Lyric Essentials: Kori Hensell Reads “The Sheep Child” by James L. Dickey


Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Kori Hensell reads “The Sheep Child” by James L. Dickey.

Kori, this poem seems the type to have a damn good origin story. Do you remember when you first discovered “The Sheep Child?” What was your initial reaction like?

Kori: Oh Lord yes. This poem has some interesting nostalgia associated with it. I heard it first at Egan’s, the dive bar I frequented in Tuscaloosa, AL. A quick note about Egan’s: many people consider their lives to revolve around 3 main spaces–home, work, and some third place to decompress/be yourself/find any semblance of joy in an otherwise bleak existence.

Egan’s is my third place. It’s a place where all the ancient scruffy men go to watch Jeopardy and engage in sophistry whilst getting utterly hammered. I overheard one of them reciting a portion of this poem, the masturbatory bit (…they go/ Deep into their known right hands. Dreaming of me…) and I was just like, damn. I want MY poems to do THAT. Then I realized I want my work to be utterly different than the ::yawn:: canon–poetry that old fucks recite in dive bars. I guess you could call this desire part of my “process,” and it all started with this poem about bestiality.

Chris: Essential bestiality poetry extracted from a dive bar in Tuscaloosa—I love it. Knowing your work, I can definitely see how and why this Dickey poem would be part of your poetic pantheon. For our readers, what about “The Sheep Child” makes it essential?

Kori: The thing I love most about this poem is that it transforms something so shocking and grotesque, and potentially appalling to our more conservative readers, into something utterly beautiful. I love the intrigue Dickey uses to get us there most of all. Our doorway, the wooly jar-baby in the museum, is only a glimpse of the warped aesthetics of a traditional pastoral. Later we get to see Dickey’s true perversion when we explore the history of the jar-baby, one of bestiality and incest. Dickey is a mad genius. His book Deliverance also operates on this level: a perversion of nature which later ripens into this lush experience. To me, this kind of exploration feels explicitly capital S-Southern.

There’s a sick sense of humor that I love about the South, one that allows us to make the ugly beautiful. We treat our lives this way; we treat our deaths this way. Where I grew up, in south Alabama, any funeral was an occasion to laugh and mock the deceased, but lovingly so. Here in the poem, it’s a similar feeling of irreverence that strikes a chord in me. The central image of the sheep-child feels like an extreme example of a sentiment that permeates the experience of the southerner, which is this: we’ve all got some nasty, monstrous histories notched in our belts, and we’ll die before we forget the bad we’ve done: “Are we / because we remember.” We screw each other (up) but we make sure we get fed—all of us. We are ugly and unnatural, but goddammit we are beautiful.

Chris: You mentioned a desire for your poems to do what “The Sheep Child” does while also differentiating itself. Can you speak more to that idea?

Kori: Totally. Yes. If I can write a poem that is recited in bars, I will feel like a success. At the same time, though, I’d like to write a quiet poem which is held tightly in the mind. I want my poems to work on two levels, similar to Dickey. I want to write poems that speak to my roots in the South, but I also would like my poems to resonate for any reader. Accessibility has never been one of my strong suits, and I feel like that’s just how I write. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the point of poetry, but I think that’s a very subjective case to be made.

I don’t want to necessarily be taught anything when I read poetry; often I just want it to wash over me like a red cleansing tide (that was not a reference to the Crimson Tide, or maybe it was, nothing makes sense anymore ROLLTIDE.)—more experiential than purposeful. Even saying that, I feel like it’s untrue, because sometimes I DO want poetry to teach me something. It’s just that much of the poetry I’ve read lately is so limp with abstractions.

Dickey wanted to challenge the fragile sensibilities of old money gentlemen with poems about bestiality, incest, and all manners of perversion, because that is the power of a word. It’s not about the poem’s content so much as it is, for me, about the complete manipulation of words to render something that has energy. There is nothing worse than a flaccid poem. I’m sure Dickey would agree. If I could write a poem (or, hell, even a line) that maintains its erection in a lasting way, I’d be pleased with that.

