Friday, January 13, 2012



This morning in the early sun,
steam rising from the pond the color of smoky topaz,
a pair of delicate, copper-red, needle-fine insects
are mating in the unopened crown of a Shasta daisy
just outside your door. The green flower heads look like wombs
or the upright, supplicant bulbs of a vegetal pre-erection.
The insect lovers seem to be transferring the cosmos into each other
by attaching at the tail, holding utterly still, and quivering intently.

I think (on what evidence?) that they are different from us.
That they mate and are done with mating.
They don’t carry all this half-mated longing up out of childhood
and then go looking for it everywhere.
And so, I think, they can’t wound each other the way we do.
They don’t go through life dizzy or groggy with their hunger,
kill with it, smear it on everything, though it is perhaps also true
that nothing happens to them quite like what happens to us
when the blue-backed swallow dips swiftly toward the green pond
and the pond’s green-and-blue reflected swallow marries it a moment
in the reflected sky and the heart goes out to the end of the rope
it has been throwing into abyss after abyss, and a singing shimmers
from every color the morning has risen into.

My insect instructors have stilled, they are probably stuck together
in some bliss and minute pulse of after-longing
evolution worked out to suck that last juice of the world
into the receiver body. They can’t separate probably
until it is done.

~ Robert Hass


I love the phrase “insect lovers.” “Lover” is already an appropriation of a term that isn’t normally applied to any species other than our own, but lately I’ve noted the trend in poetry not to be so human-elitist. Hass is envious of those insect lovers because they don’t drag their childhood trauma, say, into their mating process. They do it the clean and simple way, not smearing their love hunger over everything. “They can’t wound each other the way we do” is the crucial statement. Humans, let’s face it, have made a mess of romance, though we try to “church it up” (a new phrase I just learned, so I simply had to use it) and speak in lofty terms to cover up all the suffering that comes, sooner or later, with our sexuality.

“Supplicant bulbs” is wonderful too, and of course we humans are the ultimate supplicant bulbs, begging to be loved, then abandoning each other – only to beg again, “dizzy or groggy with [our] hunger.” And the wounds live on, and the soul gets to look like the scarred November fields before the peace of winter – if peace ever comes.

Now the poem just stayed with celebrating the dragonflies, or maybe ended by attacking us with a question, e.g. so, having seen such beauty, have you changed your life? But then it would be another forgettable nature poem with some nice description. Maybe for a while we’d be titillated by the phrase “vegetal pre-erection” to describe the unopened flower heads (flowers are, indeed, a plant’s sex organs – Georgia O’Keefe, for all her protesting too much, must have seen the connection).

But Hass is quick to correct his insect envy with the praise of human capacity for delight when we see something gorgeous” and the heart goes out to the end of the rope
it has been throwing into abyss after abyss, and a singing shimmers.” So it’s the agony and ecstasy again, can’t have one without the other, the price for being human and exiled from the Eden of being one with nature, etc. Note that the “insect lovers seem to be transferring the cosmos into each other” – wow, who wouldn’t envy that – but wait a moment, those beautiful dragonflies have no sense of beauty (that we know of), and it would be astonishing to learn that they watch the sunset (even dogs can’t do that; does anyone know if a chimpanzee or any other “higher primate” has ever been observed watching the sunset? I think their color vision would be adequate, but what about their sense of the sublime?)

But the last stanza ultimately affirms how mechanical dragonfly mating is after all: they probably can’t physically separate until the process is complete down to that last drop of the “juice of the world” (why say something as ordinary as semen if you have Hass’s cosmic metaphors? though isn’t it a tad aggrandizing, semen as the juice of the world? What about the quadrillions of bacteria in our intestines? They don’t need that juice to reproduce).

So Hass assents to being human, I assume, with some regret about the way we smear our longing over everything and can’t love without wounding (this really is pretty disgusting if you think about it; sure, we can protest that we didn’t mean to hurt, but how come there is so much hurting going on?)

