American Life in Poetry

In this poem by New York poet Martin Walls, a common insect is described and made vivid for us through a number of fresh and engaging comparisons. Thus an ordinary insect becomes something remarkable and memorable.

Cicadas at the End of Summer

Whine as though a pine tree is bowing a broken violin,
As though a bandsaw cleaves a thousand thin sheets of titanium;
They chime like freight wheels on a Norfolk Southern slowing into town.

But all you ever see is the silence.
Husks, glued to the underside of maple leaves.
With their nineteen fifties Bakelite lines they'd do just as well hanging from the ceiling of a space museum -

What cicadas leave behind is a kind of crystallized memory;
The stubborn detail of, the shape around a life turned

The color of forgotten things: a cold broth of tea & milk in the bottom of a mug.
Or skin on an old tin of varnish you have to lift with lineman's pliers.
A fly paper that hung thirty years in Bird Cooper's pantry in Brighton.

Reprinted from 'Small Human Detail in Care of National Trust,' New Issues Press, Western Michigan University, 2000, by permission of the author. Poem copyright (c) by Martin Walls, a 2005 Wytter Bynner Fellow of the Library of Congress. His latest collection 'Commonwealth' is available from March Street Press. This column is supported by the Poetry Foundation, the Library of Congress, and the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

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