Click Image to Visit the Pecan Grove Press Web Page for Poetry from Paradise Valley


Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.

Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

James Dickey: "The Firebombing"

Like nearly 20 million other Americans (according to the television ratings numbers of an overnight tracking poll by Nielsen), I have been watching The War, the fascinating and riveting Ken Burns documentary of events and individuals during World War II. Most of the focus in the series has concentrated on the war experiences abroad and at home by people in four towns representing various geographical regions or sociological groups across the United States.

Some of the descriptions and observations come from contemporaneous newspaper reports or letters home from soldiers; however, Burns also relies heavily on recent interviews with a number of the remaining participants in the historical incidents. Consequently, much of the narrative is provided by current recollections of survivors remembering their actions and emotions at the time, as well as relating the physical or psychological after-effects felt by many for years and decades, or for some now even more than a half century later. Ken Burns repeatedly has summarized the reactions of those soldiers interviewed as common to all wars: “I was scared, I was bored, I was cold, I was hot, I did bad things, I saw bad things, I lost good friends, they didn’t give me the right equipment, my officers didn’t know what they were doing. That’s it.”

Still, as indicated by the accompanying video clip showing one of those interviewed, a former fighter pilot, among the most difficult occurrences in any war are those circumstances that concern the necessity to kill during a military maneuver even while considering personal regard for the value of life. For those who killed enemy soldiers in combat, as well as citizens caught in the crossfire, a conflict of conscience often arose, particularly as one tried to justify his assigned duties to kill others, which were contrary to moral teachings or religious beliefs previously held. As the piece of film here demonstrates, the documentary frequently revisits this inner conflict that continued to trouble some long after the war had ended.

Viewing segments of the documentary where old soldiers addressed the emotional turmoil involved in their actions, as well as the need to deal with elements of guilt, sometimes by making efforts to not allow or recognize that emotion, I recalled James Dickey’s “The Firebombing,” one of the more powerful and more controversial poems written about World War II. This long poem opened Dickey’s 1965 collection, Buckdancer’s Choice, which won the National Book Award. In addition to its length and its position in the book, “The Firebombing” received a great deal of attention for its subject matter, particularly since it appeared during the Vietnam War era of the mid-Sixties.

Although the poem achieved its fair share of praise from critics, one essay by Robert Bly, “The Collapse of James Dickey,” published in the spring of 1967 attacked Dickey’s poem—as well as the book’s long closing poem, “Slave Quarters”—as “repulsive.” Perhaps blinded by his own political fervor and apparently angered by Dickey’s support of the Vietnam War, Bly accused Dickey of being a militarist, a racist, and a sadist. Bly perceived “a gloating about power over others” in his reading of the book.

Of course, some of Bly’s reaction to the poetry seems fueled by Dickey’s public persona as an individual who enjoyed prodding others with overly broad comments and braggadocio. Especially when drinking, James Dickey’s reputation included an ability to be rude and insulting, as well as a penchant for attempting to shock listeners. As I mentioned in a previous post, I once shared a publication party with James Dickey when he and I both had new books of poems released at the same time by BOA Editions. As we sat side-by-side at the book-signing event, I witnessed firsthand Dickey’s easy charm as well as his tendency to provoke with outlandish statements or rude remarks. Nevertheless, Bly’s commentary on “The Firebombing” appears too heavily influenced by a personal view of Dickey as an adversary with an opposing political position on the Vietnam War.

Indeed, in “The Firebombing” Dickey presents a persona conflicted by the excitement and sense of power experienced when flying missions high above his targets, detached from the destruction and death below. The poem’s speaker also includes an acknowledgment that he suffers from confusion still felt decades later about a lack of guilt or remorse for his actions, though readers certainly should not deem this as an attitude of indifference. Dickey once commented: “To have guilt you've got to earn guilt, but sometimes when you earn it, you don't feel the guilt you ought to have. And that's what ‘The Firebombing’ is about.”

In her book about the visionary in literature, Joyce Carol Oates devotes a chapter to James Dickey and regards “The Firebombing” as a crucial poem: “It is unforgettable, and seems to me an important achievement in our contemporary literature, a masterpiece that could only have been written by an American, and only by Dickey. Having shown us so convincingly in his poetry how natural, how inevitable, is man's love for all things, Dickey now shows us what happens when man is forced to destroy, forced to step down into history and be an American ('and proud of it'). In so doing he enters a tragic dimension in which few poets indeed have operated.”

Perhaps James Dickey has written more powerful poems about World War II than any other American poet. He was a decorated aviator who had acknowledged dropping napalm and phosphorous at times, although in demonstration runs evidence indicates, and who had observed the horrible images of decomposing bodies on the battlefield when he was stationed in Okinawa. But he apparently did not participate in the sort of extensive firebombing of populated areas as the persona in his poem. Yet, through first-person narrative he assumed the role in the poem and identified with its persona.

In a 1990 Contemporary Literature interview as reported in Henry Hart’s excellent biography of the poet, Dickey explains “the guilt at the inability to feel guilty.” He continues: “You’ve been given medals for doing this. Your country has honored you—but there are those doubts that stay with you. You feel as a family man what all those unseen, forever unseen, people felt that you dropped those bombs on. You did it. The detachment one senses when dropping the bombs is the worst evil of all—yet it doesn’t seem so at the time.” In “The Firebombing” his persona lives in an average American suburb two decades after the war and still seems haunted by the Japanese living in the homes of neighborhoods beneath his plane during those bombing runs so long ago.

James Dickey’s son, journalist Christopher Dickey, reports in a 2003 lecture paper delivered at Clemson University: “It was only in his poem ‘The Firebombing’ that he found, at last, the perfect voice to address his confused and conflicted emotions as an American survivor of the war living in a well-mowed quarter-acre housing development twenty years afterward, trying to comprehend what he had wrought on other human beings whom he did not know, and never saw.”

An excerpt from James Dickey’s “The Firebombing”:

Gun down
The engines, the eight blades sighing
For the moment when the roofs will connect
Their flames, and make a town burning with all
American fire.
Reflections of houses catch;
Fire shuttles from pond to pond
In every direction, till hundreds flash with one death.
With this in the dark of the mind,
Death will not be what it should;
Will not, even now, even when
My exhaled face in the mirror
Of bars, dilates in a cloud like Japan.
The death of children is ponds
Shutter-flashing; responding mirrors; it climbs
The terraces of hills
Smaller and smaller, a mote of red dust
At a hundred feet; at a hundred and one it goes out.
That is what should have got in
To my eye
And shown the insides of houses, the low tables
Catch fire from the floor mats,
Blaze up in gas around their heads
Like a dream of suddenly growing
Too intense for war. Ah, under one’s dark arms
Something strange-scented falls—when those on earth
Die, there is not even sound;
One is cool and enthralled in the cockpit,
Turned blue by the power of beauty,
In a pale treasure-hole of soft light
Deep in aesthetic contemplation,
Seeing the ponds catch fire
And cast it through ring after ring
Of land: O death in the middle
Of acres of inch-deep water!

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