I suppose if any poem of mine has gotten much attention, "Falling" has. The original idea came out of a newspaper item I once read to the effect that an Allegheny Airlines stewardess had fallen out of an airplane and was found later on, dead. But when you have a little hint like this that entertains your imagination, you take off with it and make your own thing out of it. I made her fall from an airplane over the Midwest. It’s not a jet. People think of it as a jet, but it couldn’t possibly be a jet. If it had been a jet, it would be so high that she would have been flash-frozen. But if you’re a poet, you can make it happen the way you want it to. So I made the plane one that would be flying at a speed and altitude over the Midwest at which such a thing could happen to the stewardess.
"Falling" is a record of the way she feels as she falls; panic at first and then a kind of goddess-like invulnerability. She discovers that the human body can actually fly a little bit. She tries to find water to fall into, but in the end she can’t and falls into a cornfield and dies there. She undresses on the way down, because since she’s going to die she wants to die, as she says, "beyond explanation." She would rather be found naked in a cornfield than in an airline uniform. So she takes off everything, is clean, purely desirable, purely woman, and dies in that way. I also tried to think of the mystical possibility there might be for farmers in that vicinity, under those conditions.
Many different interpretations have been given to this poem. A lot of people say that it’s too far-fetched, that nothing like this would really happen. I’m quite sure it wouldn’t. But I was interested in trying to determine, by using my own particular capacities, what might conceivably go on. I was interested in using the kind of time-telescoping effect that Bergson talks about in discussing the difference between clock time and lived time. It takes twenty minutes to read the poem, more or less. It surely wouldn’t have taken her nearly that long to fall. But as to how long it seemed to her, that’s quite a different thing. Time has a way of widening out when you’re in an extreme adrenalin kind of situation. I felt justified in writing "Falling" the way I did. I wouldn’t want to go back and try to write it again. I suppose there are faults in it which people will be pointing out to me for years, but I did it the way I wanted to do it, and I’ll stand by that.
I evolved the split line to try and do what I could to reproduce as nearly as I could the real way of the mind as it associates verbally. The mind doesn’t seem to work in a straight line, but associates in bursts of words, in jumps. I used this technique for "Falling."
From Self-Interviews. New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1970. © 1970 by James Dickey.
Joyce Carol Oates
But "Reincarnation (II)" is extremely abstract and does not seem to have engaged the poet’s imaginative energies as deeply as "Reincarnation (I)" of Buckdancer’s Choice. It is balanced by the long "Falling," an astonishing poetic feat that dramatizes the accidental fall of an airline stewardess from a plane, to her death in a cornfield. "The greatest thing that ever came to Kansas" undergoes a number of swift metamorphoses—owl, hawk, goddess—stripping herself naked as she falls. She imagines the possibility of falling into water, turning her fall into a dive so that she can "come out healthily dripping / And be handed a Coca-Cola" but ultimately she is helpless to save herself, she is a human being, not a bird like the spiritual power of "Reincarnation (II)" and she comes to know how "the body will assume without effort any position / Except the one that will sustain it enable it to rise live / Not die." She dies, "driven well into the image of her body," inexplicable and unquestionable, and her clothes begin to come down all over Kansas: a kind of mortal goddess, given as much immortality by this strange poem as poetry is capable of giving its subjects.
From "Out of Stone into Flesh: The Imagination of James Dickey." Modern Poetry Studies. 5.2 (1974).
One of Dickey's most sustaining and pervasive faiths is his absolute belief that the human imagination can save us from anything. No human disaster or tragedy is too large for the imagination to encompass or too crushing for imagination to convert it into lifesavingness. This credo reaches its culmination, and its apotheosis, in the poem 'Falling." Who would have guessed that a woman's falling to her death from a plane could be converted by Dickey's imagination into a symbol of fantastic affirmation of life?
From The Imagination as Glory: The Poetry of James Dickey. Copyright © 1984 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.
