BY DAVIS ENLOE
In the poem, “Approaching Prayer,” James Dickey takes on the dilemma of the irrational, or more directly, the soul. This poem, which Dickey calls his most “complicated and far-fetched,” appears in his fourth book, Helmets. Consider the five opening lines of “Approaching Prayer,”
A moment tries to come in
Through the windows, when one must go
Beyond what there is in the room,
But it must come straight down.
Lord it is time, (1-5)
Dickey’s alienated narrator describes a “moment” that can no longer be denied—a moment in which a person acknowledges the need to be connected to something immortal, eternal, to be part of the everything-breathes-together cosmos. This moment is one which might occur when a person becomes consciously and undeniably aware of his impending death, as in Donald Justice’s poem, “Men at Forty,” when “At rest on a stair landing, / They feel it moving / Beneath them now like the deck of a ship, / Though the swell is gentle” (lines 5-8). In Dickey’s poem the speaker’s father has recently died, prompting the narrator’s heightened awareness of both life and death. He understands this “moment” is not something appreciated in the material world, but is an experience emanating from above, from beyond the self.
For primitive man, this moment was not rare, but was the sum total of his reality; something experienced every minute of every day and having nothing to do with a surprise realization of mortality. Psychoanalyst and Freud contemporary, Otto Rank, describes this experience as representative of primitive man’s deep and constant “belief in a bodily soul as an expression of a deep-rooted belief in immortality.” This theme of scientific or modern man who lacks a meaningful spiritual purpose and no longer believes in the soul and immortality is common in Dickey’s art. Because modern materialistic man does not believe in the soul, then the word “Lord” serves a dual purpose. It is a word introducing both tension and a tone of spiritual reverence into the poem.
In stanza three the speaker looks for ways to prepare himself for the oncoming spiritual experience. To do this he must alter his normal way of perceiving and interacting with his materialistic world. Line seven is particularly powerful in its evocation of the theme of the spiritual and alienated modern man. The speaker explains how he must “circle through his father’s empty house,” an image recalling the sheep child’s assertion of being in his father’s house. The concept of a “circle” is important to Dickey. In Self-Interviews he explains how he likes resolution in his poems to travel in a circle: “sometimes the change might even be circular and the same at the end as it was at the beginning.”
“Approaching Prayer” begins with the narrator acknowledging the irrational nature of the divine and stating his desire to transcend reasoning, traveling through a series of resolutions that are transformative, closing as it comes full circle, back to an awareness of the eternal. “My father’s empty house” points not only to the literal emptiness of the father’s house, but also to the spiritual house of the Lord, which, for this speaker, is empty. In similar fashion to the abandoned sheep child, the grieving and broken speaker is left alone in his father’s house. He circles through the empty house of the now missing father, looking for a way to become whole again, to connect to something divine. Dickey himself believed “whatever made this universe, even if it’s nothing but blind force, should be worshipped.” The narrator looks “for things to put on / Or to strip myself of / So that I can fall to my knees” (lines 6-8). It is unclear at this point in the poem what “word” the speaker is unable to say “until all my reason is slain,” but it is apparent the speaker senses the anticipated experience will be an encounter with something mysterious and irrational, a moment that can neither be experienced nor understood through “reason,” through rational thinking.
In “Approaching Prayer” the narrator is experiencing the most intense kind of separation—that of losing a beloved father. From Rank’s vantage point, the poem is an example of an alienated modern man attempting to stop the projection of his soul onto material objects of the world. It is, therefore, significant that even as the speaker acknowledges the need to strip his self of things binding him to a rational world, he proceeds to gather material objects. The poem’s narrator puts on his father’s old gray sweater, holds a set of gamecock spurs, and picks up the head of a boar he had killed. But, it is revealed that these are not truly objects with material value, evident by the speaker’s decision later in the poem to leave the items at the house. Therefore, these material possessions function only symbolically for the speaker as tangible means to witness the intangible.
Dickey uses the father’s sweater and gamecock spurs in conjunction with the boar head as talismans through which the speaker, by donning the items, is able to transcend reason. By acting “foolish,” or irrationally, the speaker opens a portal to the irrational, the divine. It is important to note that Dickey’s election of these items was not incidental. Beyond Dickey’s dubious claim of being a boar hunter and the fact that his father actively raised and fought gamecocks, these symbols represent the animal instincts from which Dickey saw modern man as being alienated. Fascinated with animal instinct, Dickey believed that animal instincts were beyond man’s comprehension. For Dickey, the marvel of animal instinct was akin to the ineffable, the divine. These symbols, particularly the boar head, evoke the totemic belief that certain animals are endowed with a spirit enabling them to interact with a given group. Totemism was essentially soul-belief for primitives.
