Farewell, Oh Strange, Exhilarating, Hurtling World: James Dickey’s “Falling”

At just under 2,200 words, James Dickey’s “Falling” occupies a special place in the poetic lexicon. It does so as a kind of fever dream that turns a dreadful event plucked from a news item of the day—a flight attendant sucked out of an airplane and plummeting to her death—into a celebration of the human imagination (Dickey’s) and the “freedom,” if you will indulge me that word given the circumstance it describes, to be found in truly, fully and deliciously letting go to death and extinction.

The poem requires only eight stanzas, hence most of them are quite long. That’s by way of preparing you, though my hunch is you will have no trouble falling right along with it.

Each stanza seems to gain speed and become more densely packed with the almost hallucinatory imagery Dickey conjures for his heroine, whom he immortalizes even as her own mortality flies up to meet her at the approximately 120 miles per hour the human body reaches in free fall. (Slower if, as you will read her doing below, she spreads her arms out to better take in her experience of being a bird, among the multiple other feats of mind and body she undertakes to fully claim the freedom, hell yes, of her last moments as a conscious being.)

For the record, the French-born woman’s earthly name was Francoise de Moriere, whose Allegheny Airlines flight from Philadelphia to Hartford in October, 1962 sent her to earth as she went to the back of the plane to announce final preparations for landing. She was interrupted when the cabin door gave way and out the door she was swept, falling 4,000 feet into a rocky meadow outside Farmington, Connecticut, her last known words being, “Ladies and gentlemen, we…”

(The basic details of the event are rendered in full here, and an account of her life and rather atypical path to an airline career is here, in the very last section of a long discussion of the poem under the heading, “Henry Hart.”)

Dickey, a top-tier mid-20th century poet better known for his novel-become-movie “Deliverance,” gave his imagination plenty of running room after coming across a brief news report on the event, reworking nearly everything about it besides its most basic misfortune. It debuted in “The New Yorker” magazine in February, 1967.

He places his heroine over vast Kansas corn fields at full cross-country altitude, with plentiful time for her to behold first her terror and then, in the way of such things when time seems to slow to a crawl in split-second encounters with sudden calamity, she proceeds to survey the marvelous whistling world and every one of her almost instinctual responses to it.

The midwest prairie setting also lets Dickey place farm families down below, taking in the entire spectacle with a mixture of curiosity ad astonishment at this “greatest thing that ever came to Kansas.”

It also engenders a kind of intense identification with their own bodilness at this most unusual sight of a woman coming into view from the heavens, having shorn her clothes on her journey to earth. That is among multiple other measures she takes as a last triumphant gesture of acceptance mixed with her continuing agency as she gazes greedily at every passing sisterly bird, every rabbit she espies in the bush below, the “mortal unreachable lights,” delighting in the discovery of her “maneuverable body,” whirling “madly on herself in endless gymnastics.”

“My God it is good,” Dickey writes of her experience. “And evil.”


All poems are an experience of one sort or other, but few have the strange hypnotic power of what you will read below. So I am going to wind up my own commentary here, half owing to the sheer length of the poem, which provides plenty enough to contend with on this cusp-of-summer morning. The other half is because I suspect a strong case can be made for the experience to be enjoyed first-look, first-feel, first-immersion, its sheer physicality becoming a bodily experience from the magic of decoding markings on a screen with our oversized brains, our “eyes opened wide by wind…”



                                              By James Dickey

A 29-year-old stewardess fell … to herdeath tonight when she was swept
through an emergency door that suddenly sprang open … The body…
was found … three hours after the accident.
                                          —New York Times

The states when they black out and lie there rolling    when they turn
To something transcontinental    move by    drawing moonlight out of the great
One-sided stone hung off the starboard wingtip    some sleeper next to
An engine is groaning for coffee    and there is faintly coming in
Somewhere the vast beast-whistle of space. In the galley with its racks
Of trays    she rummages for a blanket    and moves in her slim tailored
Uniform to pin it over the cry at the top of the door. As though she blew

The door down with a silent blast from her lungs    frozen    she is black
Out finding herself    with the plane nowhere and her body taken by the throat
The undying cry of the void    falling    living    beginning to be something
That no one has ever been and lived through    screaming without enough air
Still neat    lipsticked    stockinged    girdled by regulation    her hat
Still on    her arms and legs in no world    and yet spaced also strangely
With utter placid rightness on thin air    taking her time    she holds it
In many places    and now, still thousands of feet from her death she seems
To slow    she develops interest    she turns in her maneuverable body

