for Mary Ellen
What is love for
if not to give
to a poisonous insect?
Love should be challenging.
Where’s the thrill
in loving puppies or ponies
dimpled babies or cheery daffodils?
the wormlike larva
whose first meal is the eggshell it squirmed from
who by its own gluttony outgrows its body four times
and four times eats its own shedded skin
before wrapping itself inside a green tomb
that morphs into a womb
and wetly births
a six-legged thing
with the compound eyes of a fly
a tongue like a coiled spring
and silent beating black-veined wings.
Love the one who will not cuddle in your lap
who cannot admire or obey or exude perfume
whose color says
consider this a warning.
Love the one who takes your hospitality
and your nectary hope
and the prayers you pray
and leaves you
always leaves you
staring at the sky
your eyes stinging in the wind
waiting for that spark of orange fire
to light your world again.
I’d been invited to participate in a poetry reading in honor of Earth Day 2013 at the First Parish Unitarian Universalist church, which my husband and I had recently joined. But what to read?
Always heedful—perhaps too heedful—of others’ expectations, I assumed most people would be anticipating poetry that celebrated the glories of nature: the sunrises and sunsets, the flowers, the seasons, the birdsong, the purple mountains’ majesty—you get the picture. Not that I don’t find “nature” glorious (though even the attempt to define nature, much less enumerate its glories, leads to its own predicaments), but the nature in my poems has seldom been the kind that’s traditionally celebrated. Meaning, I suppose, that it’s neither inspirational nor ephemeral. I like things gritty. Always have.
When others search the skies for rainbows, I’m squatting in the leaf duