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“May Day Sermon” by James Dickey (1923 – 1997)
Each year at this time I shall be telling you of the Lord
—Fog, gamecock, snake, and neighbor—giving men all the help they need
To drag their daughters into barns. Children, I shall be showing you
The fox-hide stretched on the door like a flying-squirrel fly
Open to show you the dark where the one pole of light is paid out
In spring by the loft, and in it the croker sacks sprawling and shuttling
Themselves into place as it comes comes through spiders dead
Drunk on their threads the hogs’ fat bristling the milk
Snake in the rafters unbending through gnats to touch the last place
Alive on the sun with his tongue I shall be flickering from my mouth
Oil grease-cans lard-cans nubbins cobs night
Coming floating each May with night coming I cannot help
Telling you how he hauls her to the centerpole how the tractor moves
Over as he sets his feet and hauls hauls ravels her arms and hair
In stump-chains: Telling: telling of Jehovah come and gone
Down on His belly descending creek-curving blowing His legs
Like candles, out putting North Georgia copper on His head
To crawl in under the door in dust red enough to breathe
The breath of Adam into: Children, be brought where she screams and begs
To the sacks of corn and coal to nails to the swelling ticks
On the near side of mules, for the Lord’s own man has found the limp
Rubber that lies in the gulley the penis-skin like a serpent
Under the weaving willow.
Listen: often a girl in the country,
Mostly sweating mostly in spring, deep enough in the holy Bible
Belt, will feel her hair rise up arms rise, and this not any wish
Of hers, and clothes like lint shredding off her abominations
In the sight of the Lord: will hear the Book speak like a father
Gone mad: each year at this time will hear the utmost sound
Of herself, as her lungs cut, one after one, every long track
Spiders have coaxed from their guts stunned spiders fall
Into Pandemonium fall fall and begin to dance like a girl
On the red clay floor of Hell she screaming her father screaming
Scripture CHAPter and verse beating it into her with a weeping
Willow branch the animals stomping she prancing and climbing
Her hair beasts shifting from foot to foot about the stormed
Steel of the anvil the tractor gaslessly straining believing
It must pull up a stump pull pull down the walls of the barn
Like Dagon’s temple set the Ark of the Lord in its place change all
Things for good, by pain. Each year at this time you will be looking up
Gnats in the air they boil recombine go mad with striving
To form the face of her lover, as when he lay at Nickajack Creek
With her by his motorcycle looming face trembling with exhaust
Fumes humming insanely—each May you hear her father scream like God
And King James as he flails cuds richen bulls chew themselves white-faced
Deeper into their feed bags, and he cries something the Lord cries
Words! Words! Ah, when they leap when they are let out of the Bible’s
Black box they whistle they grab the nearest girl and do her hair up
For her lover in root-breaking chains and she knows she was born to hang
In the middle of Gilmer County to dance, on May Day, with holy
Words all around her with beasts with insects O children NOW
In five bags of chicken-feed the torsos of prophets form writhe
Die out as her freckled flesh as flesh and the Devil twist and turn
Her body to love cram her mouth with defiance give her words
To battle with the Bible’s in the air: she shrieks sweet Jesus and God
I’m glad O my God-darling O lover O angel-stud dear heart
Of life put it in me give you’re killing KILLING: each
Night each year at this time I shall be telling you of the snake-
doctor drifting from the loft, a dragonfly, where she is wringing
Out the tractor’s muddy chains where her cotton socks prance,
Where her shoes as though one ankle were broken, stand with night
Coming and creatures drawn by the stars, out of their high holes
By moon-hunger driven part the leaves crawl out of Grimes Nose
And Brasstown Bald: on this night only I can tell how the weasel pauses
Each year in the middle of the road looks up at the evening blue
Star to hear her say again O again YOU CAN BEAT ME TO DEATH
And I’ll still be glad:
Sisters, it is time to show you rust
Smashing the lard-cans more in spring after spring bullbats
Swifts barn swallows mule-bits clashing on walls mist turning
Up white out of warm creeks: all over, fog taking the soul from the body
Of water gaining rising up trees sifting up through smoking green
Frenzied levels of gamecocks sleeping from the roots stream-curves
Of mist: wherever on God’s land is water, roads rise up the shape of rivers
Of no return: O sisters, it is time you cannot sleep with Jehovah
Searching for what to be, on ground that has called Him from His Book:
Shall He be the pain in the willow, or the copperhead’s kingly riding
In kudzu, growing with vines toward the cows or the wild face working over
A virgin, swarming like gnats or the grass of the west field, bending
East, to sweep into bags and turn brown or shall He rise, white on white,
From Nickajack Creek as a road? The barn creaks like an Ark beasts
Smell everywhere the streams drawn out by their souls the flood-
sigh of grass in the spring they shall be saved they know as she screams
Of sin as the weasel stares the hog strains toward the woods
That hold its primeval powers:
Often a girl in the country will find herself
Dancing with God in a mule’s eye, twilight drifting in straws from the dark
Overhead of hay cows working their sprained jaws sideways at the hour
Of night all things are called: when gnats in their own midst and fury
Of swarming-time, crowd into the barn their sixty-year day consumed
In this sunset die in a great face of light that swarms and screams
Of love.
Each May you will crouch like a sawhorse to make yourself
More here you will be cow-chips chickens croaking for her hands
That shook the corn over the ground bouncing kicked this way
And that, by the many beaks and every last one of you will groan
Like nails barely holding and your hair be full of the gray
Glints of stump-chains. Children, each year at this time you will have
Back-pain, but also heaven but also also this lovely other life-
pain between the thighs: woman-child or woman in bed in Gilmer
County smiling in sleep like blood-beast and Venus together
Dancing the road as I speak, get up up in your socks and take
The pain you were born for: that rose through her body straight
Up from the earth like a plant, like the process that raised overhead
The limbs of the uninjured willow.
Children, it is true
That the kudzu advances, its copperheads drunk and tremendous
With hiding, toward the cows and wild fences cannot hold the string
Beans as they overshoot their fields: that in May the weasel loves love
As much as blood that in the dusk bottoms young deer stand half
In existence, munching cornshucks true that when the wind blows
Right Nickajack releases its mist the willow leaves stiffen once
More altogether you can hear each year at this time you can hear
No Now, no Now Yes Again More O O my God
I love it love you don’t leave don’t don’t stop O GLORY
More dark more coming fox-fire crawls over the okra-
patch as through it a real fox creeps to claim his father’s fur
Flying on doornails the quartermoon on the outhouse begins to shine
With the quartermoonlight of this night as she falls and rises,
Chained to a sapling like a tractor WHIPPED for the wind in the willow
Tree WHIPPED for Bathsheba and David WHIPPED for the woman taken
Anywhere anytime WHIPPED for the virgin sighing bleeding
From her body for the sap and green of the year for her own good
And evil:
Sisters, who is your lover? Has he done nothing but come
And go? Has your father nailed his cast skin to the wall as evidence
Of sin? Is it flying like a fox in the darkness dripping pure radiant venom
Of manhood?
Yes, but heis unreeling in hills between his long legs
The concrete of the highway his face in the moon beginning
To burn twitch dance like an overhead swarm he feels a nail
Beat through his loins far away he rises in pain and delight, as spirit
Enters his sex sways forms rises with the forced, choked red
Blood of her red-headed image, in the red-dust, Adam-colored clay
Whirling and leaping creating calling: O on the dim, gray man-
track of cement flowing into his mouth each year he turns the moon back
Around on his handlebars her image going all over him like the wind
Blasting up his sleeves. He turns off the highway, and
Ah, children,
There is now something else to hear: there is now this madness of engine
Noise in the bushes past reason ungodly squealing reverting
Like a hog turned loose in the woods Yes, as he passes the first
Trees of God’s land game-hens overhead and the farm is ON
Him everything is more more MORE as he enters the black
Bible’s white swirling ground O daughters his heartbeat great
With trees some blue leaves coming NOW and right away fire
In the right eye Lord more MORE O Glory land
Of Glory: ground-branches hard to get through coops where fryers huddle
To death, as the star-beast dances and scratches at their home-boards,
His rubber stiffens on its nails: Sisters, understand about men and sheaths:
About nakedness: understand how butterflies, amazed, pass out
Of their natal silks how the tight snake takes a great breath bursts
Through himself and leaves himself behind how a man casts finally
Off everything that shields him from another beholds his loins
Shine with his children forever burn with the very juice
Of resurrection: such shining is how the spring creek comes
Forth from its sunken rocks it is how the trout foams and turns on
Himself heads upstream, breathing mist like water, for the cold
Mountain of his birth flowing sliding in and through the ego-
maniacal sleep of gamecocks shooting past a man with one new blind
Side who feels his skinned penis rise like a fish through the dark
Woods, in a strange lifted-loving form a snake about to burst
Through itself on May Day and leave behind on the ground still
Still the shape of a fooled thing’s body:
he comes on comes
Through the laurel, wiped out on his right by an eye-twig now he
Is crossing the cow track his hat in his hand going on before
His face then up slowly over over like the Carolina moon
Coming into Georgia feels the farm close its Bible and ground-
fog over him his dark side blazing something whipping
By, beyond sight: each year at this time I shall be letting you
Know when she cannot stand when the chains fall back on
To the tractor when you should get up when neither she nor the pole
Has any more sap and her striped arms and red hair must keep her
From falling when she feels God’s willow laid on her, at last,
With no more pressure than hay, and she has finished crying to her lover’s
Shifting face and his hand when he gave it placed it, unconsumed,
In her young burning bush. Each year by dark she has learned
That home is to hang in home is where your father cuts the baby
Fat from your flanks for the Lord, as you scream for the viny foreskin
Of the motorcycle rider. Children, by dark by now, when he drops
The dying branch and lets her down when the red clay flats
