Mike James Reviews James Dickey: A Literary Life

Mike James Reviews

James Dickey: A Literary Life

By Gordon Van Ness


In his essay, “Reflections on Wallace Stevens,” the poet and critic Randall Jarrell wrote, “A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.” James Dickey was fond of quoting Jarrell’s line to students and in interviews. The quote encapsulates Dickey’s ambition as well as the luck involved in literary reputations. 

Gordon Van Ness offers the definitive biography of James Dickey and reviews how the reputation of Dickey’s work has collapsed since the 1960’s when he was, with Robert Lowell, considered one of the two most important poets in America. For those who are familiar with Dickey’s life, either through literary gossip or from the previous hatchet work of Henry Hart’s biography, it offers a familiar rise and fall. 

During the 1950’s and 1960’s, James Dickey published an extraordinary number of well received poems, essays, and book reviews. His work regularly appeared in magazines such as the New Yorker and the Atlantic. His 1965 collection, Buckdancers’s Choice, won the National Book Award. Then, in 1970, he published his first novel Deliverance. The adventure story of four men going down a river was a tremendous best-seller. Two years after the novel’s publication it became a hit movie. Dickey wrote the screenplay and even had a memorable role as the sheriff. It was at this point that celebrity began to replace the artist. 

Van Ness makes clear that Dickey enjoyed fame. He wrote several lucrative coffee table books and accepted commissions for a few occasional poems. One of these, “The Strength of the Fields,” was read by Dickey as part of Jimmy Carter’s 1976 inaugural. (The poem is one of the best examples of a “public poem” and has aged better than similar pieces from other inaugural poets.)

What Van Ness also makes clear is that after the summation of his work in Poems: 1957-1967 Dickey became interested in a different kind of poetry. Dickey’s work, in what he referred to as his “early motion,” ranges from the narrative to the lyric, from the mystic to the confessional, from the formal to the experimental. A reader would be hard pressed to find a more various or successful book of poetry and Poems: 1957-1967 remains comparable to Pound’s Personae and Steven’s Harmonium.

The later poetry (the work after 1967) is both more rhetorical and more visual. The poems often range across the page with word and image clusters which sometimes mirror a speaker’s breath units and sometimes mirror high energy synapses firing. While many individual passages often stand out, the poems are less successful and more indulgent. Dickey’s later work often asks more of the reader than it gives. 

Van Ness does a fine job of covering the later work and how it relates to Dickey’s life. He reviews the critical and public reception of Dickey’s two later novels, Alnilam and To the White Sea, as well as the wildly mixed response to his late poetry collection Puella. He also spends a considerable amount of time discussing Dickey’s role as a teacher at the University of South Carolina. Van Ness was a student of Dickey’s in the 1980’s and the exuberance Dickey often brought to the classroom is apparent. 

Exuberance is a key word for describing Dickey’s best work. In poems like “Cherrylog Road,” “On the Hill Below the Lighthouse,” “Adultery,” “The Performance,” “The Lifeguard,” and “To Be Done in Winter” Dickey’s work seems bathed in vitality and life joy. His poetry is not concerned with mundane, small moments. It is concerned with transcendence. 

There are many reasons why Dickey’s reputation has dimmed over the last fifty years. Van Ness covers all of them. His womanizing and alcoholism wrecked many of his friendships and some readers and critics remain willing to dismiss his work based on the numerous misbehaviors of his life.  Also, unlike one of his contemporaries, James Wright, Dickey outlived most of his best work. To quote Nietzsche out of context, Dickey did not “die at the right time.” Finally, the type of masculinity Dickey publicly embodied (think John Wayne and Ernest Hemingway combined with erudition and southern twang) is now out of fashion. 

Van Ness does a fine and necessary job of separating Dickey’s indulgences from his art. He focuses on key early works and adds understanding and appreciation to later, overlooked gems. As someone who has edited two volumes of Dickey’s letters, his early notebooks, and a posthumous collection of late poems, Van Ness is a worthy guide to Dickey’s work. In writing this biography he sends the reader back to Dickey’s poetry and fiction. Dickey remains a poet with a lightning rod, wide awake as he walks through a crackling summer field.


