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  • Final Collection
  • Patrick James Dunagan (bio)
Death and the Day Light: Poems
James Dickey
Gordon Van Ness, ed.
Mercer University Press
130 Pages; Print, $25.00

In 2013 the Complete Poems of James Dickey (University of South Carolina Press) appeared. This volume was intended to replace The Whole Motion: Collected Poems, 1945-1992 (1992), which Dickey himself oversaw, as the definitive “complete” gathering of all Dickey’s poems, both published and unpublished. Yet Death, and the Day’s Light is intended to stand apart from the Complete. This “final volume” of Dickey’s poems, in addition to a handful of shorter poems which do appear in the Complete, consists mainly of two poems of significant length, “Show Us the Sea” and “For Jules Bacon,” which do not. Dickey was working on these at the time of his death. As Gordon Van Ness, editor of the present volume, remarks:

It might be argued that The Complete Poems renders publication of Dickey’s final volume unnecessary or superfluous, partly because the former already includes all the short poems in the latter and partly because Dickey himself failed to complete the two long poems before he died.

Yet Van Ness—along with Dickey’s children—felt the two long poems especially deserving of publication. The poet’s son, Christopher Dickey, also attests in his Foreword that it was Dickey’s personal request that Christopher himself finish the poems. Finding himself no match for the mammoth challenge of such a project, Christopher was relieved when

More than a decade after my father’s death, Gordon Van Ness got in touch with me with a surprising proposition. He said he would like to try to finish the two poems, to the extent possible, from the many manuscript versions stored at Emory University.

Indeed this “labor of love” entailed a massive archival sorting on the part of Van Ness. In order to construct a publishable version of the two longer poems he went through The James Dickey Papers, “Box 107, folders 3 through 21, and Box 108, folders 1 through 6, a total of more than one thousand typescript pages.” However, when it came to these two poems, as well as the volume as a whole, Van Ness was not constructing from fragments or vastly incomplete texts. The complete vision for the volume was clear:

[…] Dickey had made substantive progress toward completion of both “Show Us the Sea” and “For Jules Bacon,” the final drafts varying not in structure but in an exact determination of sometimes tentative wording or enjambment. Then, too, he had already arrived at an understanding of what he wanted the overall organization of the volume itself to be, that is, the exact arrangement of all the poems.

In other words, this is pretty much the book Dickey himself would have published had he lived long enough to oversee finishing it himself.

Van Ness tells how the poems in Death, and the Day’s Light “continue the thematic concerns that were always Dickey’s primary interests: family, war, death, and love. Moreover, the poems echo, in their images and dramatic situations, earlier works.” He goes on to describe how Dickey, an endless reviser of his own poetry, “[…] attempted to wring two poems, ‘Show us the Sea’ and ‘For Jules Bacon,’ from his earlier works and from his old self, not the drunken genius but the football player and weight lifter, the combat aviator and caring father.” In doing so “Dickey was attempting to summarize his career by alluding to previous characters, images, situations, and motifs, a final look backward.” And Van Ness declares “the transformation was, in all important ways, a resurrection.”

Christopher Dickey echoes Van Ness with his remarks that the editor “has found the voice of James Dickey” and “resurrected the genius.” Whether this is an accurate assessment or not, the real question is whether the poems rise above the rest of Dickey’s later poetry, which has generally been seen to be quite paltry. Van Ness describes how Dickey:

[…] had hoped that the publication of The Whole Motion: Collected Poems, 1945-1992 would initiate a critical reassessment of his work, an evaluation...


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pp. 22-23
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