Joyce Carol Oates
"Falling," an astonishing poetic feat that dramatizes the accidental fall of an airline stewardess from a plane to her death in a corn field. "The greatest thing that ever came to Kansas" undergoes a number of swift metamorphoses--owl, hawk, goddess--stripping herself naked as she falls. She imagine the possibility of falling into water, turning her fall into a dive so that she can "come out healthily dripping/And be handed a Coca-Cola," but ultimately she is helpless to save herself; she is a human being, not a bird like the spiritual power of "Reincarnation (II)," and she comes to know how "the body will assume without effort any position / Except the one that will sustain it enable it to rise live / Not die." She dies, "driven well into the image of her body," inexplicable and unquestionable, and her clothes begin to come down all over Kansas; a kind of mortal goddess, given as much immortality by this strange poem as poetry is capable of giving its subjects.
From The Imagination as Glory: The Poetry of James Dickey. Bruce Weigl and T.R. Hummer, Eds. Copyright © 1984 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.
"Falling". . .combines the exhilaration of flying, the erotic motions of a woman's body in space, and the inevitability of dying."
From a review of The Eagle's Mile in World Literature Today (Summer 1991).
James Dickey's poem "Falling" expresses an extraordinary concern with the underwear of a woman who has fallen out of an airplane. While this woman, a stewardess, was in the airplane, her girdle obscured, to the observation of even the most alert passenger, her mesial groove. The effect was, as the poem recalls, "monobuttocked." As the woman falls, however, she undresses and "passes he palms" over her legs, her breasts, and "deeply between her thighs." Beneath her, "widowed farmers" are soon to wake with futile (and irrelevant?) erections. She lands on her back in a field, naked, and dies. The sensation of the poem is necrophilic: it mourns a vagina rather than a person crashing to the ground.
From Thinking about Women. Copyright © 1968 by Mary Ellman.
Ellman's rewriting of Dickey turn "Falling" into a narrative of punitive reparation for the stewardess's sexuality, independence, and strength, a narrative whose tendency runs totally opposite to the poem's true course; her paraphrase does not admit of the tremendous energy of the poem or the fabulous series of powers that the stewardess acquires. The key point Ellman misses is, as noted earlier, that Dickey's poem reverses the tragic journalistic narrative (which begins the poem) by converting a mortal stewardess into an earth goddess who lives and dies in the perpetual, natural alternation of generation and decay.
. . . .
To say that the stewardess is merely a "sacrificial victim"--a term derived from Kenneth Burke and René Girard--renders her passive in a way that does not reflect her true dynamic and dramatic character. We need thus to trace more fully the process of empowerment (the "plot" or "form" of the poem) that the stewardess undergoes by looking at the kind of mythological activity (the "genre") this process resembles.
. . . .
In Dickey's poem, what is prophetic (and "healing") about the stewardess's visioning powers is not that she attains a truth that can be put in the form of an oracle or conceptual proposition, but, rather, that the panoramic faculty of her eye and its streaming "openness"--that of Apollo, Nietzche's "sculptor god"--result in her "accessibility" to the Dionysian powers of the "more than human," to "metamorphosis and transfiguration." That is, though she faces certain death, the energy from her Apollonian rush of consciousness and its Dionysian content "prophesizes" (i, e., foretells and foreshadows) an ecstatic, life-affirming reversal of her fate; for not only are "Her eyes opened wide by wind" so that she sees the earth approaching, but also she lying in one after another of all the "positions for love / Making dancing" in a vibrant Dionysian ecstasy.
. . . .
In "Falling,"Dickey's Lady of the Animals not only possesses the vision of hawks and owls, but also their "fearsome" power over prey and, most importantly, their powers and instruments of flight. With "a taste for chicken overwhelming / Her" and "The air beast-crooning to her warbling," the stewardess arranges her skirt "Like a diagram of a bat" and thus "has this flying-skin / Made of garments." These diverse animal traits dramatically enable her to change both her activity and her character. Her fall becomes purposive, no longer the formless result of an unintended accident, but instead "a long stoop a hurtling a fall / That is controlled that plummets as it wills." As the velocity of her fall accelerates, an effect conveyed brilliantly by Dickey's spectacular visual imagery, so too the stewardess' plummeting will-to-power increases. At one point, she alters the very laws of nature as she "Turns gravity / Into a new condition, showing its other side like a moon shining / New Powers." And shortly thereafter she begins to become fully active by determining her own fate; that is, she will not "just fall just tumble screaming all that time." She will "use / It" (italics in original).
