I met George Dickerson in early 2003, at a reception at the old Poets House on Prince St. It was thronged with literary names and wannabees, insiders and outsiders. I noticed George standing slightly aloof, as I certainly was at such an occasion, and began a conversation with him. I had not known his cinematic work (I had seen Blue Velvet and other stuff that he was in, but did not remember him being in those works) so came to him though his poetry. He told a moving story of having started out impressively as a writer, with the support of Robert Penn Warren at Yale, having two stories in The Best American Short Stories, writing regularly for Time as a book reviewer, but then being traumatized after working for the UN in Lebanon in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of the civil war, and not being able to express himself in writing for many years In the early 1990s, though the Muse returned, and touched him in a genre in which he had previously dabbled but never centered himself: poetry.
George’s poetry is one of pure brilliance and pure romanticism. His poems capture beauty, love, and those moments where we represent ourselves at our best. The villanelle can be cloying and overused as a form, but Dickerson comes to it with astonishing freshness:
A Mist of White Horses
Tell me you have not forgotten the rain,
Close by the Mediterranean Sea,
Promise a mist of white horses again!
In the marshy sedge of the delta’s plain
Where the white horses of Camargue run free,
Tell me you have not forgotten the rain!
The rest of the poem repeat and alternates the closing lines of each stanza above as a refrain, sounding a note of plangent appeal, remembrance, but allowing the beauty of both what is pictured and how it is described to supersede any merely personal emotion for nostalgia. The one place-specific of “Camargue” both located the poem geographically but also tonally in a mood of gossamer Provençal lyricism. If this poem is a case of braving the full expression of high lyricism in a natural mode now grown somewhat ashamed of it, ‘The Book Of The Dead” sees regret in the anecdotal, sweetness in the unfulfilled, as the speaker meets a former wife or girlfriend of his on the street:
She said my name as a convert might speak
The forbidden name of a toppled god,
With a slight derision and some regret.
I gave her a wink. She offered a nod.
We chattered like palms in a desert breeze,
Uttering some putative pleasantries:
"The Sphinx lost his nose." "Claudius is dead."
"Whatever happened to that awful Fred?"
The mixture of the archetypal and the banal, utterances the man and woman might have actually said to each other and utterances that are temporally possible: the awful Fred whom we can well picture as much as the Claudius and sphinx that are not there to give the poem mythic depth but to point to how the particulars do not matter, only the ideas of the particulars: and that to these two people their past experience is mythic even if it is not to anyone else. . The rhyme is tight and totally inhabiting the meter, but Dickerson is never a by-the book formalist; when he uses rhyme, it is because rhyme is the only way for the poem to be as intense as it is, the only way the poet and reader can be totally committed to it.
My favorite poem of George’s—and one which I delighted hearing him read as we chatted over coffee at Camaje or Caffe Vivaldi-is “badinage for Pepper.” Thomas Catterson, nicknamed “Pepper,” was a Vietnam veteran and a poet George met in the 1990s, when, as founder of Rattapallax Press, he scoured New York City for poets of any age of background of verve and lyricism, passion and conviction. This, to my mind, is one of the great elegies of our time, precisely because it does not try to be that: and does not try to sentimentalize Catterson himself, the death that overcome him, or the loss felt by the mourner.
So you've finally gone to seek your severed leg
And end your body's antic quarrel with time.
Terrific! What's left behind? Here. At the still point.
Where the mirthless clowns of midnight
t Snicker: "Hoo ha! Hoo ha! Sweet Pepper's dead,
With Eastern metrics dancing in his head."
This is not so fine, my friend...this hapless end.
As C. S. Lewis argued in Studies in Words, adjectives like “terrific” and "terrible” have lost their force, gravitated opposite ways so that “terrific: means the equivalent of ‘great!” and “terrible” means the equivalent of “horrible.” Dickerson sue of terrific is an act of what Coleridge termed “desynonimzation,” where words regain their meaning, become redifferentiated, as the sarcasm of “Terrific!” reveals the underlying terror is shares with terrible. If the poet is sarcastic in one way giving a snide “terrific” when he means to express loss—death is even more sarcastic, snickering, without pity, unable to laugh even at its cruel jokes.