To speak to the idea of setting myself apart, I just want to get away from the traditional notions of what form does. Like Dickey’s convoluted pastoral hymn, I would like to take a classical form and recalibrate it to be the type of poem I would want to read myself—one that is transformative and challenging. Otherwise, what a boring, stagnant future we can expect for poetry.

Chris: Ugh, the orange and white in me makes me have to call out that I can’t believe you worked in a rolltide. Anyway. Moving on. I love the reading of “The Sheep Child” as this grotesque, yet still gorgeous, pastoral that challenges notions and stereotypes of the “Southern genteel.” Does all of Dickey’s poetry have this sort of inversion—inversion of form, inversion of stereotypes?

Kori: All of the Dickey poems I like feature this inversion. Dude was an eccentric for much of his adult life. I like that much of his work involves violence and surrealist depictions of that violence. He makes the fantastic seem real. His poem “The Fiend” involves the speaker himself, perhaps Dickey himself, engaging in voyeurism as a peeping tom, and there’s this strange development where the speaker seems to become one with the tree where he is propped up, the one from which he observes a woman undressing. There’s an image where the keys in his pocket begin rising, and these micro-movements compound the disgust for me, but Jesus, that’s a great poem. It’s full of reverie and madness and a religious type of violence that festers in the speaker’s quickly unraveling mind. It’s the same captivation I experience during really good movies—that suspension between feeling scandalized and mesmerized. I LIVE for those reactions.

I know that during the early part of his career, he kept metrical constraints, but the more he developed a real personal aesthetic, the wilder his lines got. He experiments with space on the page and weird syntax, and that’s been hugely influential for me and the way I think about what my poem should do as an object on the page, an object in the ear, and an artifact that speaks to my histories. It needs to have real movement. “Falling,” his poem about a flight attendant being sucked out of the emergency door of an airplane and plummeting to her death, is amazing at demonstrating that kind of movement, that kind of quiet, that kind of violence that everyone has lingering in the back of their throats. That poem is DENSE, but it’s so weightless at the same time. Ugh, gives me chills.

Chris: Would you say that Dickey is your favorite Southern poet? Are there other writers, contemporary or otherwise, that write the South in a just as or more compelling way?

Kori: He’s not my favorite, but he’s up there. I think my favorite Southern poets are probably C.D. Wright, Frank Stanford, and Maurice Manning. Oh, yes, Manning (another Bama alum). Check out Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions. So gorgeous and goddamn prophetic. That man renders the finest, most pristine images—both ethereal and filthy somehow. And Stanford does that same thing with violence that I like so much; “The Snake Doctors” makes me swoon to this day: “Born In The Camp With Six Toes cut me with a knife / Baby Gauge sucked the poison out / Oh Sweet Jesus the levees that break in my heart.” That last line is killer. I say it all the time, for no reason, just ‘cause it hurts me. It hurts so good.

Then there’s C.D. Wright (bless her sweet heart and rest in peace). She was a game changer for me when it came to deciding whether or not it was a good idea for me to drop a full-time job and pursue poetry as an Official Life Decision. She speaks to all the ugly-beautiful overtones and undertones of the Southern mode better than anyone I can think of. Her work gave me the courage to talk about family, about some of the harder topics of growing up in the South, and about being a real female force in what some consider a boy’s literature club. When I die, I want to break bread at the Grand Golden Table with her.

Kori Hensell is an MFA candidate at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and managing editor of Permafrost Magazine. Her poems, essays, and book reviews appear or are forthcoming in Pleiades, Big Lucks, Quaint Magazine, Utter, and elsewhere. (Send barbecue. Please!)

Christopher Petruccelli is an associate poetry editor at Stirring: A Literary Collection and is currently trying to survive his first winter in Fairbanks, Alaska. His poetry has appeared in Connotation PressStill: The Journal, Rappahannock Review, and elsewhere. His chapbook, Action at a Distance, is available from UIndy’s Etchings Press. In his free time, Chris enjoys smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey with older women.