. . . .
The stewardess becomes a goddess--as, does the reader, participating emotionally with her--precisely through this Dionysian state of intoxicating new vision, itself a delirious peripety. Her frenzy is a "rapturous transport," a "narcotic potion," which, like certain varieties of mysticism, erases "all sense of individuality in self-forgetfulness," or, we might add, like a mystical transport that produces movement transfiguring the vulnerable self into a greater power, when, for example, one feels the sensation of being intoxicated by speed. . . .
From "Form and Genre in James Dickey's 'Falling': The Great Goddess Gives Birth to the Earth," in South Atlantic Review (May, 1993).
Richard J. Calhoun and Robert W. Hill
"Falling" is Dickey's closing word in Poems 1957-1967, and it says plainly that human beings, all of whom are caught in a precipitous mortal plunge, can make that descent to death speak of ecstasy rather than despair. As the airline stewardess falls from high over Kansas corn fields, she is able to gain some aerodynamic mastery over her own plummeting body, to achieve some integrative vision of the diverse and fertile world beneath her, to discard the symbolic constraints of her occupational uniform ("to die / Beyond explanation"), and, in her death, with "The furrows for miles flowing in upon her where she lies very deep / In her mortal outline," to serve the American agricultural heartland as a newfound fertility goddess. She becomes herself a symbol for others. Whereas "May Day Sermon" gives us a preacher who promises to "tell" each year the story of the fugitive lovers who epitomize the "procreant urge of the world," as Walt Whitman called it, the stewardess in "Falling" preaches only two words, "Feels herself go go toward go outward breathes at last fully / Not and tries less once tries tries AH, GOD--" Chosen to speak the last words of Dickey's first "collected poems," the stewardess utters the pure epiphany, the apotheosis of herself as goddess and the release of herself through the final human experience. She does not preach, really; in her death she quite simply becomes the sermon-object, the considered thing itself. Her downward flight through air and watery clouds, through the levels of cold and "the growing warmth / Of wheatfields rising toward the harvest moon," through the sights of distant bus and car lights, houses and lakes, through the widest swings of joy and tragic recognition, this flight works magic on the readers as it does on the farmers, wives, and boys of the land that receives her. For Dickey, the gift of the stewardess "from the frail / Chill of space to the loam where extinction slumbers in corn tassels thickly / And breathes like rich farmers counting" is the whole human gift of sacrifice: the relinquishment of life because we are all mortal, and the simultaneous affirmation of life and meaning through the imaginative will. Few other modern American poems speak so hopefully of the universal human creative spirit.
From James Dickey. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983. Copyright © 1983 by G. K. Hall & Company.
That earth itself is heaven is the prominent theme of "Falling," which tells of a flight attendant--a servant, a functionary--who becomes a goddess as she falls from an airplane and strikes the ground, in which she becomes embedded. The theme of the natural heaven is reinforced by descriptions of the spiritual effects on farmers and others who observe the woman during and after her fall.
In "Falling," Dickey reverses the usual spiritual implications of the fall metaphor, thus suggesting, as I have indicated, that earth is the real heaven. The woman's fall is described as a transitional stage between spiritual blindness and illumination, a movement from death-in-life to fully realized life, even from sexual impotence to sexual power: as she descends "in the overwhelming middle of things," she removes her clothes, becoming more primitive, more natural, naked like an animal; she watches "her country lose its evoked master shape" and "get back its houses and peoples"; she becomes "the greatest thing that ever came to Kansas," causing farm girls to feel "the goddess in them struggle and rise" and causing widowers and boys to feet the stirrings of sexual desire. The woman's fall constitutes "her brief goddess / State," this brevity suggestive of the individual's role in the eternal round of life and death.