In Psychology and the Soul, Rank cites the Australian aborigines’ belief that “the totem enters the woman as the spirit of an animal, plant, or stone and impregnates her to be reborn in the ensouled embryo.” After the poem’s speaker has put on his father’s sweater and strapped on the gamecock spurs, he
. . . put on the hollow hog’s head
Gazing straight up
With star points in the glass eyes
That would blind anything that looked in
And cause it to utter words.
The night sky fills with a light. (39-40)
Here Dickey has conceived a creature that is part man and beast. The boar is not immortal, but functions as a stepping off place into the eternal.
The totemism in “Approaching Prayer” is fitting because the action in the poem springs from the father’s death, reminding the speaker of his own mortality, prompting both his desire and openness to connect with the spiritual world. Making this connection will prove the existence of an afterlife, of eternity, immortality. Dickey is able to connect his speaker with the spirit world by using the boar head as a totem, or portal to the eternal. Soon the reader is engaged in the speaker’s experience through his first person narration as well as through the “breath of life” he has seized “in the boar’s rigid mouth” (lines 45, 48). The “light” becomes “breath of life” and then becomes a set of enlightened eyes giving the speaker a magical power to experience through the boar the occasion of its past death when the speaker kills the boar with arrows. The poet becomes shaman, giving the dead boar life, if only temporally. Afterward, the speaker “look[s] upward out of the total / Stillness of killing with arrows,” explaining to the reader: “I have seen the hog see me kill him / And I was as still as I hoped” (lines 110-113).
The speaker continues:
Something goes through me
Like an accident, a negligent glance,
Like the explosion of a star
Whose light gives out
Just as it goes straight through me. (118-122)
Understandably, the speaker is shocked by his “road to Damascus” experience. Surprisingly, however, the speaker is not as prepared for this mystical experience as suggested by his assertion in line 5: “Lord, it is time.” Instead of becoming one with The One, he recoils from his mysterious experience, leaving the reader to wonder if the speaker has either missed the possibility of connection to something divine or has simply lost his nerve. It is often observed that it is impossible for a person to act inconsistently with his or her belief system without creating cognitive dissonance. Dickey reduced, or leveled, the depth of man’s consciousness with that of animals. An example of this is what he calls in the poem “my most murderous stillness.” Subsequently, it is not surprising that the poem’s speaker has difficulty yielding to the profound nature of his experience (line 125). He gets up, removes his entire totemic garb, leaves, and “never come[s] back” (line 138). In spite of having just gained rare and precious insight into the mystical, he doubts it even happened, unable to believe, rationalizing his inability to pray,
Hoping only that
The irrelevancies one thinks of
When trying to pray
Are the prayer (141-144)
The “hoping” speaker exemplifies modern man’s dilemma of needing to believe in the divine, while remaining unable to escape the shackles of modern science. But hope is not a method, and the speaker did not achieve a unifying experience with the cosmos. In spite of Dickey’s stated great need to “feel a sense of wholeness,” as a poet, he reveals his inability to achieve such a state of perfect union (Dickey, SI 68). In “Approaching Prayer” the speaker never feels he is an integral part of the supernatural power experienced. Rather, he conveys a feeling of insignificance, as if the entire occurrence was an “accident.” He is suspended between the rational and the irrational, between the physical reality of earth and the ineffable dimension of the soul, in what he calls, “the hovering place” (line 146).
Dickey’s speaker reflects isolated modern man living in a materialistic world that has silenced the soul with glorification of the individual, of science, and of psychology, even as he seeks the comfort of something divine (Rank, PS 8). In “Approaching Prayer” the narrator struggles with his lack of faith and pays tribute to his Christian “. . . desert fathers— / those who saw angels come,” but leaves the distinct impression that his forefathers’ 2,000 year old mythology is inadequate for fulfilling his modern need for immortality (lines 148-149). The poem ends in perplexing fashion with the lines,
Where I can say only, and truly . . .
That reason was dead enough
For something important to be:
That, if not heard,
It may have been somehow said. (164, 172-175)
Harold Bloom, even as he lauds the poem’s “originality,” describes the ending as “problematic,” an example of Dickey’s poetry never “culminating” (11). Robert Kirschten, in his book, Approaching Prayer, also describes the poem as ending in an indefinite “if not contradictory way” (78). Presumably, Dickey entitled the poem “Approaching Prayer” to introduce a poem about the difficulty of crossing the vast nothingness between man and God, or, perhaps, of yielding to the vast nothingness that is God. He never claims the speaker will find this task easy, nor does he imply his hero will be successful to any particular degree. What the speaker assures the reader in the closing lines is that through his own methods he temporarily, but “truly,” rids himself of “reason,” successfully removing the barrier between himself and the divine. Even if his prayer was not heard, the speaker feels it was important to utter the words, but the words “if” and “may” prevent the poem’s culmination. These words suggest the speaker retains doubt his prayer was actually heard. Or was it even uttered?