May Day Sermon
to the Women of Gilmer County Georgia by a Woman Preacher Leaving the Baptist Church
by James Dickey
Poet James Dickey was well-known for his strong self identification as a Southerner and his proclamations in the name of Southern-ness. In a 1987 interview, he stated, “the best thing that ever happened to me was to have been born a Southerner. First as a man and then as a writer.” As with much of Dickey’s writing, this statement was as earnest as it was self-aware, baring the realization of his privilege. Dickey went on to stress his resistance toward “the kind of regional chauvinism that has sometimes been indulged in by Southern writers” while aknowledging that his Southern legacy passed on to him a certain set of values, “some of which are deplorable, obviously, but also some of which are the best things that I have ever had as a human being.” To be a Southern writer–from Dickey’s perspective–was to live with a constant sense of duplicity, within a foggy territory between “good” and “evil”. Dickey reflected that “the sense of evil, which is very strong with me, would not exist if I had no sense of what evil was.” (Spears)
Much of Dickey’s writing explores this sense of internal conflict, deconstructing the dubious privilege of his cultural inheritance as both Southern “man” and “writer”. One of his most notorious deconstructions occurs in his poem “May Day Sermon to the Women of Gilmer County Georgia by a Woman Preacher Leaving the Baptist Church“. The title is a full-fledged story in and of itself, immediately suggesting its narrator’s crisis of spirit and circumstance. The poem nevertheless unfurls in unexpected ways, forging a freedom from the ashes of the Southern Baptist language that it burns.
Listen O daughters turn turn
In your sleep rise with your backs on fire in spring in your socks
Into the arms of your lovers: every last one of you, listen one-eyed
With your man in hiding in fog where the animals walk through
The white breast of the Lord muttering walk with nothing
To do but be in the spring laurel in the mist and self-sharpened
With its monologic tone, “May Day Sermon” provided an apt template for spoken performance, and in 1993, the poem was adapted into a play–Sermon–directed by John Gallogly.
Here is a clip from a 1996 performance of the text by actress Bridget Hanley.
By the end of this text, the female narrator remarkably transforms the oppressive rhetoric of the church (and the community it embodies) into her own self-affirming declaration of deliverance, her own May Day Sermon. When asked how he hoped audiences would interpret the text, Dickey stated, “I would like people to see Sermon as a basic conflict between a traditional…society and the free spirit of someone–say the girl–who is determined–because of the abuse that shes undertaken–to free herself from all restrictions and to become a full woman with full sexual rights…no matter where it goes.”
For more James Dickey video and audio footage, visit the MLC’s digital archive at http://omeka.wustl.edu/omeka/exhibits/show/mlc50/james-dickey.
All images were taken from the Modern Literature Collection’s James Dickey Papers.
Dickey, J. (1967, April). May Day Sermon to the Women of Gilmer County Georgia by a Woman Preacher Leaving the Baptist Church. Retrieved April 27, 2016, from http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/unbound/poetry/dickey/mayday.htm
Spears, M. K. (1987, December/January). James Dickey as a Southern Visionary. Retrieved April 27, 2016, from http://www.vqronline.org/essay/james-dickey-southern-visionary