Her heavenly power is most forcefully manifested, however, after she has struck the ground, becoming part of the earth, as it were. Now the earth-goddess, mother earth, the woman transforms those who come near her body. The farmers in the area "fall" into the natural heaven when they "walk like falling toward the far waters / Of life ... toward the dreamed eternal meaning of their farms / Toward the flowering of the harvest in their hands. . . ." In fact, everyone who finds the woman embedded in the earth experiences spiritual renewal: "All those who find her," the speaker says, "remember / That something broke in them as well . . ."; as a result, they "began to live and die more." Presumably, the "meaning" derived by the people is their new understanding of their place in nature and in the processes of life and death, "flowering" and "harvest." This understanding then allows them to both live and die more fully, like the predators and prey in "The Heaven of Animals," with acceptance and compliance. They now know that they and nature are one. As the woman's last words, "AH, GOD," indicate, the "fall" from servitude in civilization's machine to nature leads us to deity.
From South Atlantic Review (1991)
The symbolic world is above all dynamic; it is time that stuns this world into life and gives to it its very power to unite contradictory things. Thus the problem of defining time as "falling" has begun to be solved. Since time is united with space, falling is of the medium itself as well as through that medium. Time is what falls through itself. Or, as Merleau-Ponty puts it, time is both "a general flight out of itself"" and "a flow which never leaves itself." Time falls and accumulates its falling and accumulates the world of its falling, all in a motion which is itself, which is time.
All of this is illustrated in an extraordinary poem by James Dickey titled "Falling." Dickey's poem tells of an airline stewardess on a plane who is swept through an emergency door when it suddenly springs open. The poem, about two hundred and fifty lines long, accompanies her on her fall to the earth and recounts the horrible thrill of this experience "that no one has ever lived through." But the point of the poem is that everyone, in a sense, "lives" through this experience; everyone falls toward his death. Falling in the poem becomes the primordial experience of time that we all undergo. It is as if we were released from all the bulky interference that objectivity crowds us with, and the repressed experience that lies beneath that bulk were allowed to stand forth, or to "fall," naked. The last act of the stewardess, before the earth finally swells up to meet her, is to strip off her clothes and fall naked, an act that expresses the helpless freedom the bare experience of falling is.
"Helpless freedom" is only one of the many paradoxes that describe the feeling of the poem and that also describe the experience of time. Heidegger calls time an "anticipatory resoluteness," and this enables the stewardess to begin experimenting with her falling, to accept it and play with it. "She develops interest she turns in her maneuverable body," and in that turning feels for the first time the excitement of her body in its world, in its falling.
she clasps it all
To her and can hang her hands and feet in it in peculiar
Her eyes opened wide by wind, can open her mouth as
wide wider and suck
All the heat from the cornfields can go down on her back with
Of stupendous pillows stacked under her a nd can turn turn
as to someone
In bed smile, understood in darkness can go away slant
off tumbling into the emblem of a bird with its wings half-
Or whirl madly on herself in endless gymnastics in the growing
The stewardess's helpless freedom is fully helpless, but as she is realizing, fully free; she snatches at her existence, she makes it up, and she glides with it. The image of freedom is the bird, and she opens her jacket like a bird's wings, begins to fly, and "turns gravity / Into a new condition showing its other side like a moon." The other side of gravity is weightlessness, and the synthesis of weight and weightlessness is the stewardess's experience of falling, therefore of time.
This should be distinguished from the experience of time in Burroughs, where weightlessness and weight--flying, floating, being released, and sinking, settling, being trapped--are two separate polarities of time. Their combination occurs only in a kind of atomistic instant that is obsessively repeated, the instant when death takes place at the climax of sexual activity. Burroughs' world and the structures of Western thought have in common this obsession with the concept of "atom"; in general, the only way Western thought can conceive of time is to break it up into such atomistic instants (as in Hume or Descartes) as those that combine weight and weightlessness in Burroughs. But in Dickey's "Falling," weight and weightlessness stretch across time--they are time in their unity; not time broken up into a series of "nows," but time as it flows out of itself; not time as a system of objective, discrete positions, but time that unites and synthesizes total mobility and total immobility. In other words, the falling of the stewardess is also a floating; there is a stasis, a timelessness, at the heart of its movement.
