Falling

James Dickey - 1923-1997
A 29-year-old stewardess fell ... to her 
death tonight when she was swept 
through an emergency door that 
suddenly sprang open ... The body ... 
was found ... three hours after the 
accident. 
                   —New York Times

The states when they black out and lie there rolling    when they turn 
To something transcontinental    move by    drawing moonlight out of the great 
One-sided stone hung off the starboard wingtip    some sleeper next to 
An engine is groaning for coffee    and there is faintly coming in 
Somewhere the vast beast-whistle of space. In the galley with its racks 
Of trays    she rummages for a blanket    and moves in her slim tailored 
Uniform to pin it over the cry at the top of the door. As though she blew 

The door down with a silent blast from her lungs    frozen    she is black 
Out finding herself    with the plane nowhere and her body taking by the throat 
The undying cry of the void    falling    living    beginning to be something 
That no one has ever been and lived through    screaming without enough air 
Still neat    lipsticked    stockinged    girdled by regulation    her hat 
Still on    her arms and legs in no world    and yet spaced also strangely 
With utter placid rightness on thin air    taking her time    she holds it 
In many places    and now, still thousands of feet from her death she seems 
To slow    she develops interest    she turns in her maneuverable body 

To watch it. She is hung high up in the overwhelming middle of things in her 
Self    in low body-whistling wrapped intensely    in all her dark dance-weight 
Coming down from a marvellous leap    with the delaying, dumfounding ease 
Of a dream of being drawn    like endless moonlight to the harvest soil 
Of a central state of one’s country    with a great gradual warmth coming 
Over her    floating    finding more and more breath in what she has been using 
For breath    as the levels become more human    seeing clouds placed honestly 
Below her left and right    riding slowly toward them    she clasps it all 
To her and can hang her hands and feet in it in peculiar ways    and 
Her eyes opened wide by wind, can open her mouth as wide    wider and suck 
All the heat from the cornfields    can go down on her back with a feeling 
Of stupendous pillows stacked under her    and can turn    turn as to someone 
In bed    smile, understood in darkness    can go away    slant    slide 
Off tumbling    into the emblem of a bird with its wings half-spread 
Or whirl madly on herself    in endless gymnastics in the growing warmth
Of wheatfields rising toward the harvest moon.    There is time to live 
In superhuman health    seeing mortal unreachable lights far down seeing 
An ultimate highway with one late priceless car probing it    arriving 
In a square town    and off her starboard arm the glitter of water catches 
The moon by its one shaken side    scaled, roaming silver    My God it is good 
And evil    lying in one after another of all the positions for love 
Making    dancing    sleeping    and now cloud wisps at her no 
Raincoat    no matter    all small towns brokenly brighter from inside 
Cloud    she walks over them like rain    bursts out to behold a Greyhound 
Bus shooting light through its sides    it is the signal to go straight 
Down like a glorious diver    then feet first    her skirt stripped beautifully 
Up    her face in fear-scented cloths    her legs deliriously bare    then 
Arms out    she slow-rolls over    steadies out    waits for something great 
To take control of her    trembles near feathers    planes head-down 
The quick movements of bird-necks turning her head    gold eyes the insight- 
eyesight of owls blazing into the hencoops    a taste for chicken overwhelming 
Her    the long-range vision of hawks enlarging all human lights of cars 
Freight trains    looped bridges    enlarging the moon racing slowly 
Through all the curves of a river    all the darks of the midwest blazing 
From above. A rabbit in a bush turns white    the smothering chickens 
Huddle    for over them there is still time for something to live 
With the streaming half-idea of a long stoop    a hurtling    a fall 
That is controlled    that plummets as it wills    turns gravity 
Into a new condition, showing its other side like a moon    shining 
New Powers    there is still time to live on a breath made of nothing 
But the whole night    time for her to remember to arrange her skirt 
Like a diagram of a bat    tightly it guides her    she has this flying-skin 
Made of garments    and there are also those sky-divers on TV    sailing 
In sunlight    smiling under their goggles    swapping batons back and forth 
And He who jumped without a chute and was handed one by a diving 
Buddy. She looks for her grinning companion    white teeth    nowhere 
She is screaming    singing hymns    her thin human wings spread out 
From her neat shoulders    the air beast-crooning to her    warbling 
And she can no longer behold the huge partial form of the world    now 
She is watching her country lose its evoked master shape    watching it lose 
And gain    get back its houses and peoples    watching it bring up 
Its local lights    single homes    lamps on barn roofs    if she fell 
Into water she might live    like a diver    cleaving    perfect    plunge 

