Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Saturday, December 1, 2012


I am enough of an urbanite to be struck as though with a spark of grace when I suddenly see a deer. They enjoy browsing in my ill-trimmed yard, bringing their young, lounging at rest and excreting in such comfort that they depart only reluctantly even when people approach. For years, they considered my garden, with its four-foot fence, unattainable. This year they realized it was not. They seem to be entirely at ease here in town, though it is hunting season out in the countryside.

With the sight of a deer in the yard, the householder understands a bit of the startling vision of St. Eustace: Christ between the stag’s horns, a sight so compelling it was assigned to St. Hubert as well, as though a single saint would be insufficient. St. Giles was sustained by the milk of his deer companion until a king intruded and injured the holy man while aiming at the animal, making Giles a patron of cripples.

Other traditions, too, scent generous sanctity when deer are near. In Islam, the 13th century holy man Geyiklü Baba, “Father Deer.” lived with his deer in the mountain forests of Bursa and gave hind’s milk to a colleague, and in the Þiðrekssaga, Sigurd is nursed by a doe. The common thread is selflessness, the same theme of those Jataka stories of when the Buddha appeared in the form of a deer. In one story he is a glorious deer who saves a man from drowning. The man later betrays the Buddha to a deer-hunting king who turns his weapon the traitor when he finds how the deer was tracked, and the Buddha again intervenes, offering to die in his place. The beginning and end of morality, the Buddha says, is compassion for all creatures. With a touching symmetry, in another narrative the Buddha-deer’s mate intervenes, offering her life for his when a hunter threatens him. [1]

Though all natural objects, studied with sufficient focus, might lead to consideration of Ultimate Reality, deer possess a coy beauty charming enough to attract more than their share of attention. Who can forget the eloquence of the Song of Songs: “My beloved is like a roe or a young hart: behold, he standeth behind our wall, he looketh forth at the windows, shewing himself through the lattice.” [2] (Surely it would have been likely the female concealing herself behind the mashrabiya; one thinks of medieval love stories such as Palamon and Arcite glimpsing the lovely Emily far below quite unknown to her.) The erotic associations of the deer are also used to describe the woman, as in Proverbs: “Let her be as the loving hind and pleasant roe; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times; and be thou ravished always with her love.” [3]

The fact is that deer carry a rich luxurious sensuality. They move with a sinuous liquid smoothness; their silence seems to speak of self-possession; those cervine eyes strike the observer as deep and sensitive. Their purposeful intentionality is buffered by a becoming hesitance, as though they are constantly aware of the provisional character of things. Horace compares the frisson of a fawn’s fear to that of erotic anticipation. [4]

Yet the animal’s vulnerable vitality is susceptible images of death as well as love. I once heard a recording of an African-American funeral service in which the preacher figured the deceased’s soul as a deer in flight. The deer is the vehicle of a sense of the mysterium tremendum. The sensitive soul, panicked and dashing through the woods, is pursued by dogs and hunters. One might expect that such hostile forces would represent the devil or the difficulties of life, but in this sermon they are instead the individual’s doctors, friends, and relatives, all trying to catch and detain the departing soul as it flees toward freedom. The pursuers eventually force the deer to the Mississippi River, the American manifestation of the Jordan, into which it plunges to escape. “All right, when the dogs get there where he was standin’, an’ they look there an’ see that water. An’ finally some of them will plunge in an’ swim out in the river a while barking, but they get to the place where there’s no scent, an’ they turn an come back to the bank. . . he’s got through, he’s got through the line. An’ he’s crossed that river.” Or, in the words of the Heart Sutra, Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone far beyond! enlightenment hail! "Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!"

1. The first story, known as the Golden Deer or the Ruru Deer, appears in the Pali Canon (as the Ruru Jataka, or Jataka 482) and in the Jatakamala of Arya Sura. The second is “The Two Deer” or Suvannamiga Jataka, Jataka 359.

2. II, 9.

3. V, 19.

4. Odes I, 23.

5. From a classroom handout distributed by the folklorist Harry Oster. I do not know if it was ever published. Long before I studied under him at the University of Iowa in the early 70s, I had heard his beautiful field recordings issued on his Folk Lyric label.

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