Movements across Grief and Vulnerability, with Phillip B. Williams’ “Final Poem for the Deer”

Poetry’s landscape is carpeted with moons, and beneath each poet’s moon is the poet’s deer, dipping its head into silver waters. Some people roll their eyes and take both moon and deer as hopelessly expended images or a juvenile rite of passage before the real artist settles on more mature imagery. But in my view, calling either moon or deer cliche is a crass–obscene, really–dismissal of their evocative power and the imaginations that draw themselves up to speak to moon, to deer.

Deer have always featured prominently in my memories and imagination. I grew up in the suburbs of Deerfield, Illinois, and saw them cutting across cul-de-sacs and drinking rainwater from yard fixtures. A high school teacher recounted how a friend of hers was killed instantly when her car collided with a deer on a dark mountain road. I remember a grisly story told gleefully by a speaker I have forgotten–a huge truck hit a deer with such force that it sucked swathes of deer flesh into its grille and hood. I think of Lara Flynn Boyle recalling one of David Lynch’s directions during the pilot of Twin Peaks: “Think of how gently a deer has to move in the snow.”

Few poems move with such grace as Phillip B. Williams’ “Final Poem for the Deer.” If deer have been calcified into cliche for many of our imaginations, then “Final Poem for the Deer” animates the figure of the deer into its own elusive, nimble self, rooted in both majesty and vulnerability.

The poem begins with a claim-counterclaim structure that integrates the deer as cliche as part of its enduring power: “Deer asleep on the side of the road. No, deer / dead there as always, preserved in the Book / of Symbols.” A poem more anxious about cliche might hold the dead deer at a distance and instead insist on something more vibrant, suffuse it with vitality to try and make it come alive in the writerly sense. Instead, the poem refutes the initial image, taking us into what some might call cliche, making us grapple with why the dead deer has its privileged place in our imaginations.

This is immediately followed up by a series of confidently proceeding deer images with surprising lateral movement, whether within sentences through evocative imagery (“Deer with its flies and uncanny / arrows in its sides like compass needles, or / fleshless wings”) or the jump from one to the next and the next: “Deer a white-tailed gnostic in the woods. / Deer you get lost in. Deer with a ribbon / of brass bells around its neck and an iron / sword in its antlers’ altar.”

The dexterous use of line breaks too, blocks out the solidity of things until the last moment, making the experience of reading it feel like flitting through dark underbrush. In the aforementioned lines “Deer with a ribbon / of brass bells around its neck and an iron / sword in its antlers’ altar,” I love how “Deer with a ribbon” is set up as a discrete image, which is then transformed into “brass bells” by the next line. While this first line break withholds the defining material of the object, the next break divorces material from form “and an iron / sword,” giving us only the solidity of iron before allowing us to grasp its cutting edge. This swerving unpredictability effected through Williams’ discerning lineation is such admirable craftsmanship and just plain fun to read through. The poem remains attentive to the mechanics of definition, how meaning is accrued through a poem’s progression.

While the poem’s deft navigation is effortlessly produced through its technical sophistication, the work seems largely uninterested in the theatrics of nimbleness. Rather, the poem takes up the complexity of grief and loss as labile and enveloping—the distinction between the dead and those who grieve them is explicitly elided with the “dead carrying the dead.” The poem leaps between who is dead and who is grieving—in one of its most distinctive images, “The father sits up / in his casket, startled, his funeral full/ of his sons, no, his one son repeating / like a paper cutout.” These lines are so powerful to me because, even when the dead sit up at their own funeral, it is still a funeral; there are still so many others to grieve.

And yet, while the poem stays attentive to grief, it is not immobilized by it. The dead father’s casket is a deer and we see it “marching out the church to where / the earth is gentler to flesh, strips it patiently.” In my mind, one of the poem’s greatest insights is that death offers more than complete stillness, albeit remaining as death. It shows how seeming contradictions between loss and life are not caught in a deadlock but are the concatenated heartbeats of living in irrecuperable contexts of depredation.

Reading “Final Poem for the Deer” reminded me of the fleet-footed work of grieving that brings us in relation to ourselves and others, all implicated in loss, a “forest of sons / in which the deer tilts its decorous head / into the father’s grave and sips.” Here is a poem where one can encounter the deer at the height of its evocative power, weaving its way through grief and vulnerability with dignity and tenderness.

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