“I want a fever, in poetry: a fever, and tranquillity.” — poet James Dickey

How does one achieve a fever AND tranquility at the same time? Aren’t the two mutually exclusive? Or are they? Maybe when the fever is really high, tranquility finally comes, like those feverishly exhausted people languishing in the mountaintop sanitarium in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. I chose the quote as the title for James Dickey’s birthday-post because I find it so intriguing and unexpected. I keep wondering what he means, and I like artists who make me wonder about things.

James Dickey is probably most well-known for his novel Deliverance – but even there, it was really the film of said book that made him a household name. Dickey wrote the screenplay for the 1972 film as well, and was nominated for a Golden Globe as well as a Writer’s Guild Award. He even played a small part in the film. The whole thing made him very very famous. Deliverance has seeped into the American consciousness. Or maybe it’s just the images from the film that are in our consciousness.

Speaking of “images in our consciousness”, the cover design for the first edition is genius.

Dickey tapped into a wellspring of horror and anxiety – specifically male horror and anxiety – about the vulnerability of the male body, its penetratibility, the fact that it can be destroyed, that men who cannot imagine what it must feel like to be a woman are put into the woman’s position, a position of helplessness against a much-stronger threat – these are realities that men, in general you understand, manage to ignore. And so when they are threatened like women are regularly threatened, they are completely unprepared. Dickey drew back the veil on all of that.

Although the novel (and film) made him immortal, Dickey was primarily a poet, and a major one.

Born in a suburb of Atlanta, he went to college a bit, but when WWII broke out, he enlisted in the army air corps. Dickey told some tall tales about the combat he saw in WWII, most of it apparently untrue, or at least widely exaggerated – and when he came back to America he enrolled at Vanderbilt University, a hot-bed of Southern poetry at the time, a major center of operations – which really rocked the boat, at a time when most poets congregated in New York City. Vanderbilt had an amazing poetry program, with illustrious faculty drawn there to teach, and many major names emerged. This was Dickey’s full immersion into the vibrant Southern poetry scene. He got his Masters from Vanderbilt, and then taught poetry at various universities throughout the south, Florida, South Carolina, etc. He trained radio operators during the Korean War. He wrote Deliverance in 1970. It was his first novel.

Dickey said in 1970:

As Longinus points out, there’s a razor’s edge between sublimity and absurdity. And that’s the edge I try to walk. Sometimes both sides are ludicrous! … But I don’t think you can get to sublimity without courting the ridiculous.

Sublimity. Ridiculous. Fever. Tranquility. Dickey was drawn to extreme oppositions.

James Dickey’s poems feel immediate and urgent. Yet there isn’t a slapdash tossed-off word in them. He was not afraid to look at a thing without blinking, to get to the heart of whatever experience being expressed. The poem I’m sharing today describes a very specific experience of going to see your ill father in the hospital, and then seeing him through the window as you leave. I have experienced this almost identically, my father’s hand in the air waving as we walk to our cars. I know this poem in my bones, and the poem rattles me. I don’t think about that moment too much, it’s still too painful – “pain” doesn’t even cover it. It’s grief and loss. And look at what Dickey is able to pull off here. I have never been able to bear writing about my father and his illness. I just can’t and won’t. I am grateful to those who can and do, like Dickey.

In writing so truthfully about a moment in his life, he gives voice to MY experience. I read it with dawning realization … I am not alone, someone knows how I felt, and it seems such a strange moment to put into words, hard to pin down, yet Dickey does it.

Dickey’s is an important regional voice, and Southerners are rightly proud of their literary tradition.

The Hospital Window

I have just come down from my father.
Higher and higher he lies
Above me in a blue light
Shed by a tinted window.
I drop through six white floors
And then step out onto pavement.

Still feeling my father ascend,
I start to cross the firm street,
My shoulder blades shining with all
The glass the huge building can raise.
Now I must turn round and face it,
And know his one pane from the others.

Each window possesses the sun
As though it burned there on a wick.
I wave, like a man catching fire.
All the deep-dyed windowpanes flash,
And, behind them, all the white rooms
They turn to the color of Heaven.

Ceremoniously, gravely, and weakly,
Dozens of pale hands are waving
Back, from inside their flames.
Yet one pure pane among these
Is the bright, erased blankness of nothing.
I know that my father is there,

In the shape of his death still living.
The traffic increases around me
Like a madness called down on my head.
The horns blast at me like shotguns,
And drivers lean out, driven crazy—
But now my propped-up father

Lifts his arm out of stillness at last.
The light from the window strikes me
And I turn as blue as a soul,
As the moment when I was born.
I am not afraid for my father—
Look! He is grinning; he is not

Afraid for my life, either,
As the wild engines stand at my knees
Shredding their gears and roaring,
And I hold each car in its place
For miles, inciting its horn
To blow down the walls of the world

That the dying may float without fear
In the bold blue gaze of my father.
Slowly I move to the sidewalk
With my pin-tingling hand half dead
At the end of my bloodless arm.
I carry it off in amazement,

High, still higher, still waving,
My recognized face fully mortal,
Yet not; not at all, in the pale,
Drained, otherworldly, stricken,
Created hue of stained glass.
I have just come down from my father.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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4 Responses to “I want a fever, in poetry: a fever, and tranquillity.” — poet James Dickey

  1. just1beth says:

    That poem is stunning. It truly left me breathless.

  2. red says:

    Beth – I know, right? My God.

  3. Carolyn Clarke says:

    I lost my mother in August. Now I know what I’ve been feeling.

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