You say cicada, I say locust

Cicadas shed their skin
Back in Missouri where I grew up, we had an insect about the size of the end of your thumb that folks called locusts.

The proper name for these critters was “cicadas,” but for me, they will always be locusts.

These bugs made a terrible racket when they started their serenade. Some sources say the noise is so loud it can damage the human ear.

I won’t take that bet. They can be exceedingly annoying.

But they are also fascinating because they molt and leave behind an almost perfect exoskeleton. As a kid, I would collect these artifacts like little relics.

My fellow poet over at Dancing Echoes recently wrote a haiku about these creatures.

Dancing Echoes does a great job coming close to the original idea of haiku.

The old haiku masters combined words with beautiful calligraphy and drawings to form a total experience.

Dancing Echoes pairs each poem with a beautiful photograph. In this effort, she approaches the complete experience achieved by the old masters. You could say it’s haiku for the modern age.

The cicada haiku from Dancing Echoes reminded me of an old poem sitting in my files gathering dust. It’s not haiku. But it does feature a cicada — or rather, a locust.

SOMETIMES IN THE
MOONLIGHT

Sometimes in the moonlight
The feeling comes afresh,
The old familiar feeling,
The aching of the flesh.

Sometimes in the summer
The noisy locust strains
Against the skin that holds him.
To shed his crusty chains.

When the trees grow weary
Of their summer masquerade,
And fallen leaves are gathered
I hunger for the shade

Of limbs that never falter
And love that never cools,
Where ruin never alters,
And where death never rules.

“Poetry saved my life.”

Vendela Vida,
Vendela Vida

You hear it said: “Poetry saved my life.” There are books with that in the title.

I’ve said it myself.

It’s usually meant figuratively. When I’ve said it, I know I meant it figuratively.

But when author Vendela Vida says it, she means it literally.

As the novelist told NPR Fresh Air host Terri Gross on June 30, 2015, she owes her life to poetry.

Literally.

During the course of the interview, Gross asked Vida about her novel, “And Now You Can Go,” in which a woman is confronted by a man with a gun intent on suicide.

And he because he doesn’t want to die alone, he poses a mortal threat to the woman.

In the novel, a young woman is walking through a park in Manhattan, when a man calls out to her using the word “ma’am,” and she turns around.

The man is suicidal and has a gun. And, he doesn’t want to die alone. The woman is terrified, and in her desperation to find a reason to give him to go on living, she tells him about her love for books.

Interviewer Gross is skeptical. As Gross says, “she does it by trying to convince him that there’s, like, great poems and fiction out there, and I’m thinking, like, are you kidding?”

Well, it just so happens that this vignette in Vida’s novel is based on an actual event in her own life.  As she told Gross, “I think the first 10 pages, are based on something that happened to me when I was 21 years old and I was studying at Columbia, and I decided to go for a walk one December day in Riverside Park. I think it was around 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and I was approached – like the protagonist in the book – by a man who didn’t want to die alone, and he had a gun.”

What Vida told Gross next is so good I want to quote her directly.

“And so I started saying to him, you know, there’s so much great stuff out there,” said Vida. “There’s poetry. You know, I sounded like some deranged schoolteacher at this point, and I had recently been reading the work of Mark Strand, the poet, and so I started just reciting some of his verses to this man.

“I started just, you know, the beginning of one poem, the ending of another – anything. I said, let’s go to the bookstore and let’s go look at some work by Mark Strand. It was the craziest thing. You know, I didn’t know what I was saying even, but I saw some kind of flash of interest or recognition in this man’s eyes, and he said, OK, let’s go to the bookstore.

“And so we started walking up to Broadway Street. And when, you know, as we were getting near, he said, you know, he said, I’ve made a terrible mistake. I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry, and he put his gun away, and he ran.”

When Gross heard the explanation, she was apologetic for suggesting that the scene in the novel was unbelievable.

“Oh, there’s no need to apologize, Terri,” said Vida. “No, it seems – it is – it was very bizarre, and, you know, I think it is a very unlikely situation. It does seem like a very, like, writerly dream to think that poetry can save someone’s life, but in my case, you know, it literally did.”

I love that story.

I also love the fact that Vida contacted poet Mark Strand and told his the story.

Strand served a term as the U.S. Poet Laureate in 1990-91, and it turned out was delighted by Vida’s story.

And who wouldn’t?

Here was a poet … a poet who had been honored with the highest honor his country could bestow … and finally, he had some assurance that he had made a difference in someone’s life.

His poetry had actually SAVED a life. Maybe two.

We poets go through life playing a game of Marco Polo. You know, the swimming pool game. We poets are perpetually coming to the surface and hollering “Marco!”

Whenever we hear a “Polo” in reply we are surprised and gratified.

In this case, Mark Strand heard a resounding “POLO!” from Vida.

Poetry has saved my life in figurative ways.

Poetry has allowed me to turn heartbreak, grief, despair, and tragedy into small bouquets of beauty.

If that’s “saving my life,” great. I’ll take that.