To watch it. She is hung high up in the overwhelming middle of things in her
Self    in low body-whistling wrapped intensely    in all her dark dance-weight
Coming down from a marvellous leap    with the delaying, dumfounding ease
Of a dream of being drawn    like endless moonlight to the harvest soil
Of a central state of one’s country    with a great gradual warmth coming
Over her    floating    finding more and more breath in what she has been using
For breath    as the levels become more human    seeing clouds placed honestly
Below her left and right    riding slowly toward them    she clasps it all
To her and can hang her hands and feet in it in peculiar ways    and
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 a feeling
Of stupendous pillows stacked under her    and can turn    turn as to someone
In bed    smile, understood in darkness    can go away    slant    slide
Off tumbling    into the emblem of a bird with its wings half-spread
Or whirl madly on herself    in endless gymnastics in the growing warmth
Of wheatfields rising toward the harvest moon.    There is time to live
In superhuman health    seeing mortal unreachable lights far down seeing
An ultimate highway with one late priceless car probing it    arriving
In a square town    and off her starboard arm the glitter of water catches
The moon by its one shaken side    scaled, roaming silver    My God it is good
And evil    lying in one after another of all the positions for love
Making    dancing    sleeping    and now cloud wisps at her no
Raincoat    no matter    all small towns brokenly brighter from inside
Cloud    she walks over them like rain    bursts out to behold a Greyhound
Bus shooting light through its sides    it is the signal to go straight
Down like a glorious diver    then feet first    her skirt stripped beautifully
Up    her face in fear-scented cloths    her legs deliriously bare    then
Arms out    she slow-rolls over    steadies out    waits for something great
To take control of her    trembles near feathers    planes head-down
The quick movements of bird-necks turning her head    gold eyes the insight-
eyesight of owls blazing into the hencoops    a taste for chicken overwhelming
Her    the long-range vision of hawks enlarging all human lights of cars
Freight trains    looped bridges    enlarging the moon racing slowly
Through all the curves of a river    all the darks of the midwest blazing
From above. A rabbit in a bush turns white    the smothering chickens
Huddle    for over them there is still time for something to live
With the streaming half-idea of a long stoop    a hurtling    a fall
That is controlled    that plummets as it wills    turns gravity
Into a new condition, showing its other side like a moon    shining
New Powers    there is still time to live on a breath made of nothing
But the whole night    time for her to remember to arrange her skirt
Like a diagram of a bat    tightly it guides her    she has this flying-skin
Made of garments    and there are also those sky-divers on tv    sailing
In sunlight    smiling under their goggles    swapping batons back and forth
And He who jumped without a chute and was handed one by a diving
Buddy. She looks for her grinning companion    white teeth    nowhere
She is screaming    singing hymns    her thin human wings spread out
From her neat shoulders    the air beast-crooning to her    warbling
And she can no longer behold the huge partial form of the world    now
She is watching her country lose its evoked master shape    watching it lose
And gain    get back its houses and peoples    watching it bring up
Its local lights    single homes    lamps on barn roofs    if she fell
Into water she might live    like a diver    cleaving    perfect    plunge

Into another    heavy silver    unbreathable    slowing    saving
Element: there is water    there is time to perfect all the fine
Points of diving    feet together    toes pointed    hands shaped right
To insert her into water like a needle    to come out healthily dripping
And be handed a Coca-Cola    there they are    there are the waters
Of life    the moon packed and coiled in a reservoir    so let me begin
To plane across the night air of Kansas    opening my eyes superhumanly
Bright    to the damned moon    opening the natural wings of my jacket
By Don Loper    moving like a hunting owl toward the glitter of water
One cannot just fall    just tumble screaming all that time    one must use
It    she is now through with all    through all    clouds    damp    hair
Straightened    the last wisp of fog pulled apart on her face like wool revealing
New darks    new progressions of headlights along dirt roads from chaos
And night    a gradual warming    a new-made, inevitable world of one’s own
Country    a great stone of light in its waiting waters    hold    hold out
For water: who knows when what correct young woman must take up her body
And fly    and head for the moon-crazed inner eye of midwest imprisoned
Water    stored up for her for years    the arms of her jacket slipping
Air up her sleeves to go    all over her? What final things can be said
Of one who starts her sheerly in her body in the high middle of night
Air    to track down water like a rabbit where it lies like life itself
Off to the right in Kansas? She goes toward    the blazing-bare lake
Her skirts neat    her hands and face warmed more and more by the air
Rising from pastures of beans    and under her    under chenille bedspreads
The farm girls are feeling the goddess in them struggle and rise brooding
On the scratch-shining posts of the bed    dreaming of female signs
Of the moon    male blood like iron    of what is really said by the moan
Of airliners passing over them at dead of midwest midnight    passing
Over brush fires    burning out in silence on little hills    and will wake
To see the woman they should be    struggling on the rooftree to become
Stars: for her the ground is closer    water is nearer    she passes
It    then banks    turns    her sleeves fluttering differently as she rolls
Out to face the east, where the sun shall come up from wheatfields she must
Do something with water    fly to it    fall in it    drink it    rise
From it    but there is none left upon earth    the clouds have drunk it back
The plants have sucked it down    there are standing toward her only
The common fields of death    she comes back from flying to falling
Returns to a powerful cry    the silent scream with which she blew down
The coupled door of the airliner    nearly    nearly losing hold
Of what she has done    remembers    remembers the shape at the heart
Of cloud    fashionably swirling    remembers she still has time to die
Beyond explanation. Let her now take off her hat in summer air the contour
Of cornfields    and have enough time to kick off her one remaining
Shoe with the toes    of the other foot    to unhook her stockings
With calm fingers, noting how fatally easy it is to undress in midair
Near death    when the body will assume without effort any position
Except the one that will sustain it    enable it to rise    live
Not die    nine farms hover close    widen    eight of them separate, leaving
One in the middle    then the fields of that farm do the same    there is no
Way to back off    from her chosen ground    but she sheds the jacket
With its silver sad impotent wings    sheds the bat’s guiding tailpiece
Of her skirt    the lightning-charged clinging of her blouse    the intimate
Inner flying-garment of her slip in which she rides like the holy ghost
Of a virgin    sheds the long windsocks of her stockings    absurd
Brassiere    then feels the girdle required by regulations squirming
Off her: no longer monobuttocked    she feels the girdle flutter    shake
In her hand    and float    upward    her clothes rising off her ascending
Into cloud    and fights away from her head the last sharp dangerous shoe
Like a dumb bird    and now will drop in    SOON    now will drop

