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.