Poem (The Spirit Likes to Dress Up) and Deer’s Skull and Pedernal

The painting, “Deer’s Skull and Pedernal”, by Georgia O’keefe, and the poem, Poem (the spirit likes to dress up), by Mary Oliver, are two pieces of art that show a level of spiritual awareness that indicate that both authors were spiritual people who were trying to show their spiritual beliefs in their work through the mythological and divine themes that they used. These relate to Nature and the Divine in Myth, Literature, and Art because as the progression and portrayal of every-day life continues in art, the constant awareness of how close one is to these topics can be seen in all facets of life. This essay will cover a brief synopsis of each work and then cross-examine the two in order to discuss how both authors share a unified theme that shows an interest in just how close divinity is to modern daily life.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s, “Deer’s Skull and Pedernal”, is a work of art that relates to the context of this course. Depicted in it is a deer skull, appearing to be suspended from a tree. The skull features a prominent European Mounting display (even mounted on wood). This is possibly as an indication of the authors fascination with the particular style in which the skull could convey her intended message by capturing a European-oriented attentions that would be familiar with the popular style of mounting. It appears quite light in color, indicating it may have been bleached or further treated. It’s prominently displayed in the forefront of the scene, with a mountainous background showing the Cerro Pedernal mesa that’s so commonly found in O’keefe’s paintings. One of the three clouds sits on the change in horizon, cradled between a small branch and the tree trunk. Two of the points of the deer skull are touching the border of the painting, and only the middle of the tree shows up in the painting. Green land can be observed below the skull with a light pastel vibrancy.

The skull is the only depiction of both animal and implied human life in the photo. The skull itself appears unnaturally affixed to the tree because nothing is observed affixing it to the tree. Two holes appear in the skull, as the supraorbital foramen holes appear to be lined up with the optic canal holes, which match the lighting of the sky background. It would be assumed that the tree would be underneath due to the positioning. The holes instead matching the lighting of the sky background show that the trunk does not pass solidly back there. This indicates that the tree itself may be connected by the deer skull, providing a bit of surrealism to the picture. Because the method by which the skull is associated with the tree is not apparent, it gives the impression that it’s also possible it’s floating there as depicted in her other works.

The skull itself is just bone, there’s no remaining part of its owners skin or other bits left on the skull. It has six very symmetric points, indicating that the deer was not of an old age upon its death. At first glance, the skull may have been placed or hung on the tree by a hunter who would have presumably killed it (nothing else would have done this sort of hanging and preparing of the skull). On closer inspection the method by which it’s fastened to the tree is not apparent, providing more of a mythological feeling to the arrangement. The painting appears to be quite symmetrically oriented as the left part of the painting is quite similar and undifferentiated from the right side of the painting This shifts the focus on being in the middle of the painting in the same way the middle of the day is shown using shadows.

There is duality expressed in the two points on the border, two branches leaving the page, and two parts of the tree above and below the head.

The tree trunk appears to be branching in much the same way the deer’s antlers are, likening them to each other. The top of the painting is not the same as the bottom of the painting as was left and right. an impending doom is felt that may be in line for, or has already happened to, the nature depicted (in much the same way the bony head hangs from the tree). This feeling is justified because the painting indicates that the animal and nature are similar through their similar branching appearance. The skull at the forefront and the mountainous background also give some extraordinary depth to the painting, this implies that the unnatural is right in your face as it is much closer to you than the natural background. The shadows on the antlers indicate the sun is directly overhead, where the tree continues toward, and the deer head does not.

In, Poem (the spirit likes to dress up), Mary Oliver provides a poem consisting of nine stanzas discussing the spiritual nature of the different physical parts of bodies of trees, people and the planet. The lines are offset slightly, with return to the left margin at the end of the stanza. In the first stanza, she says that the spirit is essentially wearing a meat suit and in this case indicates a spirit of a human wears this like clothes. In the second stanza where she mentions shoulders and all the rest, one can imagine the arms and trunk and neck that all seem to branch around that area, likening the human body to a tree’s body. She utilizes a duality of light and darkness, as is common to her poems, and likens the human to the black branches of a tree, showing a duality between nature (the tree and its branches) and humans, in the same way night and day are diametrically opposed to each other. This implication indicates that nature’s “spirit”, as well, wears clothes, in a way similar to humans.

Oliver continues on in the third stanza, further expanding the scope from a human and a tree, to instead the world itself that wears “blue branches” of watery oceans on its surface. She then refers to the indicated “spirit of the world” and says that it could float (as one would imagine a spirit flying through the air, free of its physical body), but “decides” not to, for there was something else it wanted to do that she explains in the fourth stanza. There she says that the spirit of these discussed, required the body because otherwise the spirit is without substance and instead it speaks through metaphor by “wearing” parts of itself so as to better express its wishes to the universe. She speaks of a few examples of these “body” pieces as lime, appetite and oceanic fluids to further reiterate. In doing this, she was referring to different things that a spirit may wear so as to express itself in the explicit sense that the expression is made apparent for what it is supposed to be the metaphor of.