Of her feet hit the earth all things have heard—fog, gamecock
Snake, and lover—and we listen: Listen children, for the fog to lift
The form of sluggish creeks into the air: each spring, each creek
On the Lord’s land flows in two O sisters, lovers, flows in two
Places: where it was, and in the low branches of pines where chickens
Sleep in mist and that is where you will find roads floating free
Of the earth winding leading unbrokenly out of the farm of God
The father:
Each year at this time she is coming from the barn she
Falls once, hair hurting her back stumbles walking naked
With dignity walks with no help to the house lies face-down
In her room, burning tuning in hearing in the spun rust-
groan of bedsprings, his engine root and thunder like a pig,
Knowing who it is must be knowing that the face of gnats will wake,
In the woods, as a man: there is nothing else this time of night
But her dream of having wheels between her legs: tires, man,
Everything she can hold, pulsing together her father walking
Reading intoning calling his legs blown out by the ground-
fogging creeks of his land: Listen listen like females each year
In May O glory to the sound the sound of your man gone wild
With love in the woods let your nipples rise and leave your feet
To hear: This is when moths flutter in from the open, and Hell
Fire of the oil lamp shrivels them and it is said
To her: said like the Lord’s voice trying to find a way
Outside the Bible O sisters O women and children who will be
Women of Gilmer County you farm girls and Ellijay cotton mill
Girls, get up each May Day up in your socks it is the father
Sound going on about God making, a hundred feet down,
The well beat its bucket like a gong: she goes to the kitchen,
Stands with the inside grain of pinewood whirling on her like a cloud
Of wire picks up a useful object two they are not themselves
Tonight each hones itself as the moon does new by phases
Of fog floating unchanged into the house coming atom
By atom sheepswool different smokes breathed like the Word
Of nothing, round her seated father. Often a girl in the country,
Mostly in spring mostly bleeding deep enough in the holy Bible
Belt will feel her arms rise up up and this not any wish
Of hers will stand, waiting for word. O daughters, he is rambling
In Obadiah the pride of thine heart hath deceived thee, thou
That dwelleth in the clefts of the rock, whose habitation is high
That saith in his heart O daughters who shall bring me down
To the ground? And she comes down putting her back into
The hatchet often often he is brought down laid out
Lashing smoking sucking wind: Children, each year at this time
A girl will tend to take an ice pick in both hands a lone pine
Needle will hover hover: Children, each year at this time
Things happen quickly and it is easy for a needle to pass
Through the eye of a man bound for Heaven she leaves it naked goes
Without further sin through the house floating in and out of all
Four rooms comes onto the porch on cloud-feet steps down and out
And around to the barn pain changing her old screams hanging
By the hair around her: Children, in May, often a girl in the country
Will find herself lifting wood her arms like hair rising up
To undo locks raise latches set gates aside turn all things
Loose shoo them out shove pull O hogs are leaping ten
Million years back through fog cows walking worriedly passing out
Of the Ark from stalls where God’s voice cursed and mumbled
At milking-time moving moving disappearing drifting
In cloud cows in the alders already lowing far off no one
Can find them each year: she comes back to the house and grabs double
Handfuls of clothes
and her lover, with his one eye of amazing grace
Of sight, sees her coming as she was born swirling developing
Toward him she hears him grunt she hears him creaking
His saddle dead-engined she conjures one foot whole from the ground-
fog to climb him behind he stands up stomps catches roars
Blasts the leaves from a blinding twig wheels they blaze up
Together she breathing to match him her hands on his warm belly
His hard blood renewing like a snake O now now as he twists
His wrist, and takes off with their bodies:
each May you will hear it
Said that the sun came as always the sun of next day burned
Them off with the mist: that when the river fell back on its bed
Of water they fell from life from limbs they went with it
To Hell three-eyed in love, their legs around an engine, her arms
Around him. But now, except for each year at this time, their sound
Has died: except when the creek-bed thicks its mist gives up
The white of its flow to the air comes off lifts into the pine-poles
Of May Day comes back as you come awake in your socks and crotch-hair
On new-mooned nights of spring I speak you listen and the pines fill
With motorcycle sound as they rise, stoned out of their minds on the white
Lightning of fog singing the saddle bags full of her clothes
Flying snagging shoes hurling away stockings grabbed-off
Unwinding and furling on twigs: all we know all we could follow
Them by was her underwear was stocking after stocking where it tore
Away, and a long slip stretched on a thorn all these few gave
Out. Children, you know it: that place was where they took
Off into the air died disappeared entered my mouth your mind
Each year each pale, curved breath each year as she holds him
Closer wherever he hurtles taking her taking her she going forever
