Sunday, July 8, 2012

"The Performance," James Dickey (1923-1997)

The Performance
(James Dickey)

The last time I saw Donald Armstrong  
He was staggering oddly off into the sun,  
Going down, off the Philippine Islands.  
I let my shovel fall, and put that hand
Above my eyes, and moved some way to one side
That his body might pass through the sun,

And I saw how well he was not
Standing there on his hands,
On his spindle-shanked forearms balanced,  
Unbalanced, with his big feet looming and waving  
In the great, untrustworthy air
He flew in each night, when it darkened.

Dust fanned in scraped puffs from the earth
Between his arms, and blood turned his face inside out,  
To demonstrate its suppleness
Of veins, as he perfected his role.
Next day, he toppled his head off
On an island beach to the south,

And the enemy’s two-handed sword  
Did not fall from anyone’s hands  
At that miraculous sight,
As the head rolled over upon
Its wide-eyed face, and fell
Into the inadequate grave

He had dug for himself, under pressure.  
Yet I put my flat hand to my eyebrows  
Months later, to see him again
In the sun, when I learned how he died,  
And imagined him, there,
Come, judged, before his small captors,

Doing all his lean tricks to amaze them—
The back somersault, the kip-up—
And at last, the stand on his hands,  
Perfect, with his feet together,
His head down, evenly breathing,
As the sun poured from the sea

And the headsman broke down  
In a blaze of tears, in that light  
Of the thin, long human frame  
Upside down in its own strange joy,
And, if some other one had not told him,  
Would have cut off the feet

Instead of the head,
And if Armstrong had not presently risen  
In kingly, round-shouldered attendance,  
And then knelt down in himself
Beside his hacked, glittering grave, having done  
All things in this life that he could.

"The Performance" by James Dickey (1923-1997) appeared in Poetry magazine (1959) and in the Dickey anthology The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1945-1992. After the publication of his first book Into the Stone, and Other Poems (1960), Dickey left an advertising career to devote himself to writing: 28 books of poetry appeared in his lifetime, as well as the best-selling Deliverance and other novels. He told an interviewer “There could have been no more unpromising enterprise or means of earning a livelihood than that of being an American poet ... I had begun to suspect, however, that there is a poet — or a kind of poet — buried in every human being like Ariel in his tree, and that the people whom we are pleased to call poets are only those who have felt the need and contrived the means to release this spirit from its prison.”

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