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?”

After a brief segue come three long stanzas in which the non-existent freak speaks. Note that the pickled sheep-child speaks in his own words. In this sense he is more real than the boys themselves, whose thoughts and actions we only hear described. The monster was born, experienced life in “a blazing moment,” ate once, and died. “Dead, I am most surely living,” the monster says. And because the dead monster lives,

They groan they wait they suffer
Themselves, they marry, they raise their kind.

Note the double imagery of suffering and of resurrection/redemption. (Yes, yes, it’s Christ imagery, but this is a Jewish blog so we won’t go there.) The sheep-child suffers, dies, and in dying lives (but is not redeemed). The boys, in recounting the story of the sheep-child, suffer and are redeemed—not through resurrection, but by being directed to produce their own kind. Note that Dickey’s view of nature is very un-Californian—if we relax and do what’s natural, we and our kind die; if we go against our natures, or at least part of our natures, we and our kind live.

Each year, during the three weeks leading up to the fast of the Ninth of Av, Jews tell the story of how they led themselves to disaster. Over and over again we tell each other the stories of the callous, pleasure-loving Jews who threw the prophet Jeremiah into a dungeon, of the inhospitable Jerusalem socialite who kicked Bar-Kamtza out of his dinner party, of Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkulas who insisted on following the letter of the law rather than adjusting to special circumstances. These are not historical stories; it makes no difference whether they actually happened or not. They are myths that are real because they force us, the Jews, to recognize that our natural economic, social, and religious instincts have the potential to lead to death and disaster. If we attend to these stories, and change our behavior as a result, they are more real than history itself, because they can change us and change the course of the future. Our annual national ick-fest is a tool for redemption.

There’s another level to Dickey’s poem and to the myths of the destruction of Jerusalem. If we lack a sense of the transcendent, a willingness to believe (even as we think critically, as the boys do, doubting their own story) in the fantastic, we cannot believe our own stories. And if we cannot believe our own stories, we cannot be redeemed.

“I heard from somebody who …” says the poet. If we do not tell the stories, and we do not listen to them, year in and year out, if we do not change our lives as a result, Jerusalem will be destroyed again.

Haim makes more weird connections between Judaism and poetry:

The Parting of the Red Sea: Robert Frost’s “The Silken Tent”

And between Judaism and music:
Mendelssohn and Monotheism

And writes about two poems by C. K. Williams without mixing in (much) Judaism:
The Sinews of Our Souls: C. K. Williams’ “Dissections”
Birds on My Mind: “Doves” by C.K. Williams

And here’s a poem by Gershom:
Tribute and Desideratum

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

  1. Very interesting work Haim. And very glad you brought it to my attention.

    Wondering one thing: It strikes me that Dickey’s “un Californian” notion–that going against at least part of one’s own nature should be viewed as a means for our own, and our kind’s survival—could be used as an argument against the legitimacy of gay people to live open and fulfilled lives. An argument then, that I heartily reject.
    Anyway, thank you again for your always interesting commentary on SJ.

  2. I don’t know what Dickey thought of homosexuality (there’s that awful rape scene in his novel “Deliverance,” but that’s hardly a statement). Certainly I did not intend to delegitimize gay people. But I think that the need to tame primal instincts and to divert them into productive rather than destructive channels is something that all human beings inevitably grapple with. With all the usual caveats about generalizing, it’s interesting that Dickey’s take on the sexual urge is more “Jewish” than “Christian.” That is, the sexual urge is not in and of itself evil–it can be a force for good or for evil, depending on the choices made by the individual. We don’t have an infinite range of choice, but we can make choices within a certain range. I reject the view that all we need to do is go with the flow.

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