THERMOS 10: Two Poems by Hunter Deely (Notes by Pat Deely)

Here are two versions of a poem, along with a commentary, from our special issue of THERMOS featuring Hunter Deely’s poetry. You can check back every couple days in the coming month for more of his poetry. For an introduction, see here.

The Idea of Order at No Place In Particular

Her body is an aspen tree, pale and covered
in scars. In the drift of falling leaves, she
tells me the quaking aspen is the oldest living
thing on this earth. Each tree in this forest
rises from a single system of roots that never
dies. Fire does not touch their embrace,
and in this wind over Utah they whisper
through their roots, the weight of our touch
is eighty thousand years of ashes and leaves.

She tells me, a tree turned toward the center
of the earth will twist itself away and back
into the arms of its roots. The same way
starlings fly, rising at a straight angle and then
a sudden swerve into a dip on a hidden current
rushing dark across a winter field, white
with frost and stubble, east of Dallas. These
words are the ghostly demarcations—the trees
and the starlings only appear separate when
I name them. Just hold me here in silence.

The largest organism in the world, she says,
is a mycelium in an Oregon forest. It holds
a mushroom consciousness. Its strands carry
rivers of mushroom-neurons and it speaks
the language of decomposition. The aspens
have a consciousness too, and when they
burn their ashes still have it. The starling’s
mind travels on the cold air beneath their wings
and into their black eyes filled with endless
light. There is no such thing as being alone.
Take this on faith―on my words. For I
have never dug beneath the bright, trembling
bodies of those trees, and I have never put
my ear to the chest of a frozen starling and
heard the sound of the ocean at Key West.

So we have loved one another since―we
have no word for it, there was no time. Since
since did not exist. When—there was no
when. Everything, she says, in the universe
grows farther apart from everything, always.
There is no center. The center of the universe
is everywhere, always. Just remember, she says,
and though her words are ghosts I listen,
and though her body is scarred I hold it,
we quake like leaves, we forget, we are aspen,
                                starling, mushroom, ash.

On “The Idea of Order at No Place In Particular”

In this poem, Hunter steps into the debate sparked by Wallace Stevens’ poem, “The Idea Of Order At Key West.” The title of Hunter’s poem and the designation of certain words in the second stanza – “the trees and the starlings” – as “ghostly demarcations,” and the speaker’s declaration that she “never . . . heard the sound of the ocean at Key West” in the third stanza confirm the link to Stevens’ poem. Accordingly, I first will attempt to summarize the issue at play in Stevens’ poem as I see it.

In the context of lush, tropical nature – or perhaps in contrast to it – Stevens proposes that the human mind and its imagination are preeminent in ordering the experience of the outside world, and even suggests that the mind may actually create the outside world. The conclusion, however, seems to be that the human mind does not create the natural world in which it exists, but does create the order through which we experience that world and imposes that “order” on it. The “rage for order,” says Stevens, leads to the “keener sounds” through poetic articulation by spiritly infused “ghostly demarcations.”

It seems to me that Stevens’ poem adheres to and glorifies the ancient, Aristotelian view of the universe as divided into two different realms: one heavenly, the other earthly. In contrast, Hunter’s poem exalts the theory that since our universe is expanding all matter and energy was at an earlier time condensed into a space smaller than an atom. Having exploded from that nucleus suggests that everything exists as one even though we cannot see all the sources of forces impacting our lives. Though the evidence for the “Big Bang” theory is relatively new, the conviction that we exist as one is old. For example, the Greeks called their universe the “cosmos” meaning a single, harmonious system.

In the first stanza of Hunter’s poem, we are introduced to a female “pale and covered in scars” who teaches the poet something in each of the four stanzas. In the first, we learn about the root system by which aspen trees thrive and survive. Aspen trees can live for 40 to 150 years, but aspen colonies can live tens of thousands of years. They do so by surviving forest fires because their root system is below the heat of the fire. A burnt over colony generates new sprouts after the fire burns out. The “Pando” colony in Utah is estimated to be about 80,000 years old. In that light, the poet realizes that his and her “touch is 80,000 years of ashes and leaves.”