In like this    the greatest thing that ever came to Kansas    down from all
Heights    all levels of American breath    layered in the lungs from the frail
Chill of space to the loam where extinction slumbers in corn tassels thickly
And breathes like rich farmers counting: will come along them after
Her last superhuman act    the last slow careful passing of her hands
All over her unharmed body    desired by every sleeper in his dream:
Boys finding for the first time their loins filled with heart’s blood
Widowed farmers whose hands float under light covers to find themselves
Arisen at sunrise    the splendid position of blood unearthly drawn
Toward clouds    all feel something    pass over them as she passes
Her palms over her long legs    her small breasts    and deeply between
Her thighs    her hair shot loose from all pins    streaming in the wind
Of her body    let her come openly    trying at the last second to land
On her back    This is it    THIS
All those who find her impressed
In the soft loam    gone down    driven well into the image of her body
The furrows for miles flowing in upon her where she lies very deep
In her mortal outline    in the earth as it is in cloud    can tell nothing
But that she is there    inexplicable    unquestionable    and remember
That something broke in them as well    and began to live and die more
When they walked for no reason into their fields to where the whole earth
Caught her    interrupted her maiden flight    told her how to lie she cannot
Turn    go away    cannot move    cannot slide off it and assume another
Position    no sky-diver with any grin could save her    hold her in his arms
Plummet with her    unfold above her his wedding silks    she can no longer
Mark the rain with whirling women that take the place of a dead wife
Or the goddess in Norwegian farm girls    or all the back-breaking whores
Of Wichita. All the known air above her is not giving up quite one
Breath    it is all gone    and yet not dead    not anywhere else
Quite    lying still in the field on her back    sensing the smells
Of incessant growth try to lift her    a little sight left in the corner
Of one eye    fading    seeing something wave    lies believing
That she could have made it    at the best part of her brief goddess
State    to water    gone in headfirst    come out smiling    invulnerable
Girl in a bathing-suit ad    but she is lying like a sunbather at the last
Of moonlight    half-buried in her impact on the earth    not far
From a railroad trestle    a water tank    she could see if she could
Raise her head from her modest hole    with her clothes beginning
To come down all over Kansas    into bushes    on the dewy sixth green
Of a golf course    one shoe    her girdle coming down fantastically
On a clothesline, where it belongs    her blouse on a lightning rod:

Lies in the fields    in this field    on her broken back as though on
A cloud she cannot drop through    while farmers sleepwalk without
Their women from houses    a walk like falling toward the far waters
Of life    in moonlight    toward the dreamed eternal meaning of their farms
Toward the flowering of the harvest in their hands    that tragic cost
Feels herself go    go toward    go outward    breathes at last fully
Not    and tries    less    once    tries    tries    AH, GOD—


The surpassing strangeness of the Dickey poem seemed to beg for music that would meet its challenge…

So if you have 24 minutes for something else altogether different again, check out this musical interpretation with a “microtonal” ensemble and two singer-dancers with Dickey’s voice helping them along, now from the great beyond (he died in 1997).
My thanks to reader and friend Robert Miller for bringing this poem to my attention in connection with last years’s post on  Andrea Gibson’s “For the Days I Stop Wanting a Body”

Comments? Questions? Suggestions, Objections, Attaboys? Just scroll on down to the Comments section below. No minimum or maximum word counts!

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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.

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2 comments to Farewell, Oh Strange, Exhilarating, Hurtling World: James Dickey’s “Falling”

  • Joan  says:

    Huge thank you for bringing this stunning poem (and music) to our attention. What a magnificent exercise in imagination. It helps us look differently at the world beneath us.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      So glad you stopped by here to mention it, Joan. It really is quite a remarkable poem, great in the reading and the hearing, quite dazzling in the way it carries the reader along with almost the sensation of taking it all in right alongside this unfortunate woman. I think its sheer length is a deterrent to a lot of readers, which is a shame, because that seems to stop mattering a few lines in.

      These days later, I came across a more obscure version of the poem set to music—and dance! Only 48 views on You Tube, it is a piece of work unto itself, goes for 24 minutes, and features Dickey reading the poem in a recording while sounds you don’t often hear in a concert hall emanate from a “mircotonal” ensemble and two sopranos who also do the dancing honors. I’ve added it above, so it’s here for posterity—or at least as long as this blog has a place on the Internet!

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