer-huntin’, honey!” he said. “Lemmee see if I can help relieve you of …” “Thanks but no thanks, it’s all right just now,” she said, and asked him to pull that zipper up, which he did with that salacious and boyish grin he had. There was gin and tonic; the afternoon drifted into dusk when it was time to drive to the restaurant. Of that meal, I recollect only the faux kitsch, highbacked, green-leathered chairs where we sat looking down at Wilshire Boulevard.

And oh, yes, somehow, while we fiddled with changing bowstrings and all, our women seated beneath the umbrella on the deck, Dickey said something about writing colonies, apropos of a long story of mine, the title piece of my first collection, which I told him I’d written at Yaddo (“An Egyptian Bondage”). “Ah yes,” he whispered to me, ”I spent one helluva long night wrassling all over the floor of a room there with one terrific Jew gal. You know Susan Sontag?” “Personally, no, I never met her, though I’ve read her.” “Well, that novel,” he chortled, “that opening with the ‘rape,’ as she called it, in the abandoned railway tunnel? That was me! That shadow man; that spook; that brute. None other than Jim Dickey! One helluva a long night that was, boy, lemmee tell you!”

It didn’t surprise me to hear that gloss to her crude and nasty second novel, DEATH KIT. Whether it actually happened one night at Yaddo or the McDowell Colony was possible. But, to conjure up to my mind’s eye Sontag, together with redneck Dickey, to visualize them smashed and rolling around all night wrassling on the floor? He sounded mighty proud of his “conquest,” it’s having been a tough challenge to take on that horse-faced “Jewess dyke,” Maybe that was swagger; maybe not. Had his back troubles actually started there and then?

That summer a poet named Robert Sward had turned up with a young second wife. They rented a cottage hanging over the water on the Pacific Coast Highway strip on the way to Malibu. He’d been referred to me by someone back East. I invited them over for drinks and hors d’s the night of Jim’s reading, along with another poet from Pasadena, the first-rate and much neglected, Henri Coulette [long dead now]. When Dickey and Maxine drove up, Sward came out carrying a guitar case. We were nonplussed, as yet unaware of Dickey, the moaning, cracked baritone of the Deep South.

We had our drinks and an hour of uncomfortable chat. The four of us tried to maintain our composure against the force Dickey radiated. He was still quite up after the fine long reading, he’d presented, and lots of encores of requests for more poems. It was also amusing to watch him attempt, looking around at our walls, to come to terms with things he hadn’t much acquaintance with on the road, some paintings and graphics were different from what he may have expected, especially a strong work by Elaine de Kooning. That occasioned some talk about Art and the New York post-war scene, where such things mattered a lot, and at that time a lot more than poetry did, at least his kind. Coulette, a native of Los Angeles, but also a fiercely proud, self-respecting veteran, had no anxieties concerning North/South, East/West, which were all-too evident in Dickey. Apparently, and from what he said, he must have felt that Madison Avenue, where he’d done well enough — if not in the same gang with the Atheneum-published writers the poetry editor there pushed or the Iowa City writers, who themselves had a good thing going for their cronies — still would never merit equal cachet so far as critics and reviewers were concerned, not for one of his desperate ambition. Dickey, a sophisticated and well-read man, would play redneck. Maxine’s reserved chagrin, as she watched him out of the corner of her eye while she talked with my wife on the couch across the room, was marked that evening, although she was long used to his public persona. Their scene needed a lot of booze to keep it running.

Sward sat himself down at Dickey’s feet, when he took the commanding butterfly-wing armchair at the far end of the room by the fireplace, his guitar out of its case propped against his thigh. Sward was sucking up to him in the most disgusting way from the first moment, acting as if he were alone with him there in that room with eight people. Any one who has met Robert Sward will have recognized his single aim in life, which is Sward and Sward alone. It was laughable to watch him at work, as though he was playing the young Ann Baxter in ALL ABOUT EVE. He was sober too, sticking to soda — that night anyway. Notwithstanding, Coulette and I started and stayed with our Irish whiskey, always exhilarating, leaving the Jim Beam to the Jim Dickey. The bourbon enhanced what had been intuitively my impression of the man from the first: Dickey was a sensitive man, high-strung, as the old way of putting it goes; yet gradually what what emerged was a deeply suspicious, a paranoidal character, Meaning no perjoration by that term: it takes one to know one. Defenses a mile high, in short.

Soon enough, partly to show off to Sward and partly to prevent any conversation, he took up his “geetarr” and with a mischievous twinkle in his eye asked permission to play a few of his favorites, which we of course we wouldn’t know, as for instance … Huddie Ledbetter?

Well, of course, Leadbelly had been in our repertoire through adolescence , even if our affiliation with that music was scarcely the same as his deep, good old-boy Georgia thang. We’d sung those songs from the Lomax recordings, from their performances by Woody Guthrie during rallies in the war years, along with the YPSLs and the YCLs of the post-War period. I once had an overdose of them on the long train ride up from D.C., that time the CP had bought dozens of tickets and handed them out in my Bronx neighborhood, urging kids to go down to join the masses at the Lincoln monument to hear Marian Anderson sing. The CP troubadours had girls in the last car at their knees and on their knees; so none of us who went along in hopes of a pickup had a chance to slip a hand under one of those enthusiastic skirts.