This stasis, timelessness, or weightlessness, and its relation to the flow of time need to be more fully explained. Within the structures of Western thought, there have been attempts to overcome the atomistic bias of descriptions of time by comparing the flow of time to that of a river (as Bergson does). But this description doesn't address itself to that enigma by which the present slides by and yet is always here; it fails to account for the stasis at the heart of the movement of time. It polarizes these two aspects of time, stasis and movement; it extracts the presence of the present out of its unity with the flow of time and places it outside that flow as a kind of observer on the bank of a river, as an entity past which the stream of events travels. This is the implication of those descriptions of time that assert that a new present is always coming at us and the old one is going away, no matter how fluid this movement from new to old is conceived to be. Such descriptions always isolate us as an entity to which time happens; consequently we are returned to the problem this section began with: time falling through an external medium and defined at its border areas--and spatialized.
Needed is a description of time that can dynamically unite both the sliding away and the presence of the present, both its weight and weightlessness, without allowing them to fall apart into polarities and without uniting them only in atomistic instants. The existentialists have perhaps best accomplished this description; for them, time is what unites the presence and absence of the present, unites weight and weightlessness, movement and stasis, and, in general, Being and Nonbeing. Sartre puts it this way: "The present is precisely this negation of being, this escape from being, inasmuch as being is there as that from which one escapes.... Thus we have precisely defined the fundamental meaning of the Present: the Present is not.... It is impossible to grasp the Present in the form of an instant, for the instant would be the moment when the present is. But the present is not; it makes itself present in the form of flight." This is exactly the experience of Dickey's poem. There are no "nows" in the poem except the one that kills time, the moment of impact with the earth that throws time totally into the past. The only "instant" in the poem is that which was. And there is no polarity of stasis and flow, of the person who falls and the act of falling. There is rather a perfect unity of passing and presence, a perfect timelessness of time that allows the stewardess to glide, roll, and swoop, to "take up her body / And fly," to become into a totally open future.
The stewardess can become into an open future only by being propelled forward out of the great weight of a closed past. I should say a closing past, since the past, rather than being a static bulk, is always simultaneously catching up with the present and falling behind it. If the present is not, then the past unites the presence and passing of time. This argument applies also to the future: if the present is not, then the future combines the presence and arriving of time, since it is always falling back into the present and leaping ahead of it. The point is that the present is not because it is a unity of the two most contradictory things, the past and the future. It is a unity of these, not simply an intersection of them. This constitutes the central enigma of time, an extension of its weight and weightlessness, which Heidegger has expressed in the concept of the "ecstases" of time.
"Ecstasis" means "standing outside" (for example, Donne's use of the word in "The Extasie"), and the ecstases of time are the past, present, and future, the three relationships of time that stand outside each other. These are ecstases of a being that in turn stands outside of itself, a being that is present wholly in each of its parts. So time stands both in and out of itself; as Heidegger puts it, "temporality is the primordial 'outside-of-itself in and for itself. And Merleau-Ponty says, "my present outruns itself in the direction of an immediate future and an immediate past and impinges upon them where they actually are, namely in the past and in the future themselves." The past and the future are fully past and future and fully present. With regard to the past, this amounts to saying that falling is always a falling out of itself; it simultaneously retains the past and throws it away. As Sartre puts it, "everything happens as if the Present were a perpetual hole in being--immediately filled up and perpetually reborn." Or as Whitehead puts it, time is "the perpetual transition of nature into novelty." In this sense the future for the stewardess is always opening, and the past always closing.
But the concept of the ecstases of time also means that the opposite is true, that falling is a falling into itself, that the future is virtually present in the present, and that the future is always closing and the past always opening. This amounts to saying that the future impact of the stewardess with the earth intersects the perpetual present of her falling, and seals that present---the impact by which she buries herself in the world and dies is a condition by which she is always in the world. This radical sense of being-in-the-world is expressed by Dickey at both ends of the poem: at the beginning when he says, "She is hung high up in the overwhelming middle of things in her / Self," and at the finish when he describes her as literally buried in herself, or in the world.
