By Anne Sexton
That does not keep me from having a terrible need of — shall I say the word — religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars. –Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother
The town does not exist
except where one black-haired tree slips
up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.
The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die.
It moves. They are all alive.
Even the moon bulges in its orange irons
to push children, like a god, from its eye.
The old unseen serpent swallows up the stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die:
into that rushing beast of the night,
sucked up by that great dragon, to split
from my life with no flag,
The life of Roman poet Catullus was stranger than fiction, but a new biography speculates far more than any history should.
BY JAMES ROMM
“This bedspread, / Embroidered with the shapes of men / Who lived long ago, unveils the virtue of heroes / Through the miracle of art.” These lines, from a mini-epic by the Roman poet Catullus, speak of a coverlet given to Thetis, mother of Achilles, on her wedding day; Catullus is about to set its embroidered scene into motion using the “miracle” of poetry. With a racy title—Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet—and the use of this quote as epigram, classicist Daisy Dunn lays claim to a parallel miracle: The reanimation, for modern readers, of the poet himself. It’s a noble goal, but one that can be pulled off only by resorting to the dark arts of historical biography—guesswork, speculation, and the reconstruction of characters’ thoughts and feelings. Dunn’s book raises questions about how far these forms of necromancy can be taken before nonfiction passes over into fiction, and scholarship is eclipsed by romance.
The recently published edition of Geoffrey Hill’s Selected Poems appears to be an attempt by Yale University Press to atone for Hill’s unpardonable lapse from print on these shores, and I must begin by applauding them for doing so. It is also — as I think all selected editions are, to some extent — an attempt to introduce, or re-introduce, the writing of this unparalleled poet to the reading public. Perhaps no re-introduction is more warranted, necessary, or welcome. Every reader of poetry ought to be acquainted with Hill’s verse, and a slimmer, less overwhelming selected edition is certainly more appealing to many readers than the task of sifting through his individual collections, many unavailable in the United States.
Unfortunately, those who are unfamiliar with Hill will find no guide to his work in this volume. Yale’s edition contains no foreword or introduction, nor a note from any editor, nor even a few words by the author — only a table of contents listing the poet’s collections, in chronological order, into which the reader blindly dives.
JAMES Dickey was hugely gifted and hugely flawed, a tremendous reader and a born writer, an athlete and an intellectual, a deep thinker and a drinker, a composer of burly and extremist poetry, an excessive performer, a hopeless liar, an inveterate womanizer, a father who gave himself airs. This furnished much for a son, especially a talented son, to flee from. Christopher Dickey writes,
The whisky on my father’s breath, a smell that seemed to come from deep in the bellows of his lungs, started to frighten me…. I’d smell the whisky and know that whatever I said to him would go past him and whatever he replied would be words spoken to the air. He was my father still, but he was somebody I didn’t know.
Though Summer of Deliverance tells more than other books are likely to about the life and death of James Dickey, it should be even better appreciated for what it achieves in telling the truth about the ways a son gives meaning to the weight of a father — Aeneas carrying Anchises out of burning Troy. American southerners somehow understand more about the truth of the past than northerners do; perhaps because, like William Faulkner, they know that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past,” and consequently know how to tell us more-resonant stories. Christopher Dickey’s book is southern in that it inhabits the past and the present at once: “Was I the grown man talking to his aged father, or the little boy talking to his dad?” Various observers have for years been preparing to write about the life and work of James Dickey, but those who admired his talent — or the best of his talent — have doubtless been facing that eventuality with a sinking feeling. Much of the redemptive job of biography has now been done by the poet’s elder son.