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by James Dickey |

The Lifeguard

 In a stable of boats I lie still,
From all sleeping children hidden.
The leap of a fish from its shadow
Makes the whole lake instantly tremble.
With my foot on the water, I feel
The moon outside

Take on the utmost of its power.
I rise and go our through the boats.
I set my broad sole upon silver,
On the skin of the sky, on the moonlight,
Stepping outward from earth onto water
In quest of the miracle

This village of children believed
That I could perform as I dived
For one who had sunk from my sight.
I saw his cropped haircut go under.
I leapt, and my steep body flashed
Once, in the sun.

Dark drew all the light from my eyes.
Like a man who explores his death
By the pull of his slow-moving shoulders,
I hung head down in the cold,
Wide-eyed, contained, and alone
Among the weeds,

And my fingertips turned into stone
From clutching immovable blackness.
Time after time I leapt upward
Exploding in breath, and fell back
From the change in the children's faces
At my defeat.

Beneath them I swam to the boathouse
With only my life in my arms
To wait for the lake to shine back
At the risen moon with such power
That my steps on the light of the ripples
Might be sustained.

Beneath me is nothing but brightness
Like the ghost of a snowfield in summer.
As I move toward the center of the lake,
Which is also the center of the moon,
I am thinking of how I may be
The savior of one

Who has already died in my care.
The dark trees fade from around me.
The moon's dust hovers together.
I call softly out, and the child's
Voice answers through blinding water.
Patiently, slowly,

He rises, dilating to break
The surface of stone with his forehead.
He is one I do not remember
Having ever seen in his life.
The ground I stand on is trembling
Upon his smile.

I wash the black mud from my hands.
On a light given off by the grave
I kneel in the quick of the moon
At the heart of a distant forest
And hold in my arms a child
Of water, water, water.

by James Dickey |

The Sharks Parlor

 Memory: I can take my head and strike it on a wall on Cumberland Island 
Where the night tide came crawling under the stairs came up the first 
Two or three steps and the cottage stood on poles all night 
With the sea sprawled under it as we dreamed of the great fin circling 
Under the bedroom floor. In daylight there was my first brassy taste of beer 
And Payton Ford and I came back from the Glynn County slaughterhouse 
With a bucket of entrails and blood. We tied one end of a hawser 
To a spindling porch-pillar and rowed straight out of the house 
Three hundred yards into the vast front yard of windless blue water 
The rope out slithering its coil the two-gallon jug stoppered and sealed 
With wax and a ten-foot chain leader a drop-forged shark-hook nestling. 
We cast our blood on the waters the land blood easily passing 
For sea blood and we sat in it for a moment with the stain spreading 
Out from the boat sat in a new radiance in the pond of blood in the sea 
Waiting for fins waiting to spill our guts also in the glowing water. 
We dumped the bucket, and baited the hook with a run-over collie pup. The jug 
Bobbed, trying to shake off the sun as a dog would shake off the sea. 
We rowed to the house feeling the same water lift the boat a new way, 
All the time seeing where we lived rise and dip with the oars. 
We tied up and sat down in rocking chairs, one eye on the other responding 
To the blue-eye wink of the jug. Payton got us a beer and we sat 

All morning sat there with blood on our minds the red mark out 
In the harbor slowly failing us then the house groaned the rope 
Sprang out of the water splinters flew we leapt from our chairs 
And grabbed the rope hauled did nothing the house coming subtly 
Apart all around us underfoot boards beginning to sparkle like sand 
Pulling out the tarred poles we slept propped-up on leaning to sea 
As in land-wind crabs scuttling from under the floor as we took runs about 
Two more porch-pillars and looked out and saw something a fish-flash 
An almighty fin in trouble a moiling of secret forces a false start 
Of water a round wave growing in the whole of Cumberland Sound the one ripple. 
Payton took off without a word I could not hold him either 

But clung to the rope anyway it was the whole house bending 
Its nails that held whatever it was coming in a little and like a fool 
I took up the slack on my wrist. The rope drew gently jerked I lifted 
Clean off the porch and hit the water the same water it was in 
I felt in blue blazing terror at the bottom of the stairs and scrambled 
Back up looking desperately into the human house as deeply as I could 
Stopping my gaze before it went out the wire screen of the back door 
Stopped it on the thistled rattan the rugs I lay on and read 
On my mother's sewing basket with next winter's socks spilling from it 
The flimsy vacation furniture a bucktoothed picture of myself. 
Payton came back with three men from a filling station and glanced at me 
Dripping water inexplicable then we all grabbed hold like a tug-of-war. 

