Susan Scarlata on Janaka Stucky’s Deer Without Leaves In Their Mouths

The deer in the last two lines of Janaka Stucky’s poem Sanskrit are the most real deer I’ve ever seen inhabit a piece of writing. These lines stick to my ribs because of all that they reverberate out into.

Even now years later when the deer remember it

The leaves drop from their mouths

They appear in a short poem and above a large amount of white space, and simply put, make me believe in the possibilities of anthropomorphism after years of having not. No longer is it solely the domain of commercials with human-size hamsters that rap.

Stucky’s personification here is wholly effective because it ties together memory and physical action. Giving the deer the ability to remember Stucky anthropomorphizes this human capacity onto them, but in a wholly animal way.

There could be more punctuation in these lines; “years later” could be offset in commas and proclaim its phrasal qualities, and end-stops could demonstrate sentences. But there is not, and these choices are a part of what makes these lines so incredibly strong. The lack of punctuation contributes to the immediacy.

Each time I read these I see the circular motion of ungulates mouths as they chew and then the moment when the leaves originally fell. A moment of something (love or chaos) occurs before the deer. It is in their plain view, or their plain realm of feeling. And this causes them to lose it, to allow all else, hunger/shelter/survival, the most animal of needs and desires, to fall away.

These lines have me believing, leave me with a workable explanation that sure, animals may not have the same brains that humans do, but their bodies have the capacity to remember. This is true. These lines show that. Breaking them off here, on their own you cannot know that the “leaves drop from their mouths,” because what comes before this; and for what could as easily be a moment of rapture as one of despair. The ambiguity and sameness of the reaction makes it all the better.

In these two lines alone Stucky conjures reaction, causality, bodily presence and sheer animal beauty. I am drawn in by them and they stay with me because I have lived around wild animals, around a lot of deer and moose and antelope, and now I have been away from such living for quite a while. But anyone who has ever been affected, anyone or anything that has ever felt, is here in these lines.

They capture the simultaneity and most unlikely of interactions. The softness of the leaves falling from the deer’s mouths is the texture of the memory is the strength of the sensory link that perpetuates it.

Together these two lines call so much to my attention about memory, ghosts, animal lives, digestion of events, and the continuous present we assume animals exist in. We assume this while also knowing that there are genetic predispositions (bodily memories?) that allow some species to continue evolving while others do not.

There is something Greek and ancient in these lines as well –the Arcadian element is refractive because the deer are remembering something they experienced at some other time.

Even now years later when the deer remember it

The leaves drop from their mouths

Here is the quiet and calm of crisis and calamity in animal form. Here is the energetic interaction of different realms of being. Here the deer remember it, all else falls away, and they are left alone in the poem to inhabit that feeling.

Find These Lines: In the book The World Will Deny It For You in the poem Sanskrit by Janaka Stucky (Ahsahta Press).

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One Response to Susan Scarlata on Janaka Stucky’s Deer Without Leaves In Their Mouths

  1. Comment Edited:

    The Heron is an important totem animal to my wife and I. Growing up in Washington State, I had always attributed it as a message of “patience” since watching one often in the cove near my home as a child. It was always so graceful and still, standing in it’s prehistoric form, waiting patiently (perhaps in in some kind of avian faith) for the fish to come to it and then seizing the moment in a blue and silver flash. Having transplanted to the mountains of Colorado, I couldn’t have anticipate one of these birds flying up the small mountain creek by our home until it suddenly flew through one evening.This totem animal’s meaning has been deepened and my personal mythology enriched with my unfolding understanding of it, it’s messages of patience and mindfulness in relation to the fleet beauty of life.

    Animals are so often a part of my life, I watch the birds on my way to work and I watch cautiously for deer or elk on my night drive home each night . . . my relation to animals has informed my life greatly and in them I see so much of myself . . . at times I see how I wish I were, traits I wish to embody, especially their pure life in the moment, their grace, power and beauty.

    David A. Martin

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