This poem, along with a commentary by Pat Deely, come from our special issue of THERMOS featuring Hunter Deely’s poetry. You can check back every day this week for more of his poetry. For an introduction, see here.
Hush, hearse: arise
Stop. Smell oranges, taste fog
off the swamp. Ask
directions at the gas station-cum-funeral
home in Norco.
That None Shall Perish
on staccato windows. Hush
the cormorant’s wing. Time
hush, moss hang
like vapor from a rusted crane.
You with a head of morning
the nameless lovers in your hair.
Name: How the goats did sob, Emiliana,
in brittle marsh trees, in lilies.
East hush, to leave behind
the needle, platoons of corn like terra
cotta soldiers. Suck
the mud from my arm like chocolate,
liana, rung with thorns:
as grace, with rust
Shall Perish. How
these crops and wildflowers,
from silt, through duckweed / Nitrogen and
how creation breaks down: Black
a separate life, That None
you swore, what saturates the flesh,
Emiliana my junkie. What burns it.
the orange in my
mouth like a nipple.
On “Hush, hearse: arise,” or “emiliana my junkie”
I have vacillated over the meaning of this poem. Thinking about it one way leads me to believe the speaker is traveling with the woman, but another view leads me to conclude that the speaker is lamenting her death. Either way, the commanding tone and religious theme resonate strongly in me.
The title – “Hush, hearse: arise” – reminds me of a line in W.H. Auden’s poem, “Funeral Blues”: “Stop all the clocks . . . .” The hearse – a funerary vehicle that transports a dead person from a church or funeral home to a cemetery – is ordered to stop and someone is ordered to “arise” invoking a biblical image such as Christ’s raising Lazarus after he had been buried for four days (John11: 1-46), the rising from death to life of those who heard the voice of God’s son (John 5: 24-29), or Christ’s own ascension after three days of entombment (1 Corinthians 15:4).
Implying movement, the command to “Stop” as the first word in the first line jolts the reader into experiencing the senses of smell and taste. “Smell oranges”; orange being a color associated with sexuality and the aroma of the fruit an aid to reducing anxiety, nervousness, and stress. Tasting the swamp fog suggests a still, heavy atmosphere and that the speaker is lost, which is reinforced when the speaker has to ask for directions. And a swamp or marsh is a common symbol of the decomposition of the spirit.
The place for direction is a dual-purpose building: a gas station for refuel- ing and a funeral home for preparing the dead for an afterlife. And this “gas station-cum-funeral home” is located in Norco. Norco, Louisiana, is a small refinery town west of New Orleans on the eastern edge of the large Bonnett Carre Spillway. The town’s name is an acronym for New Orleans Refinery Company. Refining is the conversion of oil into gasoline and related hydro- carbon chemicals. Norco also was the site of the 1811 so-called German Coast Uprising revolt of 200 slaves led by free person of color, Charles Delondes. So, the building and town represent places of conversion or transition.
The next line is dropped down with words offset and in italics. We are read- ing the words “That None Shall Perish” that are printed on the abrupt and disjointed, “staccato” windows of the dual-purpose building. This phrase is sort of a punch line for the rationale underlying apostle Peter’s argument to those denying the prophecy of New Testament scripture that the world will come to an end by pointing to the fact that it has not happened. Peter’s argument is that the Lord is patient, wanting everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9), so “That None Shall Perish.” Repentance can be summed up as the act of viewing one’s actions and feeling contrition or regret for past wrongs and in Christian theology, to turn to God.
The speaker commands that the cormorant’s wing “hush” as well as “Time.” The double-crested black cormorant is common to Louisiana. Often seen perched with wings half open to dry, Christians see the bird as representing the cross. The fact that it dives under water to catch fish makes the cormorant a common symbol for “transformation,” but in this poem the speaker wants any transformation and time to stop. Why does the speaker want the hearse, time, and the cormorant’s wing to stop? Suspended by these commands and images the reader is directed to moss hanging from a rusting crane. An operating crane lifts and moves objects. This crane, how- ever, is in a degenerative stasis.