In the second stanza, we are introduced to some mysterious natural events: a tree trunk that will “twist . . . back into the arms of its roots” and the sudden right angle turn of a flock of starlings, “a dip on a hidden current.” Driven by these unseen forces, the fundamental existence of plants and animals begs the question: why? The answer is not in words, for “words are [only] the ghostly demarcations” of the forces. The female mentor admonishes the poet to “Just hold me here in silence” like the roots do the tree.

To imagine a “mushroom” conjures up visions of the parasol-like plant such as a shiitake mushroom. That aspect of the plant, however, is just the fruit- ing part of a fungus that exists by absorbing nutrients through filaments (or hyphae) that are collectively called a mycelium. In the third stanza, we are told about the “largest organism in the world,” which exists in eastern Oregon. The mycelium is, in effect, the “consciousness” of the “mushroom” like the aspen root system. Considering the relationship of the mycelium and mushroom in this way is consistent with the Aristotelian concept of psyche in plants; and “that this psyche or soul is most likely to be found at the point where the plant’s underground root meets the shoot above (‘qua scilicet radix germini coniunqitur, locus videatur cordi plantarum opportunissimus’).” [The Naming Of Names, p. 234, Pavord, Anna (Bloomsbury 2005).]

In the New Testament anonymous book of Hebrews, we are instructed that “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” [11.1] In conclusion, the poet draws us to that moment before the “spark” to underscore the message that, like the unseen force dramatically altering the path of a flock of starlings, we are all connected by hidden and un- known links and that our life vision should be driven by the conviction that we are one.

P.S. I focused on this poem at first because of the title and the few lines that distinguish the poem by Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West.” It was not until a few weeks later that I realized this poem was a shorter version of Hunter’s poem, “starling’s lament.” Based on Hunter’s laptop, “starling’s lament” followed this poem. Much of what I have observed about “The Idea of Order at No Place in Particular” applies to “starling’s lament.”

                ―Pat Deely

starling’s lament

her body is an aspen
pale and scarred
she says the quaking
aspen never dies

its roots spread
like an echo in
wind over utah
and sleep under
eighty thousand years
of ashes and leaves

and when the bodies
burn what survives
is their connection

turn a tree upside down
toward the center
of the earth she tells me
and it twists away
back into the arms
of its roots
it knows

how starlings fly
rising straight
and then a sudden
swerve into a dip
on a hidden current
rushing dark across
a winter field

a murmuration
she says of starlings
their coil and burst
a system of words
just soft enough to fall
beneath the threshold

the starling’s body doesn’t end
where black feathers
contrast with snow
as each quaking leaf
in this forest
is the same being
when we name them
words become the ghosts
of their embrace

and how two bodies
forget the emergence
of their love
is beyond words
the hush
the starling’s lament
as each cell ripples
out invisible as light
as revealing

in oregon she says
a mushroom mind
recurs under moss
a mycelium larger
than any other
living creature
a murmuration

and these threads extend
like the first frost
across a pond
with brittle fingers
that reach from one phase
into the hurried
displacement of matter
from its ghost

the holy disassemblers
who rise from our
footprints to catch
the debris that
drifts in our wake
are listening now
to her voice here
among the aspens
with swiveling leaves
to keep the edges
of shadows shifting
over our bodies

she tells me
this is my own mind
the starlings
swoop singly
in my skull and burst
from my eyes
with the taste
of mushrooms like
the language of dead
wood on my tongue

we reach the point
where faith alone
can carry us
to this conclusion

that there is no
such thing as
being alone

we have no word for it
there was no time
since “since”
did not exist
we have loved

everything she says
in the universe
is constantly growing
farther apart
from everything else
so there is no center
so the center
is everywhere
in everything

just remember
she tells me
and though her words
are ghosts I listen
and though her body
is scarred I hold it
we quake
we forget
we are aspen


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