James Dickey’s “Deer Among Cattle,” a Warm-up to Snopes

Who reads Roethke anymore?  In the late sixties his work was widely loved, and Jim Dickey seemed the heir to Roethke’s great dramatic force and his sense of the non-human living things.  When I decided to feature Dickey’s “Deer Among Cattle” as our first Poem of the Week, I was thinking of the compulsion some poets used to feel to find the wildness in the tamed and the timid in the wild, a diminishing ingredient in our evermore urban and virtual culture.  I’ve held onto this poem (first selected for Shenandoah by Richard Howard, later appearing in JD’s collections Poems: 1957-1967 and Falling, from Wesleyan in ’69), even through the whitetails’ recent and unwelcome ravaging of my wife’s hostas, because I like to remember the quieter side of Dickey, the side he displayed when not playing the ringmaster, jester or Hun.

It’s not a poem that requires epic explanation, but I invite readers to watch the movement of light and sparks across the poem, where brightness is beauty and where it is invasive.  Larry Lieberman once wrote that Dickey was drawn to “spirits in flux,” but here the deer spirit, if I can play the primitive note for a second, is not changing itself so much as offering an alternative which the cattle just aren’t up to, but the narrator might be.  No less wild for being fenced (he — branched forehead identifies the gender — jumped in, he can jump out), the deer in darkness can afford to associate this night with the “bred-for-slaughter,” but before their demise, he’ll have to skedaddle, as the cattle owners would like to put him on their “table,” too.

What I’d really like to hear from readers is what you all make of the prominently placed “searing,” how you think JD believed the deer could “Turn grass into forest,” what the full import of “foreclosed” might be and whether you think the narrator, who evidently values the deer’s role in this tableau, can (or believes he can) feel more kinship with the free range deer than the fenced (“paralyzed,” though the word’s modifying of “fence” asks us to be a bit gymnastic) cattle.  (Speaking of gymnastic, my own syntax there leaves me with sore metaphorus maximus muscles.) Does “the only living thing” exclude the narrator because he’s not in the flashlight’s beam?  Does “night of the hammer” mean the night before they’re sledged, or is this actually occurring AFTER the cattle have been, to be arch, “slain”?
It’s a poem which I think invites and will reward a close reading, but I can’t guarantee a full investigation will leave you admiring the craft more that a brisk run-through.  Dickey has in this celebration and lament once again stepped onto risky ground.

On another matter altogether, as we go on-line, we want to game the Google as much as possible, to manage our site so that it will appear as an option for people seeking particular authors, topics, genres, contests and so on that appear on our site.  If you have suggestions, please let me know.  I’ll be your blogger pretty regularly until my interns can step in two or three weeks from now.
Meanwhile, enjoy the site, and please take advantage of the option to comment on posted poems and prose.

Rod Smith

About R.T. Smith

Writer-in-Residence R.T. Smith reads from his work at Hillel House.R. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995. His newest book is Chinquapins: Short Short Stories (2015)


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10 Responses to James Dickey’s “Deer Among Cattle,” a Warm-up to Snopes

  1. R.T.,

    Thanks for this very thoughtful reading of a lesser-known poem, and for you reflections on the timid and the wild, which are spot on.

    I think you and your followers will find interesting background to this poem if you take a look at James Agee’s very dark fable, “A Mother’s Tale,” which my father used to read to me when I was a little boy. I see it’s available on line at this link: http://www.amybrown.net/women/mother.html

    Best regards, Chris

  2. “Searing” is disturbing because it’s just a half-step from “branding.” I think the speaker is one of the living things trapped in the human world, like the cattle; he envies the deer’s ability to escape, to turn grass into forest by moving from one to the other.

  3. M. Dickson says:

    It’s the speaker’s projection that makes this scene compelling – certainly the deer doesn’t see himself as a Christ figure. Nor do the cattle, for that matter. Seems to me the speaker affiliates reluctantly with the cattle while deifying the animal he “brands” as wild. I’m curious about the use of the word “inhuman” in this poem – for the act to which it refers is distinctly human – and the word human has been used twice already in the poem. And what about “wide-open country” to describe the fenced-in pasture? Does “their” in this phrase refer to humanity or cattle? Does the broken phrase “bred-/for-slaughter” want us to pause on bred while thinking of bread in this context? And are we then to reconsider who is Christ-like?

    • Dayna says:

      Is this really a religious synopsis of this poem? If you are going to brand humanity, you could use the scripture to do so, there is much of that within the O.T and the N.T. as far as “branding” goes to give religious significance to those who are “Christ-like”. While inhuman is referred to, there is no reference that killing or slaughter is a “human” concept, not within Dickey’s work on this piece. No more than being merciless is nonhuman, or deity is less than human. Stretching this into “Christianity” is a bit far reaching wouldn’t you say? If anything a more Pantheistic approach would be far more suitable.

  4. Philip Belcher says:

    The speaker certainly yearns to identify with the buck, but I believe “The only live thing in this flashlight” must exclude the speaker. Two stanzas later, the poet writes that the sparks from his hand reflect in the deer’s eyes; the speaker is the source of the light, not one of its reflectors. For this speaker, moreover, the deer is heroic and unique. Indeed, the “slender, graceful” deer compares more than favorably to the “bred-/For slaughter” with whom the speaker finds himself grouped. A fruitful comparison might be made with “those/great breathings in the dark” in Hayden Carruth’s “The Cows at Night.” In that poem, the speaker’s flashlight illuminates the cows’ “sad // and beautiful faces in the dark.” Carruth’s speaker identifies with the existential plight of the cows; he embraces the association. In “Deer Among Cattle,” the poet resists that identification by focusing the speaker’s attention on characteristics of the deer which seem, taken as a whole, to approach omnipotence. Such a resistance is completely natural and naturally futile.

