When I was living out a love affair with a married man, off and on for several years in my thirties, there wasn't much I read that caught the surrealness of this existence. It felt like standing in front of display tanks at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago: you can barely believe these sea creatures you see are real. Except what's in the tank is your life, living and moving, taking forms you don't recognize.
My life with my lover was like one of those luminous jellyfish, visible only in outline. Psychology Today articles and their sort on adultery were like jellyfish put through a mangle.
Talking to people who hadn't at some point found themselves at sea in their own lives usually wasn't helpful either. Adultery, like suicide, is one of those uncomfortable things people rush to put labels on. Comforting to us, maybe, meaningless to the jellyfish, which continues to float through its life. Gradually, for me it was the world outside the tank that began to seem surreal.
Coming across this poem, "Adultery," by James Dickey, at the time was like meeting another jellyfish. His tank is a crummy motel room, and the occupants and the onlookers are a pair of lovers and the characters on the Western wallpaper, but the wondrous awful strangeness was the same as mine.
We have all been in rooms
We cannot die in, and they are odd places, and sad.
Often Indians are standing eagle-armed on hills
In the sunrise open wide to the Great Spirit
Or gliding in canoes or cattle are browsing on the walls
Far away gazing down with the eyes of our children
Not far away or there are men driving
The last railspike, which has turned
Gold in their hands. Gigantic forepleasure lives
Among such scenes, and we are alone with it
At last. There is always some weeping
Between us and someone is always checking
A wrist watch by the bed to see how much
Longer we have left. Nothing can come
Of this nothing can come
Of us: of me with my grim techniques
Or you who have sealed your womb
With a ring of convulsive rubber:
Although we come together,
Nothing will come of us. But we would not give
It up, for death is beaten
By praying Indians by distant cows historical
Hammers by hazardous meetings that bridge
A continent. One could never die here
Never die never die
While crying. My lover, my dear one
I will see you next week
When I'm in town. I will call you
If I can. Please get hold of Please don't
Oh God, Please don't any more I can't bear... Listen:
We have done it again we are
Still living. Sit up and smile,
God bless you. Guilt is magical.
Though the details of the poem don't match my particulars, the last line is the only bit I don't recognize as my own. There was guilt, and there was magic, but I wouldn't say the one was the other. Is there a key to what Dickey means in the poem itself? If so, I don't see it. I guess he was just a different kind of jellyfish.
Otherwise, the mastery of this poem made me gawp when I reread it a couple days ago, for the first time in years. What had seemed inevitable when I first read it I now recognize as the result of hard work. I didn't need the poet to confirm this, but he does:
In Self-Interviews Dickey says, "I look with absolute amazement at the work of poets who just do two or three drafts and then, brother, there it is! . . . If I had a pretty good poem on the third draft, I would think, 'Boy, this is going to be really good when I have really worked on it!'"
Since I've been commenting on the American flavor of poets, if they're American (and what an American poem this is), let me add David Havird's description of Dickey in his article "In and Out of Class With James Dickey":
"Dickey's wearing a blue-jean jacket, the back of which is emblazoned with an American eagle holding in its claws a banner that reads not 'Liberty,' but 'Poetry'—that 'one word, raggedly blazing with extinction.'"
Dickey also wrote the novel Deliverance, the one that got turned into a movie.
So, I'd say he's as American as chittlings.
I couldn't find the Western wallpaper the poem brings to my mind, but lest anyone think it's an outmoded image in the Hollywoods of our minds, above is an eagle-armed Indian from Mel Gibson's 2006 movie Apocalypto.