Friday, August 12, 2011


From office to library is a three-minute walk, during which I pass beneath the branches of seventeen trees, mostly live oaks and most equipped this time of year with a very loud cicada. The effect is of a vast, droning outdoor stereo system. As I leave one cone of sound, it Dopplers away and I enter the next. (In Transparent Things, the entomologist Nabokov has a character wearing “a Doppler shift over her luminous body.”) I enjoy the fritinancy (produced by their tymbals – another lovely word), though people complain about the racket.

A title in the library caught my eye: Evanescence and Form: An Introduction to Japanese Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) by Charles Shiro Inouye, and as I leafed through it a photograph caught my eye: a black-and-white close-up of an empty cicada shell fastened to a twig. The caption: “Utsusemi, cicada shell, epithet for this changing world.” Inouye brings up cicadas when examining Man'yōshū, a collection of Japanese poems assembled in the eighth century. The empty shell “characterizes the world as perceived by the ancient Japanese,” who linked the mortal world (yo) with the insect’s husk (utsusemi) – not the living cicada, the one making all the noise on campus.

Inouye makes no mention of the cicada’s sound, only the discarded shell, though a later Japanese poet, Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), wrote a haiku that links them (translated by R.H. Blythe):

“A cicada shell;
it sang itself
utterly away.”

Walking back to my office I saw a cicada shell on the trunk of a live oak, about seven feet off the ground. The shell is translucent and buff-colored, like fine rice paper, with a fracture on the back from which the final instar emerged. My little utsusemi, a beautifully silent and delicate memento mori, sits on my desk. Thoreau notes in his journal for Sept. 2, 1856:

“Frank Harding has caught a dog-day locust [cicada] which lit on the bottom of my boat, in which he was sitting, and z-ed there. When you hear him you have got to the end of the alphabet and may imagine the &. It has a mark somewhat like a small writing w on the top of its thorax.”


zmkc said...

It's the sound of Christmas for me. I remember visiting my cousins from London as a young child & asking what the sound was. 'Geez, it's cicadas, of course - don't you know anything?' Hard to explain to someone who's never left country Victoria that there are very few cicadas in Chelsea.

Helen Pinkerton said...

Patrick, Your cicadas reminded me of Homer's in the "Iliad." Priam and his elderly counselors (former warriors) are sitting above the Skaian gates to Troy, watching Helen and her ladies approach and commenting:

They sounded like cicadas in dry summer
that cling on leafy trees and send out voices
rhythmic and long--
so droned and murmured these
old leaders of the Trojans on the tower,
and watching Helen as she climbed the stair . . .
(Robert Fitzgerald, trans., 1975, Bk, III, lines 150f)