Hass’s vegetal and insect musings reminded me of Rilke’s Third Duino Elegy, where he takes the long view, a supra-personal perspective:

Look, we don’t love like flowers, with only a single
season behind us; immemorial sap
mounts in our arms when we love. Dear girl,
this: that we’ve loved, within us, not One, still to come,
but seething multitudes; not just a single child,
but the fathers like ruined mountains
within our depths; but the dry river-bed
of ancient mothers; yes, and the whole of that
soundless landscape under its cloudy
or cloudless destiny – all this, dear girl, preceded you.

(I must be a tad pedantic here and confess that “dear girl” is a make-do for Mädchen. To translate it as “maiden” would seem archaic, as “girl” a little curt and unmusical in this case; “young woman,” while politically correct, is unappealing for other reasons. I think Mitchell as translator was right to let a little affection creep in.)

If this passage doesn’t remind us of the impersonal element in sex, then we’re lost in the delusion that it’s “all about me.” And we’re very prone to delusion, as Hass has already instructed us, if we’ve read his words correctly, without being overly distracted by our primary activity of smearing everything with longing.

Sigmund Freud, one of the ruined-mountain fathers


All this said, I must confess that neither the Hass nor the Rilke touch me. I’m tempted to say that both of them over-reach with their overblown metaphors, though in each case the message is insightful: yes, we pay a price for our complex human consciousness, and get to know both agony and ecstasy; yes, human love-making is still marked by millennia of the collective experience, and in a sense each lover is all the lovers. But neither Rilke’s eroded landscape of former mothers and fathers, nor Hass’s “juice of the world” moves me. This is fine writing, and in Rilke’s case a grand vision, but it’s emotionally detached.

Recently, however, I’ve come across a poem by Leonard Kress, one of the thousands of less-known American poets, tens of thousands, voices mostly lost in the static and excess of incessant contests and publishing. And I felt shaken by something human and real. This is the second half of Kress’s poem “Harmonium.” (to hear a harmonium – significantly, the title of the first book by Wallace Stevens – go to

the sound seems to be a cross between an organ and an accordion, failing in grandeur but somehow true to life that way)

Here is the second half of Leonard Kress's “Harmonium”:

I found my instrument in the back room
of an Indian boutique on Walnut Street
in Philadelphia with money leftover from a summer trek

to Europe. I bought it instead of the fired beads
and long print skirt intended for my girlfriend,
who was then serving spritzers on the terrace

of the art museum (descending the stairs after work
like Duchamp’s nude, displayed inside) not knowing
I returned already.  I hadn’t told her yet.

Because I wasn’t sure what to do about her,
barely sixteen, concentric circles of brown ringlets,
springing down to her phenomenal breasts—

her father threatening to bash my skull. 
But it wasn’t just the waging war
between the beating and delights of her young body—

I wasn’t that much older—but something that happened
on my trip, the very end of it, a night
I spent on the pebbled Croatian coast

of the Adriatic. It’s gone now, whatever occurred:
sirens from an all night fire in Rijeka
or was it from the hot stones rising up

from the cold water, followed by dense silence?
And then a music I’ve been trying to replicate since
without success. In front of Ginsburg, too.

Thirty years later, still raw, my ex-girlfriend wrote, 
“When you told me you didn’t want to see me
anymore, I walked into my house, cried out

for my mother and collapsed on the floor.” 
“You don’t love your harmonium enough,”
Ginsberg said without judgment. 

“I thought you had seen the core of me
and were repelled,” she wrote. What he really
meant was, “You don’t love enough.”

~ Leonard Kress, from Living in the Candy Store, 2011

Romantic passion can flare up and die as quickly as a straw fire. Here the speaker returns from his European trip transformed, having discovered creative stirrings within himself, and is no longer interested in his young girlfriend in spite of her “phenomenal breasts.” But as if to illustrate the French song about the pleasures of love lasting only a moment while the sorrows last a lifetime, the girlfriend is severely wounded by the break-up, probably the first one in her life.

