Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Tuesday Poem

North American Periodic Cicada

It will happen like this:
after the struggle, he will leave in haste,
return with a spade and dig
a shallow grave in the quiet woods.
The victim, who lived alone,
will not be missed until the neighbour
sees the overflowing mailbox,
knocks on the door a week later.
The assailant is long gone.

Or, it will happen like this:
he will dig a shallow grave.
Too shallow. A boy will walk with his dog
through these woods. The dog will sniff
the freshly dug earth, paw at it,
uncover what has been done.
The assailant, blood on his shirt,
will be stopped at a police roadblock
crossing into the next state.

No, this is what will happen.
There is a struggle in the woods.
Later that night a phenomenon that comes round
once every seventeen years -
a horde of insects crawl from the ground,
make their way around the corpse, through
the soft earth, up the trunks of trees. They split
their shells, emerge soft bodied.
Billions of creatures harden on branches
until by daytime they take to the air.
Before the boy comes by with his curious dog,
empty shells will rain honey-coloured,
covering the ground for miles.
The woods crunch underfoot. The boy
will not venture far in, the dog
will not spot the soft earth.
There will be no manhunt until
the assailant is several states away,
living a new life. And if he keeps his secret
the cicadas, deep in the earth for another seventeen years,
will not reveal it for him.


"North American Periodic Cicada" is one of the poems in Flap: the Chook Book 2, my small poetry group's recent collection which is reviewed on the just-updated website for Takahe magazine.

It came about like this: I had been reading the foreword to Best American Poems (the 2006 edition, if I recall correctly) for which Billy Collins was one of the editors. He was discussing elements in poems that were deal breakers for him, and one of them was the word "cicada". Apparently, if he comes across it in a poem, he finds himself unable to read on.

No explanation was given. I found myself wondering what it was that he objected to about cicadas. It seemed to me that perhaps many poets use cicadas as a sort of sentimental evocation of the sounds of summer. So I was immediately attracted to the idea of writing a non-sentimental cicada poem. And that night I watched a nature documentary on TV, which included the phenomenon of the North American Periodic Cicada, an insect which spends seventeen years underground before metamorphosing into its adult form. Furthermore, all the members of the species emerge en masse in one night. It is apparently quite spectacular when it happens. I started imagining what the dense layer of cast off exoskeletons might cover up.

The poem has been slightly edited from its original version, which first appeared at Blackmail Press online, in the Secrets issue.

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AJ Ponder said...

The paranoia in this poem seems so close to the edge, almost Hitchcock

Joyce Ellen Davis said...

Catherine, this is a terrific poem! I remember you from a while ago, and I am so glad to renew your acquaintance! What a fine writer you are.

Are you on FaceBook?

Do you know a New Zealand poet named Kay Mackenzie Cooke (an old friend of mine). If not, you should get to know her. Her blog is Born to a Red Headed Woman.

So nice to hear from you again.

DUH...I just noticed you already know Kay.... :D

Kathleen Jones said...

I liked this poem when I read it in the book and it is fascinating to find out where it came from. I love poems that are also stories.

Joseph Harker said...

I remember hearing that Billy Collins had said that, which made me sad, because I think I've written a sentimental cicada poem once or twice. This is definitely a story with edges, and the way you've brought the insects in is elegantly done.

For the record: it is quite something when they all erupt out. Also kind of gross though. You're as careful as you can be, but your feet still crunch all over the ground. The noise can get deafening too.