This is the introduction to a special issue of THERMOS, dedicated to Hunter Deely’s poetry and memory. We’ll publish the whole issue online in coming weeks. It’s an honor to be able to do so. — AS
Introduction to Hunter Deely
On the final day of the only class I ever had with Hunter Deely, we sat outside on the academic quad at Tulane University. It was late April, a few days after Hunter’s 22nd birthday, and the weather was gorgeous enough to eclipse the formal nature of our surroundings. His had been a tremendous class, full of impressive and various poets, all of whom had written memorably in the preceding months. I was eager to hear what plans they had for writing poetry during the rest of their lives, and asked them to each give a statement on the matter before we disbanded for the summer. Perhaps they were thrown off guard by my request that they think of anything other than the beautiful spring day: as we went around the circle, we heard a series of uncharacteristically muted statements. Some hoped to work on prose over the summer, others intended to write daily in a journal, one hoped to take some time off from writing, and a couple offered vague ambitions to perhaps apply for MFAs in a few years. Then it was Hunter’s turn, and he said “I want to be one of the all-time greats.” That’s all he said. It was not a hubristic statement, it was a practical ambition, and I don’t believe anyone there felt that it was ridiculous of him to say so. I believe we all believed him, and felt he would meet that goal. That he won’t is the single greatest regret I have at this point in my life.
What strikes me most about Hunter’s poems is their sheer achievement. Generally, of course, but also relative to age: that all but the last of these poems were written by someone not yet 22. For more than a decade, I’ve been either a young poet myself, a teacher of young poets, or both – I’ve worked with and among hundreds of poets at the same age and at the same point in their education as Hunter was when he died. Many have been extremely talented, many have written admirable, accomplished poems or groups of poems, many have demonstrated the spirit & the drive to be interesting, even exceptional poets. But none, by the age of 22, approached a body of work as realized and impressive as Hunter’s.
I sincerely expected to read his new poems for the remainder of my life. I looked forward to following the trajectory of his development, to conversing with him as he moved in new directions, and to being forced (as I have many times in preparing this collection) by his example to reconsider my own aesthetic direction. I felt fortunate to have stumbled, early in my teaching career, upon a student who I might soon consider my peer.
I did not know that he was addicted to heroin, though reading his poems today, it is painfully apparent. What would I have done, had I known? What would anyone have done? Aside from treating them like fellow humans, what can anyone do about another’s difficulties?
Nevertheless, I resent the guidelines, official and unofficial, that prevent students and teachers from talking about things like addiction. That restrict such conversations to therapy sessions, rehab centers, and twelve-step programs. I would have liked to talk to Hunter about heroin. I would have liked to have been able to do so.
How do you mourn a student? I mean: how do you mourn one who has been your student?
The term itself is belittling, hierarchical. It creates an unnecessary and even harmful gap into which the humanity of the learner vanishes. Sixty-five years ago, when Theodore Roethke wrote a poem called “Elegy for Jane” in honor of a deceased student, he managed (while surely meaning well) to express many of the terms that seem to have made this gap an officially necessary thing. “Neither father nor lover,” Roethke nevertheless posits Jane not as an autonomous being, a learner and a human, but rather as a kind of nervous bird, someone who can be seen only in terms of something else, and thereby possessed.
Of course this is problematic and unhelpful. Perhaps the complexity of the problem, and of our ability to respond, has increased since 1950, perhaps not. I do believe there is a generational shift underway in the universities, that the way we teach today in creative writing classrooms is not necessarily continuous with the way we were taught even fifteen years ago, let alone fifty.
But it’s true that the universities cast people in strange relation to one another. Over the course of a fifteen week semester, I spend more time with each group of students than I’ve spent with any of my own siblings during the entire six years since I began to teach. I learn more about each of them than I’ve ever known about any of my neighbors, or the majority of the people I’d comfortably call friends. Perhaps this is particularly the case because I teach poetry – after all, one only rarely hides themselves successfully in the language a poem demands.
And yet, in spite of the intimacy of the classroom, there’s no question that the true grieving is left to those who have had the immense privilege of knowing the student outside the context of their being a student.
One mourns a student, I suppose, by leaving the term aside. One doesn’t mourn a student: one mourns a person.
The pose of this collection – not of the poems, of their gathering – is a gaze steadily off into the distance to the right of the poems. The gaze is mine, and it’s caused by the poems, which astonish me, which cause me to stop reading, as the best poems do with regularity.
I suppose there’s a way in which I’m looking up from the poems Hunter did write in order to consider the poems he didn’t write, and won’t. I suppose there’s a way in which this is always the case: that we look up from poems that move us in order to consider poems that haven’t been written yet. That this is the origin of many poems.
It has been difficult to gather these poems and bring them to presentation. There’s a finality to it that opposes the generative relationship between written and unwritten poetry. I’ve struggled all along to feel grateful that he wrote as much, and as well, as he did before dying, because that gratitude gives too readily into the wish that, rather than dying, he’d been a little more careful, and lived to write more.
But of course, if Hunter had been a little more careful, he might not have lived the life he had to in order to write these poems.
Late in Hunter’s memorial service, an event deserving of its own introductory essay, someone whose name I have forgotten told a story about Hunter that I will never forget:
Hunter found me in the cafeteria one day and asked if I wanted to skip the rest of the day. This was in high school. I’d been missing a lot of classes so I wasn’t really sure I should, and I said so. But Hunter said “No, you’re going, come on.” And who can say no to Hunter? So I went. He had his mom’s old Dodge Durango, a big ungainly white car. So we drove off, and if you don’t know San Antonio, where we lived it’s really flat. But there are some railroad tracks, and they’re raised, so when the road comes to them there’s an incline. When we got near the tracks, Hunter just floored it. Suddenly we were going, like, seventy in a twenty-five zone and headed right for the incline. I yelled at him to slow down, but he didn’t, and we hit the incline full-speed. So there we were, hanging in midair in the middle of a residential neighborhood, and I’m thinking “I hate you, Hunter. I hate you,” and he turns and looks directly at me, and says “Yeah!” Then we landed, and took out two or three street signs, and broke the Durango, but of course we lived through it.
& if there’s an image I’d have you hold in mind while reading these poems, this is it: the young poet, in the middle of a reckless act he does not doubt he’ll land, suspended above the ground, mouth open in delight, exuberant, immortal, alive –