The last three tercets shook me to the core. Does anyone still remember the pain of the first break-up, when you were still so young, so inexperienced and vulnerable, and vehemently in love, the kind of worshipful love that’s idolatry – and your lover tells you it’s over? It’s like being rejected by God. What the girlfriend writes thirty years later almost makes me collapse to the floor because of the traumatic memory it brings back.

Note the way Ginsberg’s pronouncement is marvelously interwoven with the letter from the ex-girlfriend. The way the poet’s words are transformed in the last line is masterful.

Thirty years later, still raw, my ex-girlfriend wrote, 
“When you told me you didn’t want to see me
anymore, I walked into my house, cried out

for my mother and collapsed on the floor.” 
“You don’t love your harmonium enough,”
Ginsberg said without judgment. 

“I thought you had seen the core of me
and were repelled,” she wrote. What he really
meant was, “You don’t love enough.”


We love either too much or not enough. Still, it’s telling that a book titled Women Who Love Too Much becomes a best-seller, while no one ever writes about men who love too much. Self-help books chiefly try to free women of men who don’t love them enough, so the women don’t love themselves enough and can’t seem to “get a life.” Could there be a hard-wired biological snag here, or is it purely cultural, with women still singing “One day my Prince will come” until their dying day?

Of course once in a while we see a man hopelessly drawn to a woman cast into the role of a cruel mistress, uncomfortable to see that the wrong man loves her too much. “He sends me flowers every day,” one woman friend gasped to me in horror. We’ve come to see happy long-term marriages as miracles. There are those who argue that we as a species have not evolved for monogamy, especially the male of the species, and serial monogamy is the closest we can come to the romantic ideal – but then what about the kids? D.H. Lawrence said that marriage is about disillusionment – but we are meant to grow through that disillusionment. He resented Frieda’s missing the three children she lost by marrying him. Sex, even with a writer of genius, is not enough. Nothing is enough.

But maybe marriage – or any long-lasting relationship – is above all about stability, so we can turn our attention to matters other than mating? The British mystery writer Edgar Wallace said, “An intellectual is someone who has found something more interesting than sex.” True, but the levels of sex hormones also have to go down. And even then, there is an unstoppable part of the soul that keeps on singing, “One day my Prince will come.” For companionship, we explain, as if we knew. We don’t.


This is beautiful... Funnily enough, what I had to get out of the way first was a text about insect sex - ovipositing butterflies. In my proofreading I actually specialise in insect sex. The other scientist I work with studies ants who mate by the male leaving sperm on leaves and the female coming and picking it up. The males compete quite intensively to leave their sperm in the right places . . . doesn't sound like much fun to me . . .

Yes, we have a consciousness advantage, but still the insect 'level' lives on, doesn't it? I find the ending extraordinarily evocative. Not because I am thinking of the insects as insects – because I am thinking of myself. For all our consciousness and for all our smeary emotions and childhood longings, and all that we can do with them, there is this simple level, cruel, simple, and beautiful, on which we just cannot separate until it’s done. Cannot control when it will be done, cannot even know about it. And that 'probably'. Because we are still insects, too.

The other lines I find intensely evocative, moving, are:
The insect lovers seem to be transferring the cosmos into each other
by attaching at the tail, holding utterly still, and quivering intently.

What moves me is the way in which the cosmos gets transferred. Simple, mechanical, seems almost random and yet also utterly precise. How else would you do such a mystical thing? Attach at the tail.

Hmmm... you got me here!

Thank you also for
your atheist prayers (the purest, in my opinion, not smeared by longing).