We were gaining a little from us a cry went up from everywhere 
People came running. Behind us the house filled with men and boys.
On the third step from the sea I took my place looking down the rope 
Going into the ocean, humming and shaking off drops. A houseful 
Of people put their backs into it going up the steps from me 
Into the living room through the kitchen down the back stairs 
Up and over a hill of sand across a dust road and onto a raised field 
Of dunes we were gaining the rope in my hands began to be wet 
With deeper water all other haulers retreated through the house 
But Payton and I on the stairs drawing hand over hand on our blood 
Drawing into existence by the nose a huge body becoming 
A hammerhead rolling in beery shallows and I began to let up 
But the rope strained behind me the town had gone 
Pulling-mad in our house far away in a field of sand they struggled 
They had turned their backs on the sea bent double some on their knees 
The rope over their shoulders like a bag of gold they strove for the ideal 
Esso station across the scorched meadow with the distant fish coming up 
The front stairs the sagging boards still coming in up taking 
Another step toward the empty house where the rope stood straining 
By itself through the rooms in the middle of the air. "Pass the word," 
Payton said, and I screamed it "Let up, good God, let up!" to no one there. 
The shark flopped on the porch, grating with salt-sand driving back in 
The nails he had pulled out coughing chunks of his formless blood. 
The screen door banged and tore off he scrambled on his tail slid 
Curved did a thing from another world and was out of his element and in 
Our vacation paradise cutting all four legs from under the dinner table 
With one deep-water move he unwove the rugs in a moment throwing pints 
Of blood over everything we owned knocked the buckteeth out of my picture 
His odd head full of crashed jelly-glass splinters and radio tubes thrashing 
Among the pages of fan magazines all the movie stars drenched in sea-blood 
Each time we thought he was dead he struggled back and smashed 
One more thing in all coming back to die three or four more times after death. 
At last we got him out logrolling him greasing his sandpaper skin 
With lard to slide him pulling on his chained lips as the tide came, 
Tumbled him down the steps as the first night wave went under the floor. 
He drifted off head back belly white as the moon. What could I do but buy 
That house for the one black mark still there against death a forehead- 
 toucher in the room he circles beneath and has been invited to wreck? 
Blood hard as iron on the wall black with time still bloodlike 
Can be touched whenever the brow is drunk enough. All changes. Memory: 
Something like three-dimensional dancing in the limbs with age 
Feeling more in two worlds than one in all worlds the growing encounters. 

Copyright © James Dickey 1965
Online Source -

by James Dickey |


 They will soon be down

To one, but he still will be
For a little while still will be stopping

The flakes in the air with a look,
Surrounding himself with the silence
Of whitening snarls. Let him eat
The last red meal of the condemned

To extinction, tearing the guts

From an elk. Yet that is not enough
For me. I would have him eat

The heart, and, from it, have an idea
Stream into his gnawing head
That he no longer has a thing
To lose, and so can walk

Out into the open, in the full

Pale of the sub-Arctic sun
Where a single spruce tree is dying

Higher and higher. Let him climb it
With all his meanness and strength.
Lord, we have come to the end
Of this kind of vision of heaven,

As the sky breaks open

Its fans around him and shimmers
And into its northern gates he rises

Snarling complete in the joy of a weasel
With an elk's horned heart in his stomach
Looking straight into the eternal
Blue, where he hauls his kind. I would have it all

My way: at the top of that tree I place

The New World's last eagle
Hunched in mangy feathers giving

Up on the theory of flight.
Dear God of the wildness of poetry, let them mate
To the death in the rotten branches,
Let the tree sway and burst into flame

And mingle them, crackling with feathers,

In crownfire. Let something come
Of it something gigantic legendary

Rise beyond reason over hills
Of ice SCREAMING that it cannot die,
That it has come back, this time
On wings, and will spare no earthly thing:

That it will hover, made purely of northern

Lights, at dusk and fall
On men building roads: will perch

On the moose's horn like a falcon
Riding into battle into holy war against
Screaming railroad crews: will pull
Whole traplines like fibers from the snow

In the long-jawed night of fur trappers.

But, small, filthy, unwinged,
You will soon be crouching

Alone, with maybe some dim racial notion
Of being the last, but none of how much
Your unnoticed going will mean:
How much the timid poem needs

The mindless explosion of your rage,

The glutton's internal fire the elk's
Heart in the belly, sprouting wings,

The pact of the "blind swallowing
Thing," with himself, to eat
The world, and not to be driven off it
Until it is gone, even if it takes

Forever. I take you as you are

And make of you what I will,
Skunk-bear, carcajou, bloodthirsty


 Lord, let me die but not die

Copyright © 1966 by James Dickey
Online Source -