Neither of these senses of the ecstases of time is true without the other: the future and the past are both always opening and always closing; each shifts and transforms with the movement of time, and falling is both a falling into and out of itself. Falling is always a momentum, and it gathers itself; but because it also loses itself, the expression of that momentum is in the future as well as in the past: in the earth below, as the poem makes clear, as well as in the sky above. Falling is growth: it is that action which both gathers and loses itself, that action in which the future pours into the past and swells it--and that action in which the past pours into the future and swells it:
nine farms hover close widen eight of them separate,
One in the middle then the fields of that farm do the same
there is no
Way to back off
The momentum of the poem tells us that falling is the present, but, Sartre says, the present is not. So falling is the past and the future united in a single act, not despite but because of the fact that the past and the future are where they are, in the past and in the future. Falling is an act that is not only a f ailing but also a rising. This is to say that if the stewardess is the world of her falling, then she is that world, as Heidegger says, which comes "towards itself futurally in such a way that it comes back." She is her world and she is not her world, since her world, the world itself, is rising up to meet her.
This is why the point of view toward the end of the poem shifts often to the world below the stewardess, and why the action of rising occurs with reference to that world:
She goes toward the blazing-bare lake
Her skirts neat her bands and face warmed more and more
by the air
Rising from pastures of beans and under her under chenille
The farm girls are feeling the goddess in them struggle and rise
and will wake
To see the woman they should be struggling on the rooftree to
Stars: for her the ground is closer water is nearer
The stewardess is not her world, because her world is below; yet she is her world because her falling is also a rising. Thus she begins to feel the same rising sexuality that the farm girls feel as she runs her hands "deeply between / Her thighs"--also "for her the ground is closer." This dynamic unity of opposites, of is and is not, will cease only when the simultaneous rising and falling of time ceases, when the past and the future totally close by being passed and arrived (not passing and arriving), and when the stewardess is reduced to herself in the instant"This is it THIS"--that paralyzes time and funnels the process of growth into death.
Time is and is not itself; it is falling. The way in which time unites opposites in Dickey's poem--weight and weightlessness, helplessness and freedom, immobility and mobility, passing and presence, falling and rising--and unites them not by reducing one to the other, but by preserving the full meaning of each, is an indication of the sense in which time is at the core of the symbolic world, as the very membrane which holds that world together. And as a unity of Being and Nonbeing, that membrane holds the symbolic world apart also, unites unity and multiplicity in such a way that they are and are not each other. The stewardess in "Falling" is her world by not being her world: she is, as Sartre puts it, "the being which is its own nothingness of being."
From The Garden and the Map: Schizophrenia in Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973. Copyright © 1973 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.
One of the longest and most startling of the new poems was "Falling," whose lines, broken into word clusters by spaces, stretched from margin to margin. The "walls of words" presented a rhapsodic, slow-motion account of a stewardess's fall to earth. Although Dickey would deny it, his eccentric spacing owed something to the idea of a "breath unit"-the number of words spoken naturally in a single breaththat had been formulated by two poetic schools he regularly derided: Charles Olsons Black Mountain poets and Allen Ginsbergs Beats:
[. . . ]
As Dickey describes it, the stewardess's striptease in midair is a "last superhuman act" that arouses the reproductive energies in the boys, girls, and fields of Kansas.
The idea for the narrative, Dickey revealed, derived in part from Flannery O'Connor, who sometimes found ideas for short stories in newspaper articles. Dickey had read in the New York Tmes an account of a stewardess who had fallen out of an airplane. To stymie the fact checkers, he conveniently left out dates, names, and places from the quotation that he used as an epigraph. In an interview Dickey recalled that the stewardess "was a French girl who had come to this country to live. And she was a bit too old for a stewardess, something like twenty-eight or twenty-nine, so she wasn't with the major airlines. . . . This girl had been undergoing psychoanalysis for several years [this was untrue] andthis is the thing that caps the climaxher main fantasy, her obsessional nightmare, was that she was a bird." In Dickey's poem, however, she became more fertility goddess than bird, and by the end of the poem, she flew without any plumage.
