Author James Dickey (1923– )
First Published 1967, in Poems 1957–1967
Type of Poem Narrative

The Poem

"Falling" is a long poem that uses the "split line"—a technique innovated by James Dickey—in a block format; its title suggests the poem’s dramatic situation, a flight attendant falling out of an airliner, as well as a metaphor for the human condition. The flight attendant’s fall from the airplane serves as an analogy for an individual’s descent through life, where every moment brings one closer to the time when one will not exist. This process is depicted as an unavoidable progression over which a person has little or no control. The question the poem poses implicitly is: Since death is an inescapable part of the human condition, and there is no certainty of an afterlife, how does one make existence meaningful?

To create the poem, Dickey draws on a newspaper account of a twenty-nine-year-old flight attendant who fell to her death when the emergency door of an airplane accidentally opened. Through a third-person narrator, Dickey imagines her thoughts and sensations as she is swept out of the plane and plunges to her death.

The poem begins by describing the plane flying at night and the flight attendant pinning a blanket over an emergency door that is emitting air. Suddenly, the door blasts open and the flight attendant is sucked out into the night sky. The narrator emphasizes that, at this point, the flight attendant is "Still neat lipsticked stockinged girdled by regulation." In other words, she is still bound by the conventions of the everyday role she performs. Though she is frightened, she also comes to realize that she has the opportunity "to be something/ That no one has ever been." As she discovers that she can maneuver her body in ways she had never previously imagined, she becomes increasingly immersed in air, which she has always depended on for life but which now completely encompasses her, making her, paradoxically, feel more alive ("There is time to live/ In superhuman health") as she hurls toward death.

As she falls, the flight attendant engages in various gymnastic tricks and attempts to control her fall by arranging her skirt "Like the diagram of a bat." She also evokes media images—television sky divers as well as Coca-Cola commercials of someone diving into a pool, emerging, and being handed a soft drink—to help her comprehend and react to her situation. These images from American popular culture provide her with an illusion of control, and she determines that she will "hold out/ for water," into which she can dive and survive.

When the flight attendant realizes there is no water below, she panics momentarily but then determines she "still has time to die/ Beyond explanation" and begins to perform a midair striptease. As she sheds her clothes, she takes on a new identity—a sacrificial virgin who will be "desired by every sleeper in his dream"—and begins to caress herself in a masturbatory fantasy. The narrator suggests that the flight attendant’s actions result in her transformation into a goddess who will resurrect feelings of sensuality and enhance the procreativity of the people who live below.

As she is about to hit the ground, however, the narrator interrupts the description of her plunge to emphasize that the flight attendant’s thoughts of survival and transformation are illusions, though she maintains them to the end by picturing herself as a "Girl in a bathing-suit ad" who finds water and "comes out smiling."

Forms and Devices

"Falling" is one of Dickey’s most ambitious experiments with the split line, a technique with which he began to experiment in Buckdancer’s Choice (1965). The split line captures a poetic stream of consciousness by breaking up a poem into rhythmic clusters of words. Through the split line, Dickey desires to explore "the characteristics of thought when it associates rapidly, and in detail, in regard to a specific subject, an action, an event, a theme."

In "Falling," the block format Dickey uses in conjunction with the split line makes the poem’s appearance on the page look much like that of prose, except that each cluster is separated by a distinct space ("with the delaying dumbfounding 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"). Though that makes the poem read much like a short story, each unit of words is highlighted in order to capture various effects. The form of each cluster is often determined by the sound of the words that are grouped together, but Dickey also uses them to isolate particularly vivid images, key ideas, or moments of realization. These rhythmic clusters build upon each other, making the verse gradually pick up speed, until at the poem’s conclusion, there is the effect of frenzied desperation. In essence, Dickey patterns the verse to reflect the continually increasing speed with which the flight attendant experiences her descent, as the earth, and death, loom closer and closer.

"Falling" also employs point of view in a manner usually associated with novels and short stories. Though "Falling" primarily uses a third-person narrator, at certain crucial moments the poem is written from the perspective of the flight attendant. This switch in narrative point of view is essential because the poem comments on how the flight attendant’s thoughts reflect and are limited by her cultural milieu. The third-person narrator enables Dickey to provide an assessment of the flight attendant’s thoughts, while his ventures into her perspective enable him to dramatize those thoughts.