  5. Davis Enloe says:

    “Deer Among Cattle” echoes, or, perhaps, melds two of Dickey’s earlier poems: “Heaven of Animals” and “Approaching Prayer.” “Heaven of Animals” speaks to Dickey’s interest in “eternal places” and his fascination with animal instincts. Dickey was a very spiritual man who felt isolated modern man could be re-energized if he were able to return to the natural world and tap into the divine power of refined animalistic instincts. In “Approaching Prayer” Dickey’s use of a boar’s head reflects his belief in the energizing power of primitive and animalistic instincts as well as his theological need for soul-belief.
    Though there are some perplexing lines in “Deer Among Cattle” I have to believe that Dickey, both a brilliant and serious poet, chose his words intentionally. For instance, it is tempting to say the poem closes out weakly because it ends in a couplet that leaves me scratching my head. Is this another example of a Dickey poem that does not culminate effectively, as Harold Bloom said of “Approaching Prayer?” Just what in the heck does Dickey want the reader to understand when he ends the poem with the deer “grazing” with the cattle “the night of the hammer?” But isn’t it a darkly beautiful and thought provoking phrase? Does the speaker want me to imagine the deer and cattle grazing in a manmade pasture of grass that represents their death, as if each munch of grass brings them closer to their death hammer? Is this the night before their slaughter? Or, as Rod questioned, have they already been slaughtered?
    Regardless, what is clear is that the deer is not one of them, but represents what the cattle were before they became a domesticated staple, but in a sense, he is still their brother. But, more than this, the deer takes on the persona of savior and evokes thoughts of Christ’s ascension post-cross. The deer represents a purity that the cattle can barely even imagine—just as for Christians, Christ represents a degree of pure spirit that humans can barely conceive. In the Christian model, nonbelivers are headed toward the “night of the hammer,” or hell. For me, there is something very spiritual moving through this poem even as there is a longing for wholeness. Dickey was once quoted as saying, “We have lost the universe . . . the cosmos . . . the sense of correlation to the universe.” He felt that animals, through their refined instincts maintained their “correlation.” The poem’s speaker is enthralled with the deer because it represents the great hope of escaping the” paralyzed fence,” or a modern soul-less society, while the domesticated cattle seem to be more like Dickey’s view of domesticated man. So, which does the speaker identify most, the deer or the cattle? For me, the answer is both.

    • R.T. Smith says:

      I’m usually gun shy about finding Christian patterns and associations in poems that aren’t signaling it in a you-can’t-miss-it way, but I think Davis is onto something about the questions of afterlife and sacrifice here, and that’s going to link with our notions of religion pretty quickly. It would be an easy match if the being that can ascend had to be sacrificed first, but I think Dickey’s likely up to more mischief than an equation would allow. Deer and cattle as kindred and sharing the roles, that appeals to me. I’m going to have to study on it.

      • Davis Enloe says:

        The Christian parallel is a bit of a stretch, and I pretty much ignored the fact that the deer does not get sacrificed. In thinking further about the poem I could not help but see a key similarity to “The Heaven of Animals.” The critic Nelson Hathcock observed that in “The Heaven of Animals,” ” heaven is the poet’s possession, a stay against the fear of death.” If the same issues are at play in “Deer Among Cattle,” then the deer, like the fierce cats in “The Heaven of Animals,” seems eternal while the cattle mindlessly munch their way toward the the “night of the hammer,” or death. This seems to parrallel Dickey’s feelings about how modern man largely lost the capacity for purposeful living and longs for a cosmic identity, one that in “Deer Among Cattle” Dickey projects onto the cattle and deer, respectively. Just a thought.

      • Davis Enloe says:

        For a long time I struggled, actually, I still struggle with what seem to be themes going in opposite directions in “For the Last Wolverine.” Just when I settle on an understanding that satisfies me something in the poem leaves me guessing, wondering if, as Rod observed earlier, the poet is just up to some mischief.

        What is clear to me is, as he does in “The Sheep Child” and “Approaching Prayer,” Dickey conceives a new creature from two other creatures. Also, there are several key words in “Wolverine” that Dickey uses in “Approaching Prayer”: Lord, hover, and reason. These words are important because, as in “Approaching Prayer,” the speaker again seems to be suspended between the divine and reason—what Dickey referred to as “the hovering place” in “Approaching Prayer.” The speaker again seems to end up suspended between the rational and the irrational, between the physical reality of earth and the ineffable dimension of the soul.

        Dickey stated in “Self-Interviews” that what he wanted more than anything was to have a feeling of wholeness. I read “For the Last Wolverine” as representative of Dickey’s ongoing quest for identification and connection, a desire to reestablish his original union with everything living, to recapture a sense of being an essential part of a universe, to gain access to an eternal place—to be immortal.

        In Art and Artist, Otto Rank addresses this concept and explains identification as: “the echo of an original identity, not merely of child and mother, but of everything—witness the reverence of the primitive for animals. In man, identification aims at reestablishing a lost identity; not an identity which was lost once and for all . . . but an identity with the cosmic process” (376). In “Wolverine” the speaker seems representative of an alienated modern man in perpetual conflict with an indifferent and purposeless modernizing world.

        But, even as I hear the speaker say he takes the wolverine as it is, he (the speaker) declares he will make of him what he will? Rather than end the poem with concern about either the literal or spiritual fate of the wolverine the speaker turns abruptly to his real issue, which is his own mortality and desire to live forever. The lines “Lord, let me die but not die out” are intriguing, but they are also intrusion, much in the emphatic way death intrudes on us all.

  6. In this same vein, see For the Last Wolverine:

    Lord, let me die but not die


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