James Dickey: A Literary Life, by Gordon Van Ness

Mercer University Press, 2022

Biography, $45

About the Author: Mike James makes his home outside Nashville, Tennessee. He has published in numerous magazines, large and small, throughout the country. His most recent book, Portable Light: Poems 1991-2021, was published by Red Hawk in April 2022. Mike’s previous poetry collections include: Leftover Distances (Luchador), Parades (Alien Buddha), Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor (Blue Horse), and Crows in the Jukebox (Bottom Dog.) 


Image Credit: Digitally remixed image of a public domain James Dickey photo

Sally Dunn: “The Prodigal Daughter Searches for Her Home”

The Prodigal Daughter Searches for Her Home
I am repulsed by the city:
the noise, the filth
the way you can see it from space.
Yet it is as natural as 
a bird’s nest or
a prairie dog town
as natural as I am.
For if it is not natural
then I, born of the species 
who made it,
am nothing but an alien
on the world of my birth.

In order to reconcile myself to me
I placed my hand on a large building
with its steel, concrete
and glass upon glass that doesn’t open.
I tried to feel as I have felt
when I have placed my hand on a tree
and felt that it was part of me
part of the world.
Its right to exist not open to question.

I failed my test.
I cannot feel the life in this building.
I cannot feel the buzzing of its
electrons connecting with the palm
I have placed upon it.
I have run, hidden, stayed away
from the city for years. 
But it is part me
as much as anything else is.
If I cannot own this part of me
how much of myself will I have lost?
How can I be part of this world
if I don’t own this building?

Or must I forever
be an exile
in my own body?

About the Author: Sally Dunn’s poetry has appeared in Schuylkill Valley Journal, North Dakota Quarterly, Plainsongs and Glass Mountain among others.  Her poetry won third place in the Joe Gouveia Outermost Poetry Contest. She lives on Cape Cod.


Image Credit: Paul Klee “Cold City” (1921) Public Domain

Joe Mills: “The Scientist After the Operation”

The Scientist After the Operation

A couple weeks after the operation, 
he finally can sit outside,
under the enormous black walnut tree
that hasn’t yet succumbed to a storm
although it loses limbs each time.
He holds in his lap a biography 
of Gregor Mendel, the monk 
who cross-bred plants 
and discovered genetic inheritance.

At one point, he had thought about
the church as a career. His mother had
suggested it would be a good place
for someone with his “proclivities,”
a comment so complicated he kept
returning to the statement for years
trying to determine if it was caring,
Machiavellian or something else.
He had studied science instead.

She doesn’t know he’s sick.
They haven’t talked since the wedding 
when the state finally allowed him 
and Greg to be a legal couple,
and yet, this was when 
his grandmother began talking 
openly to him about relationships 
in the months before her death. 
Some things skip a generation. 
Some things never get passed down. 

He sees Greg glancing out 
the kitchen window, checking
to make sure he’s okay,
awake, still alive,
and he waves the book
to reassure his partner,
like a preacher with a bible

About the Author: A faculty member at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills holds the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. He has published seven volumes of poetry, most recently Bodies in Motion. His collection This Miraculous Turning was awarded the North Carolina Roanoke-Chowan Award for Poetry for its exploration of race and family.


Image Credit: Edvard Munch “Landowner in the Park” (1903)

Paul Ilechko: “Pig Roast Sonnet”

Pig Roast Sonnet

They all wore black and stank of last week’s 
Miller Lite     they stank of smoke and memories
they stank of bitterness     that picked up speed
as it tumbled downhill and across the town
before it skidded to a halt in front of the fire
where a pig’s head stared vacantly into 
the middle-distance     unfocused clouds for eyes
they all wore camouflage as they blended
into suburban life in a small New Jersey town
where cathedral bells were tolling to remind them
of the ones they left behind     in rough pine boxes
buried shallow     or nothing left at all except
the smell of meat and a memory of a face     staring
emptily through the stink of whiskey and pain

About the Author: Poet and songwriter Paul Ilechko lives with his partner in Lambertville, NJ. He is the author of several chapbooks. His work has appeared in a variety of journals, including The Night Heron Barks, Feral Journal, Iron Horse Literary Review, Gargoyle Magazine, and Book of Matches. His first album, “Meeting Points”, was released in 2021.


