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Mulhall column: An unlikely poet

IL existe à la base de la vie humaine, un principe d’insuffisance.

— Georges Bataille

That’s one of two epigraphs to the novel Deliverance. Translated, it reads, “There is at the base of human life, a principle of insufficiency.”

One summer in the mid-1980s, I signed up for a CMC writer’s workshop featuring Harlan Ellison and James Dickey.

Ellison taught short-story science fiction, if I recall correctly. That summer, he had just settled a plagiarism lawsuit against the producers of The Terminator. As I remember, they had borrowed too liberally from several of Ellison’s works, including an Outer Limits script titled The Soldier that involved retroactive birth control.

Dickey, on the other hand, taught poetry. In the grasp of a hand meant for bending things with pry bars, Dickey’s pen looked frightened. I knew Dickey as the author of Deliverance, with all the banjo licks and biological stereotypes that arose from the motion picture, so the poetry gig struck me as a bit of an incongruity.

What I didn’t know is that Dickey wrote more poetry by far than novels, and in the years after the publication of Deliverance in 1970, Dickey settled into a position as professor of English and writer in residence at the University of South Carolina and taught poetry.

Notwithstanding Dickey’s considerable poetry bona fides, in my view Deliverance is one of the greatest novels in American literature.

The novel has several ingredients that lend to its success. For one, there’s the Cahulawassee, a fictional north Georgia river slated for disappearance by the never-blistered hands of environmentally indifferent bureaucrats.

For another, there’s whitewater, and four amateurs who scarcely know how to paddle. Add to that serious cultural differences, back woods murders, sodomy, and a whole lot of lying, and you’ve got a still full of pretty high-proof chaos.

Deliverance is as much poem as it is novel. This not only accounts for the novel’s brevity—280 pages barely qualifies as a novel—its poesy is the very basis of its greatness. Point-wise, the novel wastes no word.

Shortly after the novel’s characters push their canoes away from the Cahulawassee’s bank, for example, the novel’s foursome float out of a willow woods and into a small town with a chicken processing plant:

“I pulled my paddle out of the water; a white feather was stuck to the end of it. I shook it off and peered into the river. Off to the right and getting ready to go by under water was a vague choked whiteness. It was a log completely covered with chicken feathers with all the feather-hairs weaving and wavering in a perfect physical representation of nausea. When you are sick enough, I said truly to myself, that is the thing you feel.”

Dickey’s focus on the river’s use as a dump for unwanted body parts foreshadows things to come.

Despite the popular southern red-neck stereotypes that percolate out of the movie, the novel is the struggle that its protagonist, Ed Gentry, goes through when forced to measure up to something far greater than his own insufficiency.

By his own admission, Ed’s a get-through-the-day-man, not particularly great at anything but living by antifriction, which he describes as “finding a modest thing you can do and then greasing that thing on both sides so you can groove in comfort.”

That all changes, of course, and it’s never clear whether Ed has anything like what it takes to survive, or to even understand what survival means, until the end. Equally clear, too, is that Ed will never be the same.

Despite some of Dickey’s shortcomings, which according to most sources were legion, he struck me as a patient man, or so he was with me.

There are few things in life more pathetic than a twenty-something English major who thinks he can write verse like John Keats.

For Dickey, that had to be tedious. Nevertheless, for a few days one summer he listened to my readings and nudged me toward a sufficiency he could see but I could not.

Sometime later, my dalliance with poetry lost its sparkle, and while I’m quite certain the feeling was mutual, I never lost my appreciation for the word, nor for the prose of a big-handed poet.

Mitch Mulhall is a husband, father and longtime Roaring Fork Valley resident. His column appears monthly in the Post Independent and at postindependent.com.


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