In the sixth stanza she describes more things that she is declaring to be part of the “body’s world” including imagination, experiencing time and sweetness, tangibility and a declared need to be understood. Following this she says the line that implies that her perception of spirit here is, “pure light that burns where no one is”. She says that it is this component of light that comes to one in a morning, much like a dawn of the day starts with the sunrise, the life of a person starts with the light of spirit entering them and making their body (she refers to this as “plumb rough matter”). She closes the poem by saying that in darkness (at night), it’s this same spirit that’s as wonderful as a star. Meaning that which is currently unreachable still contains a mysterious depth to it that connects life and spirit in a divine way.

Oliver is making an attempt to describe the spirit as a separate entity from the body in this poem and does so by making a lot of a metaphors, in this case likening the spirit to being as vast as a star. When combined with the realization that as a technicality all parts of all bodies are equivalent to matter made from stars (per scientific belief system), it’s about the same as saying that we’re surrounded by shooting stars and there is just as much inside of us to ponder or wish upon as there is outside of us to understand and the implication us very spiritual in nature. That there’s this type of implicit divinity taking place or at work as the body takes shape around the spirit. O’keefe implies this in her painting as well using more subtle techniques in relating the physical matter of the deer’s head to the tree behind it.

On cross-examining the two works, the pure bone appearance in the painting indicates the “clothes” the deer used to dress up in have long since been removed, leaving the presence of the deer’s spirit to permeate the painting. In doing this, O’keefe empowers the observer to associate with what the deer means rather than allow one to observe it as some living thing that could have been more easily be related to at the cost of burying the meaning she was looking to express. The skull itself is distant from the natural background, possibly offering feelings of distance in ones modern life. An eery depiction of that which is left behind when the spirit and the body are no longer united bids the thought that, despite the spirit being gone, something from it has been left behind. Is it for something? Itself? Other spirits inhabiting other bodies? Has a part of the spirit been left behind?

Much like Oliver writes of, “the dark hug of time”, this skull sits there in the broad daylight, as illuminated as ever, clearly having been hugged by more than enough time for itself. So much so that it no longer appears to be much affected by time, more that it has now happened to time, and they’ve managed to find some middle ground. What then, is left of time, with nothing left but a skull? This characteristic that Oliver writes so profoundly of as something that the universe would wear as if it were an item of clothing in which to better express itself has found itself holding no more power over this deer skull with a sort of permanence that one only finds in objects that time does not so much affect any more. This reinforces the mythological aspect of the painting and provides an effect that conveys a deeper spiritual meaning.

In the painting, O’keefe paints a picture of a time between morning and night, and places the contents of the painting also in the middle of the painting. Oliver refers many times to dark and light, indicating night and day to be the same as this, while alluding the body being something the exists of both day and night. Cerro Pedernal contrasts the deer head well because both of these would appear to be unnatural at first glance, how on Earth could a deer’s head hang from a tree, and how on earth could such a large landmass appear to be so flat, if not but for human interaction (of course, the land itself was formed naturally, but this is more of a subtle fact based in science that wasn’t available until the last few hundred years).

The portrayal indicates that there must be some sort of divine power at work that would’ve shaped the mountain, in much the same way that a human could’ve shaped the face of the tree. Furthermore, calling it the face of the tree indicates that possibly this is O’keefe’s idea behind what is left of the remnants of bodies, to then in turn become metaphors so that nature may express itself in much the same way Oliver indicates many different things that the spirit would express as a part of its body. Here, O’keefe likens the living tree to a dead animal’s skull by indicating that humans may utilize their mechanisms to empower nature in such a way as to cultivate nature through allowing it to express a metaphor in a way that allows its tending. This is done in much the same way they’d generally use parts of nature to tend to animals.

The tree in O’keefe’s painting is also twisting, reminiscent of something unnatural which could’ve caused the tree to take on a slightly unnatural appearance . The line, “It could float, of course, but would rather plumb rough matter.”, is interesting in context of O’keefe’s painting because the skull itself is floating. Seeing the sky through the skull implies that the two holes, reminiscent of eyes, that a trace of the deer’s spirit lingers behind the two peepholes. It gives the impression of a freely floating spirit similar to wording in Oliver’s poem. Something mythical, the spirit, that has returned to or is a part of nature can be seen looking back, hauntingly, out of the the picture, through the eyes. The choice to make it sky colored indicate that it has this spiritual connotation, not just of the tree that is also present at the forefront.

In conclusion, both of these works show divinity in nature by discussing simple aspects of normal modern life in subtle ways. Georgia O’keefe does this by portraying a hunted deer’s head eerily in front of a tree. Mary Oliver does this by trying to make the point that everything physical in relation to ones person is an adornment that the spirit living within those pieces uses to express itself, for all of the earth, nature, as well as people. Both artists incorporate Nature and the Divine in Myth, Literature, and Art because as the progression of every-day in united themes expressed in their work. Georgia O’keefe shows us a surreal and mythological aspect not normally associated with a hunted deer and Mary Oliver does this by likening aspects of the physical representation of an object to extensions of its associated spirit that leads the reader to respect the interconnectedness of a divine presence in all aspects of life.

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