Image Credit: The natural history of quadrupeds, and cetaceous animals. Bungay, [England] Printed and published by Brightly and Co,1811. Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library (public domain)

Agnes Vojta: “In my mother’s kitchen”

In my mother’s kitchen

Grandma’s measuring cup
is still on the shelf,
her nutmeg grater 
hangs from its hook. 

For sugar and salt, we still use 
the little wooden shovels.
I set the table 
with the familiar 

blue-and-white dishes,
the placemats my sister 
and I weaved that Christmas 
we got the looms.

In the pantry, I still reach
for the light switch on the left
where it no longer is. 
Dad rewired the kitchen

twenty years ago. I cannot 
rewire my brain, cannot train 
my hand to reach 
to the other side.

About the Author: Agnes Vojta grew up in Germany and now lives in Rolla, Missouri where she teaches physics at Missouri S&T and hikes the Ozarks. She is the author of Porous Land (Spartan Press, 2019) and The Eden of Perhaps (Spartan Press, 2020), and her poems have appeared in a variety of magazines.

Image Credit: Floris Van Schooten “A Kitchen Still Life With Pots And Pans On A Stone Ledge And Animated Figures In The Background” Public Domain

Victoria Twomey: “The Healing Properties of Tony B”

The Healing Properties of Tony B

that long winter storm
left you with no power for eight days

stubborn, independent old man
stoic child of the depression, brave survivor of war

huddling by your fireplace for days
skin so cold to the touch when we arrived

we brought you to our house after a small fuss
you were too bone chilled, pale and weary to say no

and oh to watch you warm and melt
and get the pink back in your face 

sitting on our couch
after a hot shower

wrapped in a blanket, your hands curved around a hot cup of tea
a warm buttery-sweet croissant on your plate 

I put Tony Bennet on the stereo
you smiled said hey! this is my music

told us, you didn’t realize 
just how cold you had been 

what a gift to hold you in memory
all the rest of my days like that

you letting me love you, listening to Tony B
the warm steam rising from your cup of tea

About the Author: Victoria Twomey is a poet and an artist. She has appeared as a featured poet at venues around NY, including The Poetry Barn, Barnes & Noble, and Borders Books. Her poems have been published in several anthologies, in newspapers and on the web, including Sanctuary Magazine, BigCityLit, PoetryBay, Autumn Sky Poetry Daily, The Tipton Poetry Journal, Verse-Virtual, The Agape Review, The Trouvaille Review, with many forthcoming. Her poem “Pieta” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Image Credit: Carol M. Highsmith “Comfy leather and burled-wood chair in the Round Room, the center of ranch gatherings and entertainment at the A Bar A guest ranch near the town of Riverside in Carbon County, Wyoming” (2016) The Library of Congress

LB Sedlacek: “Black Truck, Stopped”

Black Truck, Stopped
Black truck, old man
white hair
wearing brown cap
pulled down low
over the forehead.
Black truck, stopped
in the driveway
white dog
tongue flapping
head hanging out the window.
Black truck, old man
black dog
to stay at home.
Black truck, stopped
like the time the
policeman stopped me
under a bridge
to give me a ticket.
Black truck, old man
living alone
giant creaky house
tomatoes for sale
in the front yard.

About the Author: LB Sedlacek has had poems and stories published in a variety of journals and zines. Some of her poetry books are “Swim” (Alien Buddha Press), “I’m No ROBOT” (Cyberwit), “Happy Little Clouds” (Guerilla Genesis Press), “Simultaneous Submissions” (Cyberwit), and “Words and Bones” (Finishing Line Press).  Her first short story collection, “Four Thieves of Vinegar & Other Short Stories” came out on Leap Day 2020 from Alien Buddha Press.  She also served as a Poetry Editor for “ESC! Magazine” and published the free resource for poets, “The Poetry Market Ezine,” from 2001-2020.  In her free time, LB likes to swim, read and attempt to play the ukulele.

