Tracking the Deer

Eddie Silva and Allison Funk dissect Funk's poem "The Deer"

The Deer

What the deer at night consume
may be what we thought we needed
but can live without. Try to forget your labor, the hours
you dug out the grove of young walnuts
to fill the neglected arbor with sun -- the vines like someone's handwriting
gone haywire with age,
wandering outside the lines. Watching as you re-strung
what was left years ago to die,
I doubted anything could bloom, but soon enough, tendrils, leaves,
then pea-sized grapes bubbled up,
chameleon-green clusters. And as quickly as one can read
into the smallest gesture
the future, we conjured the mussel-blue Concord -- then, just as fast,
because the past is nobody's fool,
the sweet skin of someone gone. We each have our own aftertaste
(in the vines, the bees tracing figure eights),
what our years of plenty rub up: a flurry of talcum, a scented wrist.
Then (worse?) -- remembering how to shine
the grape as if wiping a film of dust from a frame -- a picture
of what was once. The vintage.
And those who tended us. And the deer, what memories
lodged in their bodies,
what hunger, as they helped themselves to our unripe fruit? Under the poor lantern
of the moon, stealthy ghosts,
they stripped the grapes as we slept, dreaming as always
our versions of Pharaoh's dream.
We could grieve awake, but given the liquid passage of the animal
through the dark, a current,
like it or not, we can't stop, we go out after dinner to watch
the doe and her young feed on our apples.
Beautiful thieves, in the falling light the color of grain
the wise store inside
after the growing season is over.
Allison Funk teaches at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and has two volumes of poetry -- Forms of Conversion and Living at the Epicenter -- to her credit. She lives in an 80-year-old Victorian house with her husband, George, and the younger of her two sons, Adam. With a white picket fence that is perpetually in need of a fresh coat of paint, a number of scraggly trees and a yard softened by gophers, it is a home suited at least to one idea of a poet's life. Funk's just returned from a trip to England and Scotland, so the yard and garden are more unkempt than usual, but in light of "The Deer," it's well worth taking a tour of the frail remnants of a former vineyard, where there are indeed a few "chameleon-green" grapes braving the thin light beneath the walnut trees. "It's very much a poem of this yard, this place," she says.

That yard is in clear view from her writing desk, her older son's former bedroom on the second floor. Her family has been in this house five years, and before Josh vacated the room, Funk composed at the kitchen table. She's fully indoctrinated in women's literary practice. "For years and years, the only time I could write was when the babies were sleeping," she recalls. For a poet who finds "quiet absolutely essential," she's learned over time to "find ways of shutting out" the noise of family, as, often, women writers must.

Funk belies the appearance of one who has raised two sons, suffered the heart-wrenchings of divorce and the nonsense of academia. For one whose poetry is often shadowed by loss, confronting the hard compromises the mature imagination must make to fashion a decent life, or, for that matter, one approaching the milestone of 50 years, Funk looks remarkably youthful, with a shoulder-length mane of light-brown, nearly blond hair framing a face that lightens with childlike inquisitiveness.

At her writing desk, she pulls out the notebook in which "The Deer" began. Besides the view from the window, Funk has a poster advertising a reading she once gave on one wall and, above her desk, an abstract painting by her older son, which includes text from one of her poems. Not far away is a shelf of books containing volumes of poetry that change according to the kind of inspirational support she feels she needs. Works by Anne Sexton, Jorie Graham and Robert Hass are among those now.

Funk began a poem with the working title "Gratitude" on Nov. 20, 1996 (she dates the drafts in her notebook, unless she forgets, which seems to happen as the intensity of the composition process increases). In the pages previous to "Gratitude" are the drafts of a sonnet sequence that, she says, she "had been working on for months and months." There are outlines of rhyming patterns and information about gothic cathedrals, "the ostensible subject matter" of the sequence, which, Funk says, is "really a poem about my father."

Then in her notebook she turns from England and Europe to the local. "I had been living in this place and had been seeing us in an ongoing battle to make things grow, and the deer's incursions. But as I lived with this situation for a while, what came to me -- what was the catalyst for the poem -- was not an idea but a beginning line or two."

Funk composes in pen, and her notebook is filled with thin blue script. What became the opening of "The Deer" approximates her first forays into the poem: "'What the deer, like the darkness, consume may be what we thought we wanted but can live without ....'" She avoids constructing these prose notes into lines of poetry: "I try to stay on the page as long as possible, because I want to feel my way. I want to make marginal notes. There'll be times when a particular line or phrase crystalizes, and I'll try to save that. But at this juncture, I don't know where I'm going. I'm sort of trying to find a narrative, or find my way through the scene. I just start talking" on the page.

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