You know how absence aches....
You knew before you quit
Your walker's intricate pirouette
The recklessness of wishes and want...
The cost...the haunt... ("Jig! Jig!" the jongleur said.
From his busted bed.) But to stop short
The syllables of your heart's fierce muttering
So soon is beyond my knack to grieve.
Alliteration is a powerful tool in English: indeed an atavistic one, hearkening back to Beowulf or Sir Gawain. When it is used strategically, in conjuncture with swings between diction (the Latinate “intricate.” the French “pirouette,” the Germanic: wish,” the Scandinavian ‘want”) and, of course conviction of sentiment is power is heightened until the switch’s setting is on ‘stun.” The internal rhyme between “want” and “haunt,” with the t sound taken up again by ‘short”, can only come from the patient interface of a master of craft, as do the five s words in the stanza’s last three lines which we probably only notice on second or third reading so fluid is the way the language and emotion forge us into understanding the poet’s loss. . The archaism of “jongleur” joins in with the banality of ‘busted bed”; everything is tied, is hammered together in “heart’s fierce muttering.”
Hey! Let's take a jaunty, jocular leave
And screw the wizard of finality.
We'll have another cigarette. You bet!
And watch the lovely ladies' last late pass,
Then listen for God's gruff guffaw
As you humpety-bump your raggedy ass
Up the steps of heaven. "Hoo haw!"
The risk in the last stanza is the pairing of “jaunty” and “jocular” which are potentially too much like, Dickerson gets away with it—and we discussed this many times—because he is deliberately trying to establish a mood, and because the potential prosiness of such international” adjective-s-ones that may try to telegraph the envisioned emotion too broadly too readers—is offset by the colloquialism of ‘screw” and ‘raggedy ass.” The male camaraderie hat evokes affection in jocularity and gruffness (one cannot improve on the poet’s own words here) counters death in its own sentimental idiom, not yielding an inch.
Though Dickerson had fifteen years to live when he wrote this poem, and did not intend it as an elegy for himself (I never met Thomas Catterson, but I felt I knew him very well through George’s intense conviction that the poem was totally about his friend “Pepper”), his own death inevitably makes me read this poem in a different light. George was a good friend to me: having reviewed black writers in the 1960s for TIME, he read over the first two section of the African-American chapter of my book Theory After Theory and supplied insightful commentary and feedback. Though he was disappointed by the books generally negative take on the New Critics—some of whom, such as Penn Warren, had been among his teachers at Yale—he was always a generous and supportive reader and I was touched when he, at age 77, walked across Greenwich Village to be at my book party for that volume. (Incidentally, George was right I should have been more positive about the New Critics having an axe to grind is not the same as seeing things sub specie aeternitatis). In turn, I read George’s work, particularly his various attempts to tell the story of his years in Lebanon that had been the crucible, breaking point, and in an odd way turning point of his life. Short story, play, screenplay of “The Man Who Loved Butterflies", I read them all, and vicariously lived through a terrifying experience conveyed in taut and unyielding prose.
George told wonderful stories about famous people he had known: Leonard Cohen, Roscoe Lee Browne, and Arthur Miller. He came to my class at the New School in October 2006, to speak about his friendship with Miller, and one of my students remembering that occasion, wrote to me recently: “He was such an interesting speaker and seemed like a really great man.” I could not agree more. George did not choose the vocation of teaching; but he would have been a superb teacher. When he spoke of acting, and cinematic technique, and the choices of art, he was my teacher.
George spoke often of his love for his wife Suzanne and his daughter Erin, and his pride in his Finnish son, Dome Karukoski, whose superb film at the Tribeca Film Festival he encouraged his friends to see. I am really privileged to have known him and to call him a friend. I wish I had been more in touch with him recently, but I always got distracted and thought a phone call and coffee with George would be just around the corner. Last Friday, I saw his book of poetry noon my shelf and thought, I should contact him soon. The next day Suzanne called to tell me of his passing.