Into another    heavy silver    unbreathable    slowing    saving 
Element: there is water    there is time to perfect all the fine 
Points of diving    feet together    toes pointed    hands shaped right 
To insert her into water like a needle    to come out healthily dripping 
And be handed a Coca-Cola    there they are    there are the waters 
Of life    the moon packed and coiled in a reservoir    so let me begin 
To plane across the night air of Kansas    opening my eyes superhumanly 
Bright    to the damned moon    opening the natural wings of my jacket 
By Don Loper    moving like a hunting owl toward the glitter of water 
One cannot just fall    just tumble screaming all that time    one must use 
It    she is now through with all    through all    clouds    damp    hair 
Straightened    the last wisp of fog pulled apart on her face like wool revealing 
New darks    new progressions of headlights along dirt roads from chaos 

And night    a gradual warming    a new-made, inevitable world of one’s own 
Country    a great stone of light in its waiting waters    hold    hold out 
For water: who knows when what correct young woman must take up her body 
And fly    and head for the moon-crazed inner eye of midwest imprisoned 
Water    stored up for her for years    the arms of her jacket slipping 
Air up her sleeves to go    all over her? What final things can be said 
Of one who starts her sheerly in her body in the high middle of night 
Air    to track down water like a rabbit where it lies like life itself 
Off to the right in Kansas? She goes toward    the blazing-bare lake 
Her skirts neat    her hands and face warmed more and more by the air 
Rising from pastures of beans    and under her    under chenille bedspreads 
The farm girls are feeling the goddess in them struggle and rise brooding 
On the scratch-shining posts of the bed    dreaming of female signs 
Of the moon    male blood like iron    of what is really said by the moan 
Of airliners passing over them at dead of midwest midnight    passing 
Over brush fires    burning out in silence on little hills    and will wake 
To see the woman they should be    struggling on the rooftree to become 
Stars: for her the ground is closer    water is nearer    she passes 
It    then banks    turns    her sleeves fluttering differently as she rolls 
Out to face the east, where the sun shall come up from wheatfields she must 
Do something with water    fly to it    fall in it    drink it    rise 
From it    but there is none left upon earth    the clouds have drunk it back 
The plants have sucked it down    there are standing toward her only 
The common fields of death    she comes back from flying to falling 
Returns to a powerful cry    the silent scream with which she blew down 
The coupled door of the airliner    nearly    nearly losing hold 
Of what she has done    remembers    remembers the shape at the heart 
Of cloud    fashionably swirling    remembers she still has time to die 
Beyond explanation. Let her now take off her hat in summer air the contour 
Of cornfields    and have enough time to kick off her one remaining 
Shoe with the toes    of the other foot    to unhook her stockings 
With calm fingers, noting how fatally easy it is to undress in midair 
Near death    when the body will assume without effort any position 
Except the one that will sustain it    enable it to rise    live 
Not die    nine farms hover close    widen    eight of them separate, leaving 
One in the middle    then the fields of that farm do the same    there is no 
Way to back off    from her chosen ground    but she sheds the jacket 
With its silver sad impotent wings    sheds the bat’s guiding tailpiece 
Of her skirt    the lightning-charged clinging of her blouse    the intimate 
Inner flying-garment of her slip in which she rides like the holy ghost 
Of a virgin    sheds the long windsocks of her stockings    absurd 
Brassiere    then feels the girdle required by regulations squirming 
Off her: no longer monobuttocked    she feels the girdle flutter    shake 
In her hand    and float    upward    her clothes rising off her ascending 
Into cloud    and fights away from her head the last sharp dangerous shoe 
Like a dumb bird    and now will drop in    SOON    now will drop 

