Oh my gosh, I have little to say about the meaning of the poem. I look at it as a Dickey performance, and he was all about performing, whether in archery, guitar-playing, or spinning yarns. This performance involves a simple conceit or "what if': what if animals had a heaven, just as humans are said to have? What would it be like for them to exist in a realm where everything is better than real,. raised to an nth degree, earthly limitations removed? Of course, Dickey's biggest interest is going to be predator and prey, avid hunter that he was. So he invents a heavenly justification, of sorts, for the seeming cruelty of nature, which in the divine imagining isn't cruelty at all, but joy for all.
In that Moyers interview, Dickey said his ideal way to die would be to get mauled by a grizzly bear. Whatever floats your canoe, Jim!
With what cleverness I've used this word 'performance.' Ya gotta hand it to me. It segues to another Dickey poem, one that Donald Hall chose for his great anthology Contemporary American Poets
By James L. Dickey
The last time I saw Donald Armstrong
He was staggering oddly off into the sun,
Going down, off the Philippine Islands.
I let my shovel fall, and put that hand
Above my eyes, and moved some way to one side
That his body might pass through the sun,
And I saw how well he was not
Standing there on his hands,
On his spindle-shanked forearms balanced,
Unbalanced, with his big feet looming and waving
In the great, untrustworthy air
He flew in each night, when it darkened.
Dust fanned in scraped puffs from the earth
Between his arms, and blood turned his face inside out,
To demonstrate its suppleness
Of veins, as he perfected his role.
Next day, he toppled his head off
On an island beach to the south,
And the enemy’s two-handed sword
Did not fall from anyone’s hands
At that miraculous sight,
As the head rolled over upon
Its wide-eyed face, and fell
Into the inadequate grave
He had dug for himself, under pressure.
Yet I put my flat hand to my eyebrows
Months later, to see him again
In the sun, when I learned how he died,
And imagined him, there,
Come, judged, before his small captors,
Doing all his lean tricks to amaze them—
The back somersault, the kip-up—
And at last, the stand on his hands,
Perfect, with his feet together,
His head down, evenly breathing,
As the sun poured from the sea
And the headsman broke down
In a blaze of tears, in that light
Of the thin, long human frame
Upside down in its own strange joy,
And, if some other one had not told him,
Would have cut off the feet
Instead of the head,
And if Armstrong had not presently risen
In kingly, round-shouldered attendance,
And then knelt down in himself
Beside his hacked, glittering grave, having done
All things in this life that he could.
James Dickey, “The Performance” from The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1945-1992. Copyright © 1992 by James Dickey. Reprinted with the permission of Wesleyan University Press, www.wesleyan.edu/wespress
Source: Poetry (July 1959).