A Time To Be Icky: Tisha B’Av and James Dickey’s “The Sheep-Child”

Haim Watzman

It’s summer and the Jews are being perverse again. Instead of singing of sand and sea, next week we’ll spend a day fasting and lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem. The lamentation lyrics get pretty sickening—blood flows, people get tortured and burned alive, famished women cook and eat their own children. Why do we need this annual national gross-out?

I’ll answer that question by adducing a stomach-turning, very un-Jewish, all-American poem, James Dickey’s “The Sheep Child,” which you can read and hear Dickey read on the wonderful poetry pages of The Atlantic, here. (If that doesn’t work, try the Poetry Foundation).

The poem is about a myth, an untruth, that becomes true. The monster in the jar becomes true not because it actually can be found in a back corner of a museum in Atlanta, but because it brings about a change in human behavior. There is an effect whose cause is an object fabricated by the human mind.

The reality of the fantasy is underlined by the poem’s structure. The first stanza states the problem, the huge force of the animal instinct that drives boys to copulate with the earth itself. But there’s something that is taboo, so forbidden that it overcomes even that nearly irresistible desire. Animals are off limits.

The second stanza is the story that the boys tell, the object they have created in their minds. The third stanza is the result: the story has directed the boys’ desire to its proper object. Perhaps the story was simply a fairy tale?

. . . Are we
Because we remember, remembered
In the terrible dust of museums?”

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