Last weekend I got to see U2’s Joshua Tree anniversary tour, which was epic and amazing, but it wasn’t the only incredible thing I saw that day. As we waited for the show to begin, a constant stream of poetry scrolled across the giant screen. At first I wasn’t paying much attention. I saw something by Walt Whitman, something by Solomon (I think), and other fascinating snatches of verse, mostly things I hadn’t encountered before. Then about five minutes before showtime, I caught an opening line that jumped out and captivated me with its strangeness:
“Moth-force a small town always has, given the night.”
I don’t know about you, but I can’t read something like that and not wonder what the next line is going to be. I mean, moth-force? Really? This is either going to be a poem about an epic Kaiju battle or something more in line with G. M. Hopkins. If I’m honest, I can get just as excited about either of those things. Matt Conner was sitting next to me and trying to say something (probably a pun), but I held up my hand and said, “Wait a minute, I’ve got to read this.”
It wasn’t about Kaiju.
When the final line scrolled out of view, I was almost breathless. I’ve rarely read a poem and been so captivated by it on the first reading. The poet is James Dickey. The title is “The Strength of Fields.” I may be in the minority in my ignorance of Dickey, but I’m so glad U2 made the introduction. (He’s also the author, and screenwriter, of Deliverance.)
Below is the poem in full. I hope you are as a baffled by it and as moved by it as I was. I’m including it first without Dickey’s line-breaks and spacing, since that’s how I encountered it. But I’m following it up with his intended formatting (which I don’t pretend to understand). If you like this one, you should also check out “The Heaven of Animals.”
“The Strength of Fields”
by James Dickey
… a separation from the world,
a penetration to some source of power
and a life-enhancing return …
—Van Gennep: Rites de Passage
Moth-force a small town always has,
Given the night.
What field-forms can be,
Outlying the small civic light-decisions over
A man walking near home?
Men are not where he is
Exactly now, but they are around him
Around him like the strength
Of fields. The solar system floats on
Above him in town-moths.
Tell me, train-sound,
With all your long-lost grief,
What I can give.
Dear Lord of all the fields
What am I going to do?
Street-lights, blue-force and frail
As the homes of men, tell me how to do it
How to withdraw
How to penetrate and find the source
Of the power you always had
Light as a moth, and rising
With the level and moonlit expansion
Of the fields around, and the sleep of hoping men.
You? I? What difference is there? We can all be saved
By a secret blooming. Now as I walk
The night and you walk with me
We know simplicity
Is close to the source that sleeping men
Search for in their home-deep beds.
We know that the sun is away
We know that the sun can be conquered
By moths, in blue home-town air.
The stars splinter, pointed and wild. The dead lie under
The pastures. They look on and help. Tell me, freight-train,
When there is no one else
To hear. Tell me in a voice the sea
Would have, if it had not a better one: as it lifts,
Hundreds of miles away, its fumbling, deep-structured roar
Like the profound, unstoppable craving
Of nations for their wish.
Hunger, time and the moon:
The moon lying on the brain
as on the excited sea
The strength of fields. Lord, let me shake
Wild hope can always spring
From tended strength. Everything is in that.
That and nothing but kindness. More kindness, dear Lord
Of the renewing green. That is where it all has to start:
With the simplest things. More kindness will do nothing less
Than save every sleeping one
And night-walking one
My life belongs to the world. I will do what I can.
“The Strength of Fields”
by James Dickey
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he’s the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.