Thanks to U2 for the Moth-Force

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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
as on
The strength of fields. Lord, let me shake
With purpose.
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
Of us.

My life belongs to the world. I will do what I can.


“The Strength of Fields”

by James Dickey

[Original formatting]

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    as on
          The strength of fields. Lord, let me shake
         With purpose.    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
         Of us.
                         My life belongs to the world. I will do what I can.

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.


8 Comments

  1. Jen Rose Yokel

    @jroseyokel

    Eccentric line breaks don’t always work for me, but in this case, I dig it.

    Epic. Weird. Thanks for the introduction since I have to miss U2 this time. *sob*

  2. Mark Geil

    @markgeil

    Thanks for the introduction. I’ve read that last bit over and over just now. “Wild hope can always spring from tended strength.” I’m also reminded of Ben Shive’s song “Listen!”
    I’ll now think of two things every time I hear a train whistle.

  3. Laure Hittle

    @mrs-hittle

    i think you understand things that i never will. Or you see things that i don’t know how to see.

    Another thing i don’t understand is why i’m crying now. i don’t know why the freight train did this to me. Or even what it’s doing.

    Probably there are a lot of things i will never understand.

  4. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    I think you could argue that it’s a mark of a great poem when it makes you cry, yet you don’t understand why. T. S. Eliot and G. M. Hopkins certainly hit that mark for me. The more I read of Dickey, the more I love him.

  5. Laure Hittle

    @mrs-hittle

    That’s what you are always doing for me, Patronus.

    Just now i went to see if our public library has a good collection of Hopkins, and do you know what turned up in the search? Dickey.

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