Sarah, this is simply brilliant. You refute Hass’s weak attempt to elevate us above dragonflies – as if we, a superior species, could disengage before nature is done with us. Yes, we are still insects too. Our mating goes much farther back than Rilke imagines: way beyond the ruined mountain-fathers and dried-up river-mothers, all the way back to what in our colossal human arrogance we call “primitive organisms.” 

As for attaching at the tail: look up the Latin for “tail” (one of the two words), and the mechanics of mysticism become clear.

As for quivering: while browsing in a bookstore I picked up at random Heaven Is So Real by an Korean-American woman, Choo Thomas. America has been smeared with heaven and hell from the start. In a shameless digression, I simply must quote this little passage by Simic:

I’m squeezing her hand; she is squeezing
My hand. We are going down
To the cellar where they keep
Little dark chocolates
Filled with almonds of heaven and hell.

(from “Some Nights,” in Hotel Insomnia)

It used to be The Joy of Cooking. Then came The Joy of Sex. Then Pray and Grow Rich. Then The Secret, which smeared Pray and Grow Rich over matters such as health and the correct way to sing “One Day My Prince Will Come.” Now it’s the afterlife.

Bear with me. Here comes the dragonfly connection. Whenever Jesus came at night to visit Choo (whose husband had to relocate to the guest bedroom), Choo’s body would begin to quiver (her word choice) for twenty minutes or longer while the visions of heaven and hell and the “third place” (not Purgatory, but a desert in which “disobedient Christians” wander in circles forever) were being downloaded into her.

Interesting that there is no way of getting the body out of the way. We sing the body electric, the body primeval, insectal. We quiver – somewhere in the Duino Elegies, Rilke has his lovers quivering, maybe not exactly like dragonflies, but as Sarah reminds us, we can’t deny our ancient kinship, or the way we transfer the cosmos into one another.

Still, in my atheist eclecticism, I find something to my liking in Choo’s visions: heaven is a garden, and the who enter are those who are joyful and full of wonder; the dancers, not the penitents. Heaven is a state of mind, a mating with the divine, and it is within us.


I find Hass 's Dragonflies interesting, but my usual complaint about his work is that it’s not satisfying by my definition of what a poem should be.

In the poem with the word "Mädchen" why not just leave it. It's a charming word and nothing in English can replace it in my opinion. Loved your "smearing everything with longing."



I agree that there is no adequate English equivalent for Mädchen -- the word is affectionate, a diminutive. I think "maiden" used to approximate it, but now it’s archaic. So “dear girl” works, as long as we don’t find it condescending. Today a male poet probably would not dare to get close to this kind of rhetoric, afraid to be accused of preaching to young women from the heights. But the richness of Rilke’s mentality redeems the passage, I think.

Hyacinth also sent a poem by John O’Donohue. Let me quote the opening:

To Learn From Animal Being

Nearer to the earth's heart,
deeper within its silence:
animals know this world
in a way we never will.

We who are ever
distanced and distracted
by the parade of bright
windows thought opens:
their seamless presence
is not fractured thus.

Stranded between time
gone and time emerging,
we manage seldom
to be where we are:
whereas they are always
looking out from
the here and now.


It’s so frequent now: we are told to learn from animals and babies to be “in the here and now.” That is wonderful while watching a sunset, or dragonflies, or darting swallows. In fact, when I think of being happy, sitting on top of a mountain and watching the mountains get more and more blue as they step into clouds is the first thing that comes to my mind. But that’s in the past, all the various mountaintops where I sat on a boulder and gazed. It’s my remembering self that brings back that happiness.

Now, animals have some memory in the sense that they learn, they recognize. But I don’t think they ever “reminisce.” Their life is the outside. My life is 90% inner life, which may be excessive, I know, but I don’t crave a more “exciting” life. My first requirement is a lot of solitude and down time so I can process anything that’s happened and think about its meaning. I hate it when a lot of things happen all at once like a whirlwind; I don’t enjoy that. But I’ve never envied animals. Much as I love animals, I love the richness of inner life even more. 

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