In like this    the greatest thing that ever came to Kansas    down from all 
Heights    all levels of American breath    layered in the lungs from the frail 
Chill of space to the loam where extinction slumbers in corn tassels thickly 
And breathes like rich farmers counting: will come along them after 
Her last superhuman act    the last slow careful passing of her hands 
All over her unharmed body    desired by every sleeper in his dream: 
Boys finding for the first time their loins filled with heart’s blood 
Widowed farmers whose hands float under light covers to find themselves 
Arisen at sunrise    the splendid position of blood unearthly drawn 
Toward clouds    all feel something    pass over them as she passes 
Her palms over her long legs    her small breasts    and deeply between 
Her thighs    her hair shot loose from all pins    streaming in the wind 
Of her body    let her come openly    trying at the last second to land 
On her back    This is it    THIS 
                                                   All those who find her impressed 
In the soft loam    gone down    driven well into the image of her body 
The furrows for miles flowing in upon her where she lies very deep 
In her mortal outline    in the earth as it is in cloud    can tell nothing 
But that she is there    inexplicable    unquestionable    and remember 
That something broke in them as well    and began to live and die more 
When they walked for no reason into their fields to where the whole earth 
Caught her    interrupted her maiden flight    told her how to lie she cannot 
Turn    go away    cannot move    cannot slide off it and assume another 
Position    no sky-diver with any grin could save her    hold her in his arms 
Plummet with her    unfold above her his wedding silks    she can no longer 
Mark the rain with whirling women that take the place of a dead wife 
Or the goddess in Norwegian farm girls    or all the back-breaking whores 
Of Wichita. All the known air above her is not giving up quite one 
Breath    it is all gone    and yet not dead    not anywhere else 
Quite    lying still in the field on her back    sensing the smells 
Of incessant growth try to lift her    a little sight left in the corner 
Of one eye    fading    seeing something wave    lies believing 
That she could have made it    at the best part of her brief goddess 
State    to water    gone in headfirst    come out smiling    invulnerable 
Girl in a bathing-suit ad    but she is lying like a sunbather at the last 
Of moonlight    half-buried in her impact on the earth    not far 
From a railroad trestle    a water tank    she could see if she could 
Raise her head from her modest hole    with her clothes beginning 
To come down all over Kansas    into bushes    on the dewy sixth green 
Of a golf course    one shoe    her girdle coming down fantastically 
On a clothesline, where it belongs    her blouse on a lightning rod: 

Lies in the fields    in this field    on her broken back as though on 
A cloud she cannot drop through    while farmers sleepwalk without 
Their women from houses    a walk like falling toward the far waters 
Of life    in moonlight    toward the dreamed eternal meaning of their farms 
Toward the flowering of the harvest in their hands    that tragic cost 
Feels herself go    go toward    go outward    breathes at last fully 
Not    and tries    less    once    tries    tries    AH, GOD—

More by James Dickey

Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek

As he moves the mine detector
A few inches over the ground,
Making it vitally float
Among the ferns and weeds,
I come into this war
Slowly, with my one brother,
Watching his face grow deep
Between the earphones,
For I can tell
If we enter the buried battle
Of Nimblewill
Only by his expression.

Softly he wanders, parting
The grass with a dreaming hand.
No dead cry yet takes root
In his clapped ears
Or can be seen in his smile.
But underfoot I feel 
The dead regroup,
The burst metals all in place,
The battle lines be drawn
Anew to include us
In Nimblewill,
And I carry the shovel and pick

More as if they were
Bright weapons that I bore.
A bird's cry breaks 
In two, and into three parts.
We cross the creek; the cry
Shifts into another,
Nearer, bird, and is
Like the shout of a shadow—
Lived-with, appallingly close—
Or the soul, pronouncing
"Nimblewill":
Three tones; your being changes.