Dickey had gleaned the facts, which he later mythologized, from two articles in the New York Times. The first appeared on Saturday, October 21, 1962, the second on October 22. The articles told how Francoise de Moriere, a stewardess on an Allegheny flight from Washington to Providence with stops at Philadelphia and Hartford, had been sucked from the airplane when the rear emergency door suddenly opened. Problems with the door had developed near Philadelphia. Because wind whistled around it, crew members stuffed a pillowcase into the crack. As the plane approached Bradley airport in Hartford around 8:50 P.M., Moriere began to announce landing preparations. A sudden decompression at an altitude of four thousand feet broke open the door. "Ladies and gentlemen, we. .." were Moriere's last words. When the passengers looked back, they saw the door flapping on its hinges. Two men grabbed another stewardess, who had been in the lavatory, and prevented her from falling out the door. Moriere's body was found twenty miles southwest of Bradley Field. She had fallen into a rocky meadow on the outskirts of the sparsely populated town of Farmington, Connecticut. State police reported that several people in the vicinity had heard a scream for thirty seconds, then silence.
Four-and-a-half years after the accident, Dickey found out much more about the stewardess from one of her closest friends, Andrew Sherwood, a portrait photographer living in Paris. On February 23, 1967, Sherwood wrote a seventeen, page letter in response to a copy of "Falling" sent to him by his mother. He informed Dickey that since the accident he had been unable to visit his friend's grave or mention her death to anyone. Now he poured out the details of her life. Francoise-Marie-Gabrielle Chabiel de Moriere, he said, was descended from an ancient Poitou family of petite noblesse dating back to Charlemagne. As a girl she vacationed at her family's chateaux and lived the sort of life her aristocratic lineage allowed. During the austerities of World War II, she changed into a somber, frail, sensitive child. Studying in the intensely competitive Academie Julian to become a fabric or interior designer, she suffered a nervous breakdown. For the next three years she shuttled from sanitarium to sanitarium and rarely spoke. On one occasion she ran around her parents' garden, flapping her arms and screeching like a bird (that was her only memory of her silent period). Subjected to numerous psychiatrists, she grew to loathe them. Despite Dickey's claim about her having been in psychoanalysis, she had vehemently refused to enter analysis later in her troubled life. Her identification with the bird was simply a childhood memory.
As Moriere recovered from her illness, she painted, played the piano, taught small children, and got a succession of jobs as governess, cosmetics salesperson, and eventually stewardess. Because of her age and false teeth, the major airlines rejected her applications. Allegheny Airlines finally hired her and flew her between Hartford, New York, and Washington, D.C. In New York she often dined with her friend Sherwood. She also dated and sometimes traveled with a businessman she had once worked for at Lord & Taylor's. The man fell in love with her and proposed, but Moriere dreaded the idea of marriage so much that she considered retreating to a Dominican convent in Sao Paulo. The businessman, who had taken a job in Denmark, promised to arrive in New York around October 19, 1962, and whisk her off to Europe and marriage. On the night of October 20 she fell, unceremoniously, through the cold Connecticut air.
In "Falling," Dickey imagines Moriere preparing for a marriage with the soil rather than with a man. On her prolonged descent through the warm air above Kansas (Moriere's favorite place name, oddly enough, was Wichita, Kansas), she strips off her girdle, stockings, bra, and all her other clothes. As Yeats had done in his own poem about high-altitude sex, "Leda and the Swan," Dickey relied on his sexual and mythical fantasies for the poem's material. He knew little about the actual stewardess (in fact, Moriere was so slim that she never wore a girdle). Sherwood informed Dickey that his voluptuous American sex goddess differed markedly from the prim, short-haired, narrow-hipped, flat-breasted Moriere, but the elegy for her death still moved him to tears. To show his appreciation, he had his mother send Dickey the original of one of two drawings that Moriere had made for him, and he invited Dickey to visit him in Paris. On May 7, 196 , Dickey thanked him and said he had hung Moriere's artwork in his office.
When "Falling" appeared in the New Yorker, it generated more mail than any other poem Howard Moss had published.
from James Dickey: The World As a Lie. New York: Picador USA, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by Henry Hart. [NOTE: This is the definitive biography of Dickey.]
Return to James Dickey