Tuesday, August 13, 2019

'My Guests Parade My New-Penned Ink'

On Monday the temperature hit 101° F again. The sky was cloudless and blue. Exposed skin tingled and you awaited the eruption of the next melanoma. Grass is turning brown. The lime tree is withering. Even the birds and squirrels seem oppressed. My youngest son is working as a lifeguard and swimming instructor at the YMCA, and his skin is almost the color of peanut butter. (Yes, he uses sunscreen. Spare me the lecture.) I found a dead luna moth on the driveway in front of my car. The abdomen was gone but the delicate wings remained intact. I’ve never seen so many anoles – green and brown lizards. Typically they hang vertically on walls, head down, a foot or so above the ground, awaiting prey. Today’s forecast is hotter still.

One of the first poems by Thomas Hardy I remember reading is “An August Midnight,” written in 1899 and collected in Poems of the Past and the Present (1901):


“A shaded lamp and a waving blind,
And the beat of a clock from a distant floor:
On this scene enter--winged, horned, and spined --
A longlegs, a moth, and a dumbledore;
While ’mid my page there idly stands
A sleepy fly, that rubs its hands . . .


“Thus meet we five, in this still place,
At this point of time, at this point in space.
--My guests parade my new-penned ink,
Or bang at the lamp-glass, whirl, and sink.
‘God’s humblest, they!’ I muse. Yet why?
They know Earth-secrets that know not I.”

With age I’ve grown more respectful of life. I wouldn’t swat any of Hardy’s named creatures, though I have no compunction about squashing a mosquito or cockroach. “Longlegs” is a generic name, applied to several species, but I associate it with the daddy longlegs, the arachnids also known as harvestmen. Their smell is memorable. Dumbledore was at first a mystery. Its use is strictly British and the OED gives “a humble-bee or bumble-bee; also dialect a cockchafer.” In the U.S. I’ve never heard anything other than bumblebee. I like “guests.” The speaker seems undisturbed by creatures that might disgust or frighten others. Hardy’s ending is a disappointment. “Earth-secrets” is uncharacteristically sentimental and romantic. Did Karl Shapiro have Hardy’s poem in mind when he wrote his revisionist The Fly”?    

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