We climb the bank;
A faint light glows
On my brother's mouth.
I listen, as two birds fight
For a single voice, but he
Must be hearing the grave,
In pieces, all singing
To his clamped head,
For he smiles as if 
He rose from the dead within
Green Nimblewill
And stood in his grandson's shape.

No shot from the buried war
Shall kill me now,
For the dead have waited here
A hundred years to create
Only the look on the face
Of my one brother,
Who stands among them, offering
A metal dish
Afloat in the trembling weeds,
With a long-buried light on his lips
At Nimblewill
And the dead outsinging two birds.

I choke the handle
Of the pick, and fall to my knees
To dig wherever he points,
To bring up mess tin or bullet,
To go underground
Still singing, myself,
Without a sound,
Like a man who renounces war,
Or one who shall lift up the past,
Not breathing "Father,"
At Nimblewill,
But saying, "Fathers! Fathers!"

The Dusk of Horses

Right under their noses, the green
Of the field is paling away
Because of something fallen from the sky. 

They see this, and put down
Their long heads deeper in grass
That only just escapes reflecting them

As the dream of a millpond would.
The color green flees over the grass
Like an insect, following the red sun over

The next hill. The grass is white.
There is no cloud so dark and white at once;
There is no pool at dawn that deepens

Their faces and thirsts as this does.
Now they are feeding on solid
Cloud, and, one by one,

With nails as silent as stars among the wood
Hewed down years ago and now rotten,
The stalls are put up around them.

Now if they lean, they come
On wood on any side. Not touching it, they sleep.
No beast ever lived who understood

What happened among the sun's fields,
Or cared why the color of grass 
Fled over the hill while he stumbled,

Led by the halter to sleep
On his four taxed, worthy legs.
Each thinks he awakens where 

The sun is black on the rooftop,
That the green is dancing in the next pasture,
And that the way to sleep

In a cloud, or in a risen lake,
Is to walk as though he were still 
in the drained field standing, head down,

To pretend to sleep when led,
And thus to go under the ancient white
Of the meadow, as green goes

And whiteness comes up through his face
Holding stars and rotten rafters,
Quiet, fragrant, and relieved.