Sward chanted and hummed offkey, chorusing to him. All that diddling about which key Dickey should play in, who would sing refrain, simply drove Coulette and me away into the kitchen, where we stood facing one another over the island, while putting down “jar” upon “jar” of Irish..

We were of one mind: it was impossible to remain in that room with those two bards of “authentic” folk music, music they rendered pretty dismally for hours.

And that was that. They left at last, Hank Coulette staggering out to be driven home to Pasadena by his wife, Sward and wife driving off up to Malibu, and Maxine, polite and contained, embracing my wife while Jim packed his ”box” away. “Round about midnight.” We must have shaken hands, whether warmly or not, I don’t recall, though I recollect he avoided my eyes, whether out of polite rage at Coulette’s and my absence during his two hours of performance, or haste to get off and away from a failure to captivate and enthrall us worse than unsociable drinkers. Dickey seemed to have thought he was obliged to sing for his supper and drinks, and was good enough to get from us the same respect for his miserable Leadbelly imitations we had shown for his poetry. Perhaps he was disappointed to find it was stuff we had known once long ago and far away.

In the years after that weekend whenever I lectured on his poetry, I had his image and his grin before my mind’s eye, an image he himself had designed like a ghostly watermark for the dustjacket of one of his books. I tried to answer the bafflement of students about this writer’s “poetical character” by discoursing on what I thought truly the case, though I have not come across it in commentary. I think that au fond the essential nature to be glimpsed in and through his best writings is demoniacal. I think of Dickey as demonistic, the essence of his poetry demonic. This has nothing to do with the use of the word in the Christian sense, nothing at all. That there is a demonic force exhibited in certain persons, and certain famous writers, I have no doubt: it is not however a diabolic force, not of the party of the Devil, who is not … or if he is present, only in the sense that He is not. One early clue may be found in “The Heaven of Animals.” What brought me to my view was his late poem, “Falling,” which is in every sense of the term fundamentally obscene, fine as it is. Nowadays such words as ‘obscene’ or ‘demonic’ have little meaning in any literary or moral or philosophical sense, since our time is thoroughly debased and everywhere confused, compared with, say, such a hard but clear, and yes, noble, period as that of the 18th Century in England, or the 17th in France, speaking literarily. But I hope that it may still mean something to characterize disinterestedly and contemplate some of the best work of James Dickey, and this writer’s essence, in the æsthetic sense, as “obscene” and “demonic.” It is not necessary to enter Dickey under some moral category. It is only necessary to see what of himself he revealed. And as for the “moral category,” that stewardess who was sucked out of the jet plane in “Falling,” and slowly stripped, as it were leeringly, while she fell from 30,000 feet, only to be found by a farmer the next morning, flat on her back and naked in a Midwest cornfield, might well have been his exploitation of deepest remorse, and perhaps even his acknowledgment of guilt. Maxine had been a stewardess herself once, and Maxine had, living with Jim Dickey, become, or perforce been turned into, an alcoholic, patient, beautiful always, and profoundly sad.

  • Sam Bluefarb

    Dear Jascha Kessler: In an attempt to sift through some of the silt of the past–old (late) professors, college pals–I ran across yr essay on James Dickey. What initially gave me pause was an item in the search-engine which mentions the late Majl Ewing, head of the English Dept. when I was a student at UCLA,’48-’51 and a student of Ewing’s–his two semester course in English prose. I was sorry to see the invidious comparison between Ewing and professional poet James Dicky. Yes, Ewing made no great breakthrough to scholarship or esthetics, but in that respect, he was no different from 1000s of other academics. I knew Ewing as a student, so my biased view of him is perhaps not less so than yours. When I had to interrupt my studies to go into the Long Beach vets hospital for a service-connected condition, he was the soul of compassion, and let me take my senior semester final exam in his office before exam time. To me, he was always the courtly, old-line gentleman–as opposed to the shrill radical ideologues of today’s academy. My encomium and (belated) eulogy to him appeared in the Daily Bruin some years ago. I have a copy somewhere, but have mislaid it. But if Bruin’s archives are on disk, as I suspect they are, if interested, you should have no problem in locating it. I also mention him in my self-published memoir “Odyssey: 1945-70″ which, unlike my other work, was never trade published, tho I may have sent a copy to UCLA’s Grad. Library. Since this format doesn’t allow me to paste a passage, I’ll copy it out–if not prevented by the limitations of this e-mail format: “Once, years after I graduated from UCLA, I dropped in to visit one of my old professors, the late Majl Ewing….I confessed to feeling twinges of guilt at having elected to take my Master’s degree at…USC. [His] response–he had an elegant Southern way about him–was gracious. ‘Please do not feel at all guilty, Mr. Bluefarb. Our loyalt[ies] should not so much be to our schools, but to our profession.'”
    –Sam Bluefarb

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