NEA Literature Fellowships

Sara Eliza Johnson

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(2015 - Poetry)

"Deer Rub"

Deep in the forest, where no one has gone,
where rain bloats the black moss and mud,
a deer is rubbing its forelock and antlers
against a tree. The velvet that covers the antlers
tears into strips, like bandages unwound.
The rain scratches at the deer's coat
as if trying to get inside, washes the antlers
of blood, like a curator cleaning the bones

of a saint in the crypt beneath a church
at the end of a century, when the people
have begun to think of the bodies
as truly dead and unraiseable,
when children have begun to carry knives
in their pockets. Once the last shred

of velvet falls to the ground, the deer
bends to eat it, nearly finished with ritual
and altar, the tree's side stripped of bark
while someplace in the world
a bomb strips away someone's skin.
The deer's mouth is stained with berries
of its own blood. Then, the deer is gone
and the tree left opened, the rain darkening

red against the hole in the sapwood.
The storm grows louder and louder
like a fear. The deer will shed
its velvet four more times before it dies
of disease; the tree will grow its bark
again. Each atom in each cell will remember
the body it had made in this place, this time,
long after the rain flushes the river
to flood, long after this morning
when the country wakes to another war,
when two people wake in a house
and do not touch each other.

(Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions)

Sara Eliza Johnson is the author of Bone Map (Milkweed Editions, 2014), winner of the 2013 National Poetry Series. Her poetry has appeared in the Boston Review, Ninth Letter, Pleiades, Meridian, the Best New Poets series, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award, a Winter Fellowship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, a scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and an Academy of American Poets Prize from the University of Utah, where she is currently a Ph.D student in the Literature & Creative Writing program.

Photo courtesy of Sara Eliza Johnson

Author's Statement

The funding granted me by the National Endowment for the Arts will allow me more time, mental space, and travel opportunities to complete my current manuscript, which features poems preoccupied with our particular apocalyptic moment from a bio-evolutionary and ecocentric perspective: the echoes of our evolutionary past, and the "echoes" we will leave—our residual material—after our extinction. The new manuscript complicates the notion of "the human," asking readers to locate themselves within the non-human, such as in the overgrown ruins of post-apocalypse, the primordial ooze, the extraterrestrial planet, deep space, or the deep ocean vents of the early Cambrian era.

As Roy Scranton wrote in his recent piece for The New York Times, "Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene," the "biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead." My current project entertains Scranton's notion, as well as ways in which Homo sapiens may be considered a force of violence both upon the earth and itself en masse.

Receiving an NEA at this juncture in my creative life—immediately after the publication of my first book, and as I begin a new manuscript—is profoundly heartening. Venturing into the unknown of a new project after devoting so many difficult years to the first book is intimidating, a period plagued with doubts; the fellowship not only provides the financial freedom for this endeavor, but also the integral psychological support: the seed of faith that I can push myself to explore and transform this new terrain. I am sincerely grateful for this gift.