Saturday, April 28, 2012

`The Cicadas' Dense, Unchanging Raga'

I almost stepped on a cicada on the sidewalk in front of an engineering lab. He was a hefty fellow, two inches long and as big around as my thumb, and his crunch would have been audible had I squashed him. He possessed enough biomass that I might have slipped on his slick remains. Instead, I lifted him by the wings and carried him to my office, and all the way he vibrated like a wind-up toy, making a muted rattling sound.

I consulted several guides and concluded my specimen was Tibicen resh. Go here to view photos of the insect emerging from his pupal husk. Much of his head and thorax is the color of guacamole. If not for the revulsion the squeamish feel for cicadas and other insects, he might make a lovely broach. The cicada’s appearance, like much in nature, is incongruent – blunt head, bulbous eyes, stinger-like but harmless abdominal tip, and elegant markings. On my desk he limbered up and explored a pile of papers and a large ball moss, my favorite epiphyte. This species of cicada favors oaks so I took him outside and set him on the branch of a water oak. 

 Poets sing of the cicada’s song, its fritinancy, the doleful sound of summer passing. In “The Return” (New Collected Poems, 2009), Charles Tomlinson writes:

“Voice-prints of a season that belongs
To the cicadas and the heat, their song
Shrill, simmering and continuous.”

And in “September Swamp,” set on the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, he refers to “the cicadas’ dense, unchanging raga.” The finest cicada poem I know is Richard Wilbur’s “Cicadas,” the first in his first collection, The Beautiful Changes (1947):

“You know those windless summer evenings, swollen to stasis
by too-substantial melodies, rich as a
running-down record, ground round
to full quiet. Even the leaves
have thick tongues.

“And if the first crickets quicken then,
other inhabitants, at window or door
or rising from table, feel in the lungs
a slim false-freshness, by this
trick of the ear.

“Chanters of miracles took for a simple sign
the Latin cicada, because of his long waiting
and sweet change in daylight, and his singing
all his life, pinched on the ash leaf,
heedless of ants.

“Others made morals; all were puzzled and joyed
by this gratuitous song. Such a plain thing
morals could not surround, nor listening:
not `chirr’ nor `cri-cri.’ There is no straight
way of approaching it.

“This thin uncomprehended song it is
springs healing questions into binding air.
Fabre, by firing all the municipal cannon
under a piping tree, found out
cicadas cannot hear.”

Wilbur recalls the inspired test performed by the great French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre: Setting off cannon to test if cicadas can hear. Like true poets, they went on singing despite the boom.

1 comment:

drizzz said...

One of the things I miss most living in western Oregon are the Katydids and Cicadas (we always called them locusts)I grew up with back East. Thanks for a great post (they usually are!).