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Thanks to U2 for the Moth-Force


Last weekend I got to see U2’s Joshua Tree anniversary tour, which was epic and amazing, but it wasn’t the only incredible thing I saw that day. As we waited for the show to begin, a constant stream of poetry scrolled across the giant screen. At first I wasn’t paying much attention. I saw something by Walt Whitman, something by Solomon (I think), and other fascinating snatches of verse, mostly things I hadn’t encountered before. Then about five minutes before showtime, I caught an opening line that jumped out and captivated me with its strangeness:

“Moth-force a small town always has, given the night.”

I don’t know about you, but I can’t read something like that and not wonder what the next line is going to be. I mean, moth-force? Really? This is either going to be a poem about an epic Kaiju battle or something more in line with G. M. Hopkins. If I’m honest, I can get just as excited about either of those things. Matt Conner was sitting next to me and trying to say something (probably a pun), but I held up my hand and said, “Wait a minute, I’ve got to read this.”


It wasn’t about Kaiju.


When the final line scrolled out of view, I was almost breathless. I’ve rarely read a poem and been so captivated by it on the first reading. The poet is James Dickey. The title is “The Strength of Fields.” I may be in the minority in my ignorance of Dickey, but I’m so glad U2 made the introduction. (He’s also the author, and screenwriter, of Deliverance.)


Below is the poem in full. I hope you are as a baffled by it and as moved by it as I was. I’m including it first without Dickey’s line-breaks and spacing, since that’s how I encountered it. But I’m following it up with his intended formatting (which I don’t pretend to understand). If you like this one, you should also check out “The Heaven of Animals.”


“The Strength of Fields” by James Dickey

… a separation from the world, a penetration to some source of power and a life-enhancing return … —Van Gennep: Rites de Passage

Moth-force a small town always has, Given the night.

What field-forms can be, Outlying the small civic light-decisions over A man walking near home? Men are not where he is Exactly now, but they are around him Around him like the strength Of fields. The solar system floats on Above him in town-moths.

Tell me, train-sound, With all your long-lost grief, What I can give.

Dear Lord of all the fields What am I going to do? Street-lights, blue-force and frail As the homes of men, tell me how to do it How to withdraw How to penetrate and find the source Of the power you always had Light as a moth, and rising With the level and moonlit expansion Of the fields around, and the sleep of hoping men.

You? I? What difference is there? We can all be saved By a secret blooming. Now as I walk The night and you walk with me We know simplicity Is close to the source that sleeping men Search for in their home-deep beds. We know that the sun is away We know that the sun can be conquered By moths, in blue home-town air. The stars splinter, pointed and wild. The dead lie under The pastures. They look on and help. Tell me, freight-train, When there is no one else To hear. Tell me in a voice the sea Would have, if it had not a better one: as it lifts, Hundreds of miles away, its fumbling, deep-structured roar Like the profound, unstoppable craving Of nations for their wish.

Hunger, time and the moon: The moon lying on the brain as on the excited sea as on The strength of fields. Lord, let me shake With purpose. Wild hope can always spring From tended strength. Everything is in that. That and nothing but kindness. More kindness, dear Lord Of the renewing green. That is where it all has to start: With the simplest things. More kindness will do nothing less Than save every sleeping one And night-walking one Of us.

My life belongs to the world. I will do what I can.

 

“The Strength of Fields”

by James Dickey

[Original formatting]

Moth-force a small town always has,

          Given the night.

                                                What field-forms can be,

         Outlying the small civic light-decisions over

               A man walking near home?

                                                                         Men are not where he is

      Exactly now, but they are around him    around him like the strength

Of fields.    The solar system floats on

    Above him in town-moths.

                                                         Tell me, train-sound,

    With all your long-lost grief,

                                                         what I can give.

    Dear Lord of all the fields

                                                         what am I going to do?

                                        Street-lights, blue-force and frail

As the homes of men, tell me how to do it    how

    To withdraw    how to penetrate and find the source

      Of the power you always had

                                                            light as a moth, and rising

       With the level and moonlit expansion

    Of the fields around, and the sleep of hoping men.

       You?    I?    What difference is there?    We can all be saved

       By a secret blooming. Now as I walk

The night    and you walk with me    we know simplicity

   Is close to the source that sleeping men

       Search for in their home-deep beds.

       We know that the sun is away    we know that the sun can be conquered

   By moths, in blue home-town air.

          The stars splinter, pointed and wild. The dead lie under

The pastures.    They look on and help.    Tell me, freight-train,

                            When there is no one else

   To hear. Tell me in a voice the sea

         Would have, if it had not a better one: as it lifts,

          Hundreds of miles away, its fumbling, deep-structured roar

               Like the profound, unstoppable craving

            Of nations for their wish.

                                                                    Hunger, time and the moon:

         The moon lying on the brain

                                                                    as on the excited sea    as on

          The strength of fields. Lord, let me shake

         With purpose.    Wild hope can always spring

         From tended strength.    Everything is in that.

            That and nothing but kindness.    More kindness, dear Lord

Of the renewing green.    That is where it all has to start:

         With the simplest things. More kindness will do nothing less

             Than save every sleeping one

             And night-walking one

         Of us.

                         My life belongs to the world. I will do what I can.

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