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Henry Hart's masterful study of James Dickey reminds us that the poetics of a life are not finally reducible to a system of beliefs or a recitation of facts or even a vision of truth. For Dickey, truth was as much an instrument of desire as poetry itself. Subtitled The World as a Lie, Hart's book illuminates the private vanities and public charms of this singularly gifted and perplexing man.

Tracing an arc from his early childhood in Pershing Point, where Peachtree and West Peachtree converge, to his intellectual insurrections at Vanderbilt, to his career writing ads for Coca Cola, to his emergence in the '60s as Robert Lowell's principal rival as the American poete maudit, Hart places Dickey's encounters with the world always in the context of his turbulent imaginative experience. Thus, for Dickey, inventing jingles for soft-drink commercials was as much a ritual of ecstatic sublimity as his poem "May Day Sermon," which is a kind of inverted exorcism.

The interior drama of his writing became the visible frisson of his life, at once emotionally seductive and metabolically toxic. Of course, most know the name James Dickey from the film of his novel Deliverance, in which four men struggle against man and nature in the North Georgia wilderness. Given Dickey's own lubricious nature and his delight in spectacle, it is somehow appropriate that the homosexual rape scene in the film has become a cultural artifact. Indeed, Dickey argued that the narrative reason for that ghastly vision was never merely shock or disgust, but to frame the perils of going where one is not welcome, in life as in art. This, of course, was Dickey's own program for living: to engage the world with sex and brains and courage and lies and, ever, a sense of humor.

Yet, for Dickey, like many of the poets of his generation, his darker impulses led him toward self-immolation, even as he variously dazzled and ruined the lives around him. Complex and elusive, he remains a puzzle for scholars who imagine they can discern the true Dickey in his world of lies. This fine biography makes clear, however, that Dickey's life and mind were, like the best of his poems, transcribed from the strange truth in dreams.

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