Wednesday, April 18, 2007

James Dickey on Saint Simons Island

The pictures above, taken from the family album, are from the summer of 1942 when James Dickey was 19. He'd played football and run track in high school in Atlanta (those are North Fulton shorts he has on), but this particular summer he'd just graduated from the Darlington School, a military academy in Rome, Georgia. The United States had entered World War II, but Jim was headed for Clemson, where he'd spend his freshman year playing as a wing back before joining the Army and eventually the Air Corps.

Jimmie Dickey, growing up, had spent many summers on Sea Island with his father, Eugene (known as "Pop"), his mother Maibelle Swift Dickey ("Mom"), his older sister, also named Maibelle, and his baby brother, Tom.

Not one of those people is alive today, but Tom's wife, Patsy, remembers well the stories of Sea Island and the life the family led there. The boys spent their days with friends who'd descended from slaves and still spoke the patois called gullah or geechee. Although Mom lived into her nineties, when she was young she was diagnosed with a heart condition and she made it her practice to rest in a darkened room every afternoon. She would leave the boys in the care of a nursemaid or playing with their local companions. When they were very young, Patsy was told, they were actually tied to their older friends with a rope or harness to keep them from getting swept out to sea.

James Dickey wrote several poems that drew on his experiences in and around Saint Simons. The best known is certainly "The Shark's Parlor," about a couple of teenage boys on Cumberland Island, south of Saint Simons, who catch a fish much bigger than they bargained for: a huge hammerhead shark. They wind up dragging it not only out of the water -- the "beery shallows" -- but, with the help of bystanders, right through a rickety beach house much like the one pictured below:

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 buck teeth out of my picture
His odd head full of crushed jelly-glass splinters and radio tubes thrashing
Among the pages of fan magazine all the movie stars drenched in sea-blood.*
Many other poems that are less well known were also inspired by experiences along the South Georgia coast. "Near Darien" is one of James Dickey's best love poems. He has taken a flat-bottom boat out into the river in the night under a full moon. A wind blows up ...

And finds me exultantly sleeping,
My ear going down to the floor
Of the sea, overhearing, not fish,
Their gills like a bracken all swaying,
But man and wife breathing together.
A few years later, in the poem "At Darien Bridge," the poet likens marriage to the experience of the chain gangs he saw building the span across the water when he was a little boy:

The sea here used to look
As if many convicts had built it,

Standing deep in their ankle chains,
Ankle-deep in the water, to smite

The land and break it down to salt.
I was in this bog as a child

When they were all working all day
To drive the pilings down.

Jim Dickey's childhood experiences on Saint Simons also resonated in the way he raised his own sons, Chris and Kevin, and his daughter Bronwen. One of the family rituals on the island was fishing with a hand line. Even when James Dickey was dying of lung fibrosis in the summer of 1996, his breath aided by a heavy oxygen machine, he would recall those days as he and Chris worked their way up the stairs to the third-floor bedroom of their house near Pawleys Island, South Carolina.

This if from Chris's memoir, "Summer of Deliverance," published by Simon and Schuster in 1998:

The machine was about as big as a hotel minibar and probably as heavy, but I held it next to me as I climbed, afraid that I'd lose my balance. I'd always tensed up around my father; always been clumsy. I was forty-four years old and that hadn't changed.
One flight, the landing, one flight, the second floor, another flight and another landing, and finally the last flight to the top floor. I set the machine down delicately, then stood up and stretched with some slight sense of accomplishment as I felt the muscles in my back and shoulders pump up a little from the strain. I found a plug; hit the switch. The machine sighed to life. The little ball floating in a tube on the front climbed to the 3.5 liter line and steadied.
"Five!" he shouted from below, and I wondered where he got the breath. "Five! Got to have it!"
I adjusted the knob; watched the ball rise. "You got it," I shouted down. I couldn't see him from where I was. I shook out the long plastic tube to make sure it wasn't kinked and he had some slack. It went taught. And jerked.
Then jerked again.
And again.
"Chrissy?" His voice sounded -- as okay as it could.
"Chrissy? What's that?" He jerked on the tube again, like a fish striking a line.
He was playing. Ah, God. He was calling up memories of summer vacations forty years ago on a long pier in Florida; memories of a father teaching a son the secrets he'd held onto from his own childhood, that code you build up over a lifetime: How to hold a marble and aim it and shoot it, or how to make a predator-call from a blade of grass between the thumbs; or how to know when a fish was striking a hand-line, or a crab was just sawing at it. I jerked gently on the tube to set the hook, just like he taught me, and went back downstairs smiling.

The thirteen pictures below were not dated in the scrapbook that Maibelle Swift Dickey kept for her oldest surviving son from 1923 to 1948, and many of them were arranged on the black pages by size rather than chronology. From appearances, most were taken when Jimmie Dickey, born in February 1923, was five to ten years old.

None has been published before.

*"The Shark's Parlor" is written with gaps in the lines which this Blogger software removes automatically. The text will be a little clearer if you read the full poem as published in "James Dickey: The Selected Poems."

Note: All these pictures can be enlarged if you click on them. The computer file names of the scans begin with the words "Sea Island," but all were taken, I believe, on St. Simons.

All photographs and text on this site copyright Christopher Dickey

1 comment:

Happy Heart Princess said...

I discovered St Simons Island in the 80's and have never been the same. Although I live in the Cincinnati area - i spend time at my condo at SSI every year. The island is such a treasure and I am just delighted to find your site and all the info about SSI in the early years - thank you so much!