Dickey, James

United States, (1923-1997)

Approaching Prayer

  1. A moment tries to come in
  2. Through the windows, when one must go
  3. Beyond what there is in the room,
  4.  
  5. But it must come straight down.
  6. Lord, it is time,
  7.  
  8. And I must get up and start
  9. To circle through my father’s empty house
  10. Looking for things to put on
  11. Or to strip myself of
  12. So that I can fall to my knees
  13. And produce a word I can’t say
  14. Until all my reason is slain.
  15.  
  16. Here is the gray sweater
  17. My father wore in the cold,
  18. The snapped threads growing all over it
  19. Like his gray body hair.
  20. The spurs of his gamecocks glimmer
  21. Also, in my light, dry hand.
  22. And here is the head of a boar
  23. I once helped to kill with two arrows:
  24.  
  25. Two things of my father’s
  26. Wild, Bible-reading life
  27. And my own best and stillest moment
  28. In a hog’s head waiting for glory.
  29.  
  30. All these I set up in the attic,
  31. The boar’s head, gaffs, and the sweater
  32. On a chair, and gaze in the dark
  33. Up into the boar’s painted gullet.
  34.  
  35. Nothing. Perhaps I should feel more foolish,
  36. Even, than this.
  37. I put on the ravelled nerves
  38. And gray hairs of my tall father
  39. In the dry grave growing like fleece
  40. Strap his bird spurs to my heels
  41. And kneel down under the skylight.
  42. I put on the hollow hog’s head
  43. Gazing straight up
  44. With star points in the glass eyes
  45. That would blind anything that looked in
  46.  
  47. And cause it to utter words.
  48. The night sky fills with a light
  49.  
  50. Of hunting: with leaves
  51. And sweat and the panting of dogs
  52.  
  53. Where one tries hard to draw breath,
  54. A single breath, and hold it.
  55. I draw the breath of life
  56. For the dead hog:
  57. I catch it from the still air,
  58. Hold it in the boar’s rigid mouth,
  59. And see
    1.  
    2. A young aging man with a bow
    3. And a green arrow pulled to his cheek
    4. Standing deep in a mountain creek bed,
    5. Stiller than trees or stones,
    6. Waiting and staring
    7.  
  60. Beasts, angels
  61. I am nearly that motionless now
    1.  
    2. There is a frantic leaping at my sides
    3. Of dogs coming out of the water
  62.  
  63. The moon and the stars do not move
    1.  
    2. I bare my teeth, and my mouth
    3. Opens, a foot long, popping with tushes
    4.  
  64. A word goes through my closed lips
    1.  
    2. I gore a dog, he falls, falls back
    3. Still snapping, turns away and dies
    4. While swimming. I feel each hair on my back
    5. Stand up through the eye of a needle
  65.  
  66. Where the hair was
  67. On my head stands up
  68. As if it were there
    1.  
    2. The man is still; he is stiller: still
  69. Yes.
    1.  
    2. Something comes out of him
    3. Like a shaft of sunlight or starlight.
    4. I go forward toward him
  70.  
  71. (Beasts, angels)
    1.  
    2. With light standing through me,
    3. Covered with dogs, but the water
    4. Tilts to the sound of the bowstring
  72.  
  73. The planets attune all their orbits
    1.  
    2. The sound from his fingers,
    3. Like a plucked word, quickly pierces
    4. Me again, the trees try to dance
    5. Clumsily out of the wood
  74.  
  75. I have said something else
    1.  
    2. And underneath, underwater,
    3. In the creek bed are dancing
    4. The sleepy pebbles
  76.  
  77. The universe is creaking like boards
  78. Thumping with heartbeats
  79. And bonebeats
    1.  
    2. And every image of death
    3. In my head turns red with blood.
    4. The man of blood does not move
  80.  
  81. My father is pale on my body
    1.  
    2. The dogs of blood
    3. Hang to my ears,
    4. The shadowy bones of the limbs
    5. The sun lays on the water
    6. Mass darkly together
  82.  
  83. Moonlight, moonlight
    1.  
    2. The sun mounts my hackles
    3. And I fall; I roll
    4. In the water;
    5. My tongue spills blood
    6. Bound for the ocean;
    7. It moves away, and I see
    8. The trees strain and part, see him
    9. Look upward
  84.  
  85. Inside the hair helmet
  86. I look upward out of the total
  87. Stillness of killing with arrows.
  88. I have seen the hog see me kill him
  89. And I was as still as I hoped.
  90. I am that still now, and now.
  91. My father’s sweater
  92. Swarms over me in the dark.
  93. I see nothing, but for a second
  94.  
  95. Something goes through me
  96. Like an accident, a negligent glance,
  97. Like the explosion of a star
  98. Six billion light years off
  99. Whose light gives out
  100.  
  101. Just as it goes straight through me.
  102. The boar’s blood is sailing through rivers
  103. Bearing the living image
  104. Of my most murderous stillness.
  105. It picks up speed
  106. And my heart pounds.
  107. The chicken-blood rust at my heels
  108. Freshens, as though near a death wound
  109. Or flight. I nearly lift
  110. From the floor, from my father’s grave
  111. Crawling over my chest,
  112.  
  113. And then get up
  114. In the way I usually do.
  115. I take off the head of the hog
  116. And the gaffs and the panting sweater
  117. And go down the dusty stairs
  118. And never come back.
  119.  
  120. I don’t know quite what has happened
  121. Or that anything has,
  122.  
  123. Hoping only that
  124. The irrelevancies one thinks of
  125. When trying to pray
  126. Are the prayer,
  127.  
  128. And that I have got by my own
  129. Means to the hovering place
  130. Where I can say with any
  131. Other than the desert fathers —
  132. Those who saw angels come,
  133. Their body glow shining on bushes
  134. And sheep’s wool and animal eyes,
  135. To answer what questions men asked
  136. In Heaven’s tongue,
  137. Using images of earth
  138. Almightily:
    1.  
    2. PROPHECIES, FIRE IN THE SINFUL TOWERS,
    3. WASTE AND FRUITION IN THE LAND,
    4. CORN, LOCUSTS AND ASHES,
    5. THE LION’s SKULL PULSING WITH HONEY,
    6. THE BLOOD OF THE FIRST-BORN,
    7. A GIRL MADE PREGNANT WITH A GLANCE
    8. LIKE AN EXPLODING STAR
    9. AND A CHILD BORN OF UTTER LIGHT —
  139.  
  140. Where I can say only, and truly,
  141. That my stillness was violent enough,
  142. That my brain had blood enough,
  143. That my right hand was steady enough,
  144. That the warmth of my father’s wool grave
  145. Imparted love enough
  146. And the keen heels of feathery slaughter
  147. Provided lift enough,
  148. That reason was dead enough
  149. For something important to be:
  150.  
  151. That, if not heard,
  152. It may have been somehow said.

© James Dickey
Poems 1957-1967. Wesleyan University Press, 1967.
[First published in Helmets, Wesleyan University Press, 1964.]

About the Poet

James Dickey (1923-1997), was a US poet and novelist, most widely known as the author of the novel and screenplay “Deliverance.” He is also the author of several other novels and fifteen books of poetry.

Dickey has been awarded the National Book Award and a Melville Cane Award (1965). He was invited to read at President Carter’s inauguration in 1977, and has served as Judge of the prestigious Yale Younger Poets series. [DES-6/03]

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