James Dickey

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

Buckdancer’s Choice


So I would hear out those lungs,
The air split into nine levels,
Some gift of tongues of the whistler


In the invalid’s bed: my mother,
Warbling all day to herself
The thousand variations of one song;


It is called Buckdancer’s Choice.
For years, they have all been dying
Out, the classic buck-and-wing men


Of traveling minstrel shows;
With them also an old woman
Was dying of breathless angina,


Yet still found breath enough
To whistle up in my head
A sight like a one-man band,


Freed black, with cymbals at heel,
An ex-slave who thrivingly danced
To the ring of his own clashing light


Through the thousand variations of one song
All day to my mother’s prone music,
The invalid’s warbler’s note,


While I crept close to the wall
Sock-footed, to hear the sounds alter,
Her tongue like a mockingbird’s break


Through stratum after stratum of a tone
Proclaiming what choices there are
For the last dancers of their kind,


For ill women and for all slaves
Of death, and children enchanted at walls
With a brass-beating glow underfoot,


Not dancing but nearly risen
Through barnlike, theatrelike houses
On the wings of the buck and wing.

Submitted: Thursday, April 22, 2010

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