Themes and Meanings

"Falling" dramatizes the existential predicament every person faces: Since life inevitably leads to death, how does one infuse existence with meaning so that one’s plight on earth seems significant? The flight attendant’s fall from the airplane is symbolic of an individual’s journey through life, which inevitably culminates in death. In the poem, the flight attendant tries to comprehend her situation by engag- ing in a variety of acts that she feels will allow her to exercise a degree of control; her actions, however, ultimately are illusions, though perhaps necessary ones.

The dramatic situation in which Dickey initially places the flight attendant stresses an individual’s lack of control over his or her own destiny. Instantaneously, the flight attendant goes from a situation of security and certainty, as she performs her socially sanctioned role in the safety of a modern-day airliner, to a state in which she is on her own and facing certain obliteration. This situation is portrayed as simultaneously horrifying and exhilarating, as the flight attendant discovers she is in the "void falling living beginning to be something/ that no one has ever been."

During her fall, she attempts to deal with her plight by interpreting it through images from American and Western culture, which constitute her reality and represent her only means of understanding existence. Dickey draws on images ranging from popular culture to Western mythology to show how immersion in a tradition endows one with a means to comprehend an otherwise meaningless existence in which the only certainty is death. These images allow the flight attendant to experience a degree of control. Her recollections of a television show in which one sky diver passes a parachute to another and a soft-drink commercial in which a woman dives into a swimming pool and emerges smiling make her feel that she can manipulate her fall, discover water, and save herself by plunging into it. She thinks that, by opening up her "jacket/ By Don Loper," she can form wings and glide toward water. Finally, she indulges in the belief that the experience is transforming her into a fertility goddess who will awaken the slumbering libidos of persons below. Though she feels she is shedding societal constraints when she peels off her clothing and imagines herself a goddess, this role is yet another conception emanating from the very culture she feels she is eschewing. Indeed, to emphasize this fact, the moment is described with a phrase out of Barnum & Bailey: "the greatest thing that ever came to Kansas." As the narrator informs the reader, the flight attendant is still passing through "all levels of American breath."

Though her effort to wrench meaning from an ultimately meaningless and incomprehensible dilemma is pictured as heroic, it is ultimately a futile illusion. As she is about to hit the ground, the narrator asserts that "the whole earth … told her how to lie." In other words, the means for interpreting reality with which society equips people are lies or illusions: No sky diver will come to her rescue; her death will not result in any supernatural transformation. Yet such illusions are vital because without them the will to exist and to continue to exert control over life is extinguished. The flight attendant is able to live out her life more fully and intensely because she is able to create significance. Up to the moment when she hits the ground, the flight attendant "tries tries" to cling to her illusions. Her final two words, "AH, GOD," are deliberately ambiguous. They are a plea for rescue, but the poem abruptly ends, suggesting the uncertainty of existence after death.

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The Poetry of Dickey

Author James Dickey (1923– )

James Dickey’s first collection of poems, INTO THE STONE, published as a section of Five Modern Poets VII in 1960, displays his characteristic strategies with theme, structure, and imagery. As in his later work, the choice controlling the considerable variety of subject matter and lyric qualities lies perceptibly within the personality and experience of the poet himself. The selections are largely impressionistic, exploring the consciousness of the artist and developing perceptions on the basis of particular personal experiences. The situations of most of the poems concern the writer’s sensitive responses to crucial experiences, either of boyhood or adulthood, viewed in retrospect. Other poems express the feelings and sensations which develop from reflection on types of experience.

The situations are interesting and significant within themselves, but the power and chief appeal of the poems lie in the poet’s treatment of these situations. Although they contain little personal symbolism, the poems develop meaningful patterns of personal sensations which ascertain and appraise inner and outer reality at various depths. Presented usually by accumulative images, these patterns develop out of three attributes of the poetic sensibility: a vivid sense of the emotional shape of experience, the ability to synthesize intuitively the disordered elements of life, and the capacity for empathetic self-projection.

DROWNING WITH OTHERS, his second volume, followed with remarkable consistency a religious pattern centered on the use of various symbols for the Christ. Water is basic: the water where the poet drowns with others, or mankind, while trying to rescue them and himself; and water on which even the fisher of men Himself can no longer walk, but drowns inside each man who sinks into the depths of the modern world.