The speaker then shifts the reader’s focus to another person and her hair; her “head of morning glory” (I say “her” because in a few lines we learn her name). The morning glory often is a symbol of the Resurrection. The woman describes the “nameless lovers” in her hair full of morning glory. The speaker then challenges the reader to “Name love” and begins a new line with the word “Name” at which point the reader is introduced to the name of the other person in the poem: “Emiliana.”
In primitive thought, the name of a person is not merely an appellation, but denotes what he or she is to the world outside him or herself. The name, Emiliana, which means to strive, excel, or rival, most famously belonged to one of three aunts of St. Gregory the Great. She and her sister, Tarsilla, lived in their father’s house as if in a monastery encouraging each to virtue by discourse and example. Tarsilla passed on to heaven on Christmas eve and, a few days later, appeared to Emiliana and called her to celebrate the Epiphany in heaven. Emiliana died on January 5th.
We are given Emiliana’s name in a scene with goats sobbing in “brittle marsh trees” like the thicket in which Abraham caught the soon to be sacrificed ram (Genesis 22:13) and among lilies, which symbolize purity to Christians and chastity and virtue. The goat is a popular Christian symbol for the damned. The speaker suggests that the damned are sobbing because they have given up the “needle”; quit using heroin. The metaphorical connection of “platoons of corn” – corn being a symbol of sustenance, staff of life – with “terra cotta soldiers” – a reference most probably to the collection of terra cotta sculptures of soldiers buried with the first Emperor of China (Qin Shi Huang Di) to protect him in the afterlife – emphasizes the significance of heroin in the speaker’s life.
The speaker then commands Emiliana to suck the mud from his arm “like chocolate.” “Mud” is slang for heroin as is the Aztec word for a chocolate- like concoction, “chocolatl.” The poet splits the woman’s name with the word “Sun.” A few lines before, the poet commanded that the “East hush,” which could be a reference to the rising sun. Now, the woman’s name is part of the “sun,” which is a common symbol for the soul rising to heaven, and her head is “rung with thorns.” In Christian symbolism, thorns represent the fall of man, sin, sorrow, etc. Woven thorn branches were placed on the head of Jesus before his crucifixion.
The poet reiterates the funeral home window phrase, but inserts the con- cepts of those people “who pass as grace, with rust” to underscore the concept that those who have sinned, those who have “rust,” but experience grace – an unmerited gift of the divine favor in the salvation of sinners, and the divine influence operating in man for his regeneration and sanctification – shall not perish.
The speaker then reflects on the broader cycle of life – how these plants, animals, machines arise – and how it all degenerates: “breaks down.” These creations “arise from silt, through duckweed / Nitrogen.” Duckweed is an aquatic plant that fuels its growth by rapidly removing necessary minerals from the water on which it floats. It is especially adept at removing phosphates and nitrogen, particularly ammonia. Nitrogen is an element that is a constituent of all living tissue and a major element in plant nutrition.
The break down of life is symbolized by the black abscess signifying a separate life; that is, a life under the influence of heroin. “Black” is the color of darkness, depression, death, and mourning. “Abscess” is a localized collection of pus surrounded by a black ring and reddish inflamed tissue that is common among injecting drug users.
Then, the speaker presents the funeral home window phrase, for the third time, split by yet a larger aside. The speaker appears to be admonishing Emiliana because she swore she left the needle behind and the drug that “saturates the flesh,” “burns it.” The speaker then commands Emiliana to “move” and “push the orange” in his “mouth like a nipple” conjuring up the image of a mother giving vital sustenance to her baby. But there is no evidence that Emiliana can move.
P.S. The poem is saved as “emiliana my junkie.” An earlier rough draft is clearer about the ending eating an orange connecting the beginning: “We the smell of oranges…” the “mud from my arm like chocolate” referring to heroin by following “chocolate,” which is Mexican slang for heroin and that Emiliana has not quit heroin: “You swore you were cleaned-up.”
‧ Pat Deely