James Dickey

Rookie (2 February 1923 – 19 January 1997 / Atlanta, Georgia)

The Shark's Parlor - Poem by James Dickey

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.


Comments about The Shark's Parlor by James Dickey

  • Fabrizio Frosini (11/9/2015 1:28:00 PM)


    I can't call it a poem.. it's prose.. and what it tells is just about killing a poor shark.. (Report) Reply

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Poem Submitted: Thursday, April 22, 2010



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