The first poem in the book, "The Lifeguard," sets the theme. In this poem can be seen Dickey’s basic verse pattern, one of conventional stresses in anapests and iambics, which gives the book a metrical consistency and sameness. The poem continues with the poet’s exploration of his own defeat and potential death.

"A Birth" is a studio piece, a fanciful still life composed of grass, pasture, a young horse, a child, a mother, and the sun climbing the shoulder of the speaker. Possibly one of Dickey’s strengths is his comfort among the academic influences of the past three decades, so that he does not need flagrant rebellions which could disarrange his style. His conventional meters and stanza patterns do not block his invention at all. He writes a comely, even-tempered, careful verse.

In poems such as "The Heaven of Animals" and "Fog Envelops the Animals," he makes parables that suggest a pure world of instinct, softness, death which is natural rather than cruel in the human way, and a strange sense of the soul rising out of its captivity into an animistic region. Like Yeats, he senses the terrible paradox of soul fastened to a dying animal; or, he reverses the Yeatsian emphasis and considers body as suffering from the nails of spirit.

The title piece is not one of the stronger poems in the book. It is a fantasy of identity with the Christ, in which the writer uses remnants of Icarus, Eliot’s and Lowell’s kingfisher (at least they are the latest to have given the symbol notoriety), and a characteristic Thomas pattern.

"Drowning With Others," on which Dickey staked a great deal, relies ultimately on its assemblage of lazily accepted symbols and obvious derivations. It is much more heartening to come upon a successful fusion of the secular-personal and the religious-universal in the ending of an excellent poem entitled "The Scratch." In this poem the language is singular; the meters and images carry the experience to a condition of power, vivid and deep.

It is even more rewarding to encounter in this volume one of the most moving poems of this century, "The Hospital Window," a magnificently shaped account of the speaker’s visit to a tall glass hospital where his father lies in that area which is death even though he is still alive. Though elegiac, the whole movement of this perfectly controlled poem is triumphant, for the father’s hand waving good-bye from a window signifies that both father and son are not afraid for each other; and the son stands in the street outside, looking up, blocking traffic, bringing the entire soulless mechanical world to a halt with the frail force of human love and courage.

In HELMETS, Dickey goes about his personal myth-making as if it were a pleasant obsession, a gentle compulsion that sometimes lifts his poems to nobility. Myths of the past are not Dickey’s concern (he makes one reference to Ulysses, one to Shakespeare’s Ariel, several to the Bible); he wants to begin with ideas from his own time, from his own experience, and expressed in his own idiom.

In this third collection man’s relationship to animals is the great theme Dickey explores carefully and freshens up brightly for his readers. In poem after poem he intertwines man and beast, not like some later-day Aesop wielding sledge-hammer morals, but like the subtle poet he is, one who gently suggests, who lets his reader share in the creation of myth and moral. The parade of animals is fascinating; there are horses, cows, robins, unicorns, oxen, basilisks, trout, deer, sharks, porpoises, rattlesnakes, wild boars—a whole Ark full.

Many poems and stories have been written about hunters who are seized with a sudden reluctance to kill, but in "Springer Mountain" the poet is aiming at something more than the expression of disgust; his is a mystical, religious reaction.

Not all of the good poems in HELMETS are about animals, but the myth-making continues. In "Cherrylog Road," perhaps the most striking poem in the book, the poet makes a myth from our own twentieth century materials; for locale he uses the old cars in a junkyard overgrown by weeds. To this junkyard the speaker in the poem comes to meet his girl, Doris Holbrook, who will escape from her father to make love to him there. The poet creates a backdrop for love that is only mildly comic, that is certainly nostalgic in its references to the rumble seat of an Essex, to a Pierce-Arrow, and to an old Ford that had been redesigned to accommodate its bootlegger owners. When the girl finally appears, their affair in the junkyard is for the lovers as intense and romantic as if it had taken place among the ruins of classic Greece.

"Bums, on Waking" is concerned with drunkards who may pass out anywhere (not always in gutters with water running over their legs) and who may be startled by their surroundings when they wake up. After exploring the possibility of their awakening in church, Dickey ends his poem on a religious note far more subtle than that in his story about the folk singer.

In general, the poems in HELMETS are sustained at a high level, but some of them — for instance, "The Beholders," "The Being," and "In the Child’s Night" have an indefinite, hazy quality that leaves the reader with a feeling of mild disinterest. Dickey is best when he is concrete.

