“Farm boys wild to couple
With anything….with soft-wooded trees
With mounds of earth…mounds
Of pinestraw…will keep themselves off
Animals by legends of their own:
In the hay-tunnel dark
And dung of barns, they will
Say… I have heard tell
That in a museum in Atlanta
Way back in a corner somewhere
There’s this thing that’s only half
Sheep… like a woolly baby
Pickled in alcohol…”The Sheep Child
, James Dickey, from The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1945-1992.
Back in March of 2007 when I first quoted this poem, what intrigued me was the farm boys’ use of a myth to curb and control their sexual compulsion. The farm boys keep themselves off animals by legends of their own—they spin a myth about a half human, half sheep thing to scare and thus limit their madness to couple. As may be remembered, we “once upon a time” wanted to discuss Dr. Sax’s thesis, “Myth is totality.”
The farm boys are able to master their desire to couple by opposing to it a terrible consequence: that they’ll father a monster. This appears to work—we’ve had an image of them coupling with soft-wooded trees, mounds of earth, mounds of pinestraw, but we do not have an image of them mounting and copulating with sheep. So, it must be Dickey thinks the myth has some effectiveness as a control, blocks off some of the most extremely unacceptable behavior.
But I've wondered: why don’t the farm boys,who are wild to couple, but not truly with mounds of earth, pinestraw, soft-wooded trees,(obviously substitutes) tell themselves legends of their own about earth-children, pinestraw-children, and soft-wooded tree-children to help themselves prevent these other unfortunate couplings? It’d be at least as horrifying to see oneself fathering a hybrid human-dirtclod as a sheep-child…Would that be any less improbable?
If I was endangered by the strength of a temptation to couple with sheep, I don’t think I would experience sufficient fear from the consequence of the sheep-child….Nature’s rebuke (suspending disbelief enough to believe this could happen.) I would only fear being found out, somehow. I would fear the embarrassment of being caught in the act, and the way I would keep myself off animals would be to picture someone I liked or respected coming along at just the wrong moment…Society’s rebuke. Nothing unlikely about that—and beyond the embarrassment, bad enough, there would be other societal punishments forthcoming.
Society forces the farm boys into the woods (society doesn’t answer their “natural needs”) though society would punish them one way or the other if it found them out. That’s mildly interesting, I suppose. But against the background of the farm boys’ frustrations and fantastical solutions to it, and forming an eerie background to the whole wild mise-en-scene, staring sightlessly from a dust-collecting jar of alcohol, forgotten in a museum, is the recollecting sheep-child, which I think is a symbol of the cogito—that’s what I want to know about.