Image Credit: Carol M. Highsmith: “Interior of an old, rusted truck outside the Cutler General Store in the Carroll County, Indiana, settlement of Cutler, which was laid out by John A. Cook during the construction of the Logansport Crawfordsville & Southwestern Rail Road in 1871” (2016) The Library of Congress

CL Bledsoe: “Where Do You See Yourself In Five Years?”

Where Do You See Yourself In Five Years?

The man on the other side of the table
is a variety of sneezes, held together
inside beige by sheer force of lack 
of will. What he’s smelled out there 
is more sensible than me, but I don’t 
so much fault him as marvel at his 
restraint. In the face of all joy, this
man chooses the sour eye. He gets 
excited at the prospect of a new tie 
on father’s day. His hair is a damp 
smattering of crumbs from other 
people’s meals, and he’s proud of 
its pedigree—carries a laminated 
copy. Everything about him is 
something I don’t understand, something
I would avoid at all costs, and vice 
versa, but the difference is he holds 
the soft feathers of my future in his 
sweaty palms and all I hold is the bill.

About the Author: Raised on a rice and catfish farm in eastern Arkansas, CL Bledsoe is the author of more than twenty-five books, including the poetry collections Riceland, Trashcans in LoveGrief Bacon, and his newest, The Bottle Episode, as well as his latest novels Goodbye, Mr. Lonely and The Saviors. Bledsoe co-writes the humor blog How to Even, with Michael Gushue located here: https://medium.com/@howtoeven His own blog, Not Another TV Dad, is located here: https://medium.com/@clbledsoe He’s been published in hundreds of journals, newspapers, and websites that you’ve probably never heard of. Bledsoe lives in northern Virginia with his daughter.

Image Credit: Carol M. Highsmith “Office Interior” (between 1980 and 1990) The Library of Congress.

Carolyn Adams: “Forecast”


I’ve started to think in weather,
to measure time that way.

I don’t know what you’re saying 
if you don’t tell me
it’s raining, 
or there’s snow coming,
or give me the percentage 
of sunshine to expect.

My friends tell me
the frost is gone in Galway.  
is moving through.

These and other forecasts,
all the news I need.

Snow has softened
in Santa Fe.
Cold ventures
in from the wilderness.

Gusts roll in the Cascades, 
transient clouds obscure
the summit of Mt. Hood.

Rain is expected in Borneo.
A heat wave in Sydney.
Extremes mark every hour.

Hello and goodbye 
are steeped in tempests.

About the Author: Carolyn Adams’ poetry and art have appeared in Steam Ticket, Cimarron Review, Dissident Voice, and Blueline Magazine, among others. Having authored four chapbooks, her full-length volume is forthcoming from Fernwood Press.  She has been twice nominated for both Best of the Net and a Pushcart prize.

Image Credit: Chase Dimock “Albuquerque Stoplight Sunset” (2021)

R.T. Castleberry: “Bare A Heart”

Bare A Heart

Take ice clouds, take an owl
shading the rose moon,
clouds crystalline at the edges, 
their bleak diamond centers 
etching wingtip and claw.
Hold a river cup, 
lip washed by melting frost,
dipped to overflowing from 
the ripple of Lyra’s reflection.
Take a family ring,
garnet red, etched bronze,
worn as fetish, borne 
through conquest voyage, 
arranged marriage.
Hold the passing ocean storm in sight,
stripped branches as divining rods,
as cudgel or cane, a wand
to conjure an island cave’s comfort.
There are those who 
connive a resting space in 
untracked lanes, intemperate riddles.
Forego your sighting. 
Leave them to their peace.

About the Author: R.T. Castleberry, a Pushcart Prize nominee, has work in Steam TicketVita BrevisSan Pedro River ReviewTrajectorySilk RoadStepAway, and Sylvia. Internationally, he’s had poetry published in Canada, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, France, New Zealand, Portugal, the Philippines and Antarctica. His poetry has appeared in the anthologies: Travois-An Anthology of Texas PoetryTimeSliceAnthem: A Tribute to Leonard Cohen, and Level Land: Poetry For and About the I35 Corridor. He lives and writes in Houston, Texas.

Image Credit: Arthur Dove “Storm Clouds” (1935) Public Domain