Perhaps the most complicated poem in the volume is "Approaching Prayer," in which the speaker tries to say something for his dead father. In the empty house he finds three things of his father’s and dresses himself in them: a set of gaffs for a gamecock, a sweater, and a boar’s head. Part of the poem is familiar Dickey in that it is told from the standpoint of the boar as it is attacked by dogs in a creek; the boar kills one dog and in turn is killed by a man’s arrow. But the poem is far more complex than a simple account of a boar hunt. Its symbolism is as variegated as anything by Dylan Thomas, and the reader feels at the end that the poet’s prayer has been said even if no one listened.

The title of James Dickey’s fourth volume, BUCKDANCER’S CHOICE, suggests the nature of this collection of twenty-one poems by its descriptive reference to the improvised dances of itinerant Negro minstrels, the buckdancers of a bygone day. Again the title poem deals with a crucial experience of boyhood. For a silent, awe-inspired boy, it is a song of death as well as of human choice, which brings to his mind a vision of a "buck-and-wing" man, one of the last representatives of a dying art, as he takes his choice in rhythm with the broken song. The frenzied antics of the last buckdancer and a dying mother’s song fill the boy with a sense beyond his years of the imminent ultimates of life. To the impressionable boy, himself almost risen to the frenzy of the buck and wing, the scene unites the various representatives of humanity.

"The Firebombing" and "The Escape" are among the most interesting of those poems dealing with the poet’s recollection of particular experiences of manhood. In "The Firebombing" the poet relates his experiences as a pilot on a bombing mission over Japan. The mission begins with the unpoetic technicalities of switches and motors. As the planes take off and settle out in the night, however, the poet is seized by the awe-filled beauty of the situation. The poet reconstructs the scene from the planes as they drone over enemy territory. He pictures vividly the burning city seen through the blue night clouds. Running parallel with the aesthetic detachment of the poet as pilot is the more thoughtful, compassionate attitude of the poet at the time of his writing. This attitude is first expressed in an apprehension of the unity and brotherhood of all men, a foundation of sympathy set within the soul of the poet. This sense of the oneness of man torments the glory of the mission throughout the poem and brings it to the concluding sense of the painful alienation man brings upon himself. Though at the time of the mission the poet did not think of his own home, now he sees himself bombing his own little town. Now he can see the bombing from the viewpoint of the occupants of the houses. Regretting his own wartime destruction, the poet realizes that the position of the pilot does not deliver him from his responsibility to humanity.

Fire is the unifying symbol of "The Firebombing." It is the harsh reality of destruction in the doomed city. Moreover, like the moon in much of James Dickey’s poetry, fire in this poem takes on the significance of emotive forces and life essences. There is fire attached to everything and the fire-tail of the former enemy separates home from home and makes heavier the regret of the sensitive poet within his own door.

Several other poems, such as "Faces Seen Once" and "The Night Pool," develop from reflections on common human experience. "Faces Seen Once" considers a characteristic of human cognition and memory, namely, our habit of remembering outstanding features of faces we meet through the years and of projecting these features upon future acquaintances. As we grow older, in an attempt to control perception and to organize all sensations, out of many faces one face is organized to represent most truly our sense of unity and oneness. Throughout life our relationship is not with individuals alone but with mankind in everyone. The poem therefore deals with an existential problem, our sense of alienation and our struggle for some concept of oneness.

One attribute of the poet, however, remains to be emphasized, his empathetic self-projection. Several poems demonstrate this attribute, perhaps the most impressive being "Reincarnation (1)." The poet’s peculiar feat here is an interesting control of perspective. Normal human perspective is reduced to that of a snake, whose world is basically prescribed by the circumference of an old wagon wheel. Toward the end of the poem the snake takes on the symbolic significance of evil, the earlier identification of the snake with man becoming disturbingly illuminating. The snake, its head becoming more poisonous and poised minute by minute, waits for man to walk beside the flowing stream.

A perception of the germination and nature of evil is not unusual in the collection of many subjects and perceptions. Most of the poems of BUCKDANCER’S CHOICE develop an organic analysis of crucial moments and conditions of human life. The poet moves freely through time in step with the effect of years upon human experience. Because of his wide and shifting perspectives, James Dickey has achieved in his work fresh and significant insights, expressed with true poetic power.