The Shark's Parlor

Memory: I can take my head and strike it on a wall     on Cumberland Island 
Where the night tide came crawling under the stairs     came up the first 
Two or three steps     and the cottage stood on poles all night 
With the sea sprawled under it     as we dreamed of the great fin circling 
Under the bedroom floor. In daylight there was my first brassy taste of beer 
And Payton Ford and I came back from the Glynn County slaughterhouse 
With a bucket of entrails and blood. We tied one end of a hawser 
To a spindling porch-pillar and rowed straight out of the house 
Three hundred yards into the vast front yard of windless blue water 
The rope out slithering its coil     the two-gallon jug stoppered and sealed 
With wax     and a ten-foot chain leader     a drop-forged shark-hook nestling. 
We cast our blood on the waters     the land blood easily passing 
For sea blood     and we sat in it for a moment with the stain spreading 
Out from the boat     sat in a new radiance     in the pond of blood in the sea 
Waiting for fins     waiting to spill our guts also in the glowing water. 
We dumped the bucket, and baited the hook with a run-over collie pup. The jug 
Bobbed, trying to shake off the sun as a dog would shake off the sea. 
We rowed to the house     feeling the same water lift the boat a new way, 
All the time seeing where we lived rise and dip with the oars. 
We tied up and sat down in rocking chairs, one eye on the other responding 
To the blue-eye wink of the jug. Payton got us a beer and we sat 
All morning sat there with blood on our minds     the red mark out 
In the harbor slowly failing us     then     the house groaned     the rope 
Sprang out of the water     splinters flew     we leapt from our chairs 
And grabbed the rope     hauled     did nothing     the house coming subtly 
Apart     all around us     underfoot     boards beginning to sparkle like sand 
Pulling out     the tarred poles we slept propped-up on     leaning to sea 
As in land-wind     crabs scuttling from under the floor     as we took runs about 
Two more porch-pillars     and looked out and saw     something     a fish-flash 
An almighty fin in trouble    a moiling of secret forces     a false start 
Of water    a round wave growing     in the whole of Cumberland Sound the one ripple. 
Payton took off without a word     I could not hold him either 
But clung to the rope anyway     it was the whole house bending 
Its nails that held whatever it was     coming in a little and like a fool 
I took up the slack on my wrist. The rope drew gently     jerked     I lifted 
Clean off the porch and hit the water     the same water it was in 
I felt in blue blazing terror at the bottom of the stairs and scrambled 
Back up looking desperately into the human house as deeply as I could 
Stopping my gaze before it went out the wire screen of the back door 
Stopped it on the thistled rattan     the rugs I lay on and read 
On my mother's sewing basket with next winter's socks spilling from it 
The flimsy vacation furniture     a bucktoothed picture of myself. 
Payton came back with three men from a filling station     and glanced at me 
Dripping water     inexplicable     then we all grabbed hold like a tug-of-war. 
We were gaining a little     from us a cry went up     from everywhere 
People came running. Behind us the house filled with men and boys.
On the third step from the sea I took my place     looking down the rope 
Going into the ocean, humming and shaking off drops. A houseful 
Of people put their backs into it     going up the steps from me 
Into the living room     through the kitchen     down the back stairs 
Up and over a hill of sand     across a dust road     and onto a raised field 
Of dunes     we were gaining     the rope in my hands began to be wet 
With deeper water     all other haulers retreated through the house 
But Payton and I on the stairs     drawing hand over hand on our blood 
Drawing into existence by the nose     a huge body     becoming 
A hammerhead     rolling in beery shallows     and I began to let up 
But the rope strained behind me     the town had gone 
Pulling-mad in our house     far away in a field of sand they struggled 
They had turned their backs on the sea     bent double     some on their knees 
The rope over their shoulders like a bag of gold     they strove for the ideal 
Esso station across the scorched meadow     with the distant fish coming up 
The front stairs     the sagging boards     still coming in     up     taking 
Another step     toward the empty house     where the rope stood straining 
By itself through the rooms     in the middle of the air.     "Pass the word," 
Payton said, and I screamed it     "Let up, good God, let up!"     to no one there. 
The shark flopped on the porch, grating with salt-sand     driving back in 
The nails he had pulled out     coughing chunks of his formless blood. 
The screen door banged and tore off     he scrambled on his tail     slid 
Curved     did a thing from another world     and was out of his element and in 
Our vacation paradise     cutting all four legs from under the dinner table 
With one deep-water move     he unwove the rugs in a moment     throwing pints 
Of blood over everything we owned     knocked the buckteeth out of my picture 
His odd head full of crashed jelly-glass splinters and radio tubes     thrashing 
Among the pages of fan magazines     all the movie stars drenched in sea-blood 
Each time we thought he was dead     he struggled back and smashed 
One more thing     in all coming back to die     three or four more times after death. 
At last we got him out     logrolling him     greasing his sandpaper skin 
With lard to slide him     pulling on his chained lips as the tide came, 
Tumbled him down the steps as the first night wave went under the floor. 
He drifted off     head back     belly white as the moon. What could I do but buy 
That house     for the one black mark still there     against death     a forehead- 
        toucher in the room he circles beneath     and has been invited to wreck? 
Blood hard as iron on the wall     black with time     still bloodlike 
Can be touched whenever the brow is drunk enough. All changes. Memory: 
Something like three-dimensional dancing in the limbs     with age 
Feeling more in two worlds than one     in all worlds the growing encounters.