Where he goes with the highways of rivers through one-eyed
Twigs through clouds of chickens and grass with them bends
Double the animals lift their heads peanuts and beans exchange
Shells in joy joy like the speed of the body and rock-bottom
Joy: joy by which the creek-bed appeared to bear them out of the Bible
‘s farm through pine-clouds of gamecocks where no earthly track
Is, but those risen out of warm currents streams born to hang
In the pines of Nickajack Creek: tonight her hands are under
His crackling jacket the pain in her back enough to go through
Them both her buttocks blazing in the sheepskin saddle: tell those
Who look for them who follow by rayon stockings who look on human
Highways on tracks of cement and gravel black weeping roads
Of tar: tell them that she and her rider have taken no dirt
Nor any paved road no path for cattle no county trunk or trail
Or any track upon earth, but have roared like a hog on May Day
Through pines and willows: that when he met the insane vine
Of the scuppernong he tilted his handlebars back and took
The road that rises in the cold mountain spring from warm creeks:
O women in your rayon from Lindale, I shall be telling you to go
To Hell by cloud down where the chicken-walk is running
To weeds and anyone can show you where the tire-marks gave out
And her last stocking was cast and you stand as still as a weasel
Under Venus before you dance dance yourself blue with blood-
joy looking into the limbs looking up into where they rode
Through cocks tightening roots with their sleep-claws. Children,
They are gone: gone as the owl rises, when God takes the stone
Blind sun off its eyes, and it sees sees hurtle in the utter dark
Gold of its sight, a boy and a girl buried deep in the cloud
Of their speed drunk, children drunk with pain and the throttle
Wide open, in love with a mindless sound with her red hair
In the wind streaming gladly for them both more than gladly
As the barn settles under the weight of its pain the stalls fill once
More with trampling like Exodus the snake-doctor gone the rats beginning
On the last beans and all the chicks she fed, each year at this time
Burst from their eggs as she passes:
Children, it is true that mice
No longer bunch on the rafters, but wade the fields like the moon,
Shifting in patches ravenous the horse floats, smoking with flies,
To the water-trough coming back less often learning to make
Do with the flowing drink of deer the mountain standing cold
Flowing into his mouth grass underfoot dew horse or what
ever he is now moves back into trees where the bull walks
With a male light spread between his horns some say screams like a girl
And her father yelling together:
Ah, this night in the dark laurel
Green of the quartermoon I shall be telling you that the creek’s last
Ascension is the same is made of water and air heat and cold
This year as before: telling you not to believe every scream you hear
Is the Bible’s: it may be you or me it may be her sinful barn-
howling for the serpent, as her father whips her, using the tried
And true rhythms of the Lord. Sisters, an old man at times like this
Moon, is always being found yes found with an ice pick on his mind,
A willow limb in his hand. By now, the night-moths have come
Have taken his Bible and read it have flown, dissolved, having found
Nothing in it for them. I shall be telling you each moon each
Year at this time, Venus rises the weasel goes mad at the death
In the egg, of the chicks she fed for him by hand: mad in the middle
Of human space he dances blue-eyed dances with Venus rising
Like blood-lust over the road O tell your daughters tell them
That the creek’s ghost can still O still can carry double
Weight of true lovers any time any night as the wild turkeys claw
Into the old pines of gamecocks, and with a cow’s tongue, the Bible calls
For its own, and is not heard and even God’s unsettled great white father
head with its ear to the ground, cannot hear know cannot pick
Up where they are where her red hair is streaming through the white
Hairs of His centerless breast: with the moon He cries with the cow all
Its life penned up with Noah in the barn talk of original
Sin as the milk spurts talk of women talk of judgment and flood
And the promised land:
Telling on May Day, children: telling
That the animals are saved without rain that they are long gone
From here gone with the sun gone with the woman taken
In speed gone with the one-eyed mechanic that the barn falls in
Like Jericho at the bull’s voice at the weasel’s dance at the hog’s
Primeval squeal the uncut hay walks when the wind prophesies in the west
Pasture the animals move roam, with kudzu creating all the earth
East of the hayfield: Listen: each year at this time the county speaks
With its beasts and sinners with its blood the county speaks of nothing
Else each year at this time: speaks as beasts speak to themselves
Of holiness learned in the barn: Listen O daughters turn turn
In your sleep rise with your backs on fire in spring in your socks
Into the arms of your lovers: every last one of you, listen one-eyed
With your man in hiding in fog where the animals walk through
The white breast of the Lord muttering walk with nothing
To do but be in the spring laurel in the mist and self-sharpened
Moon walk through the resurrected creeks through the Lord
At their own pace the cow shuts its mouth and the Bible is still
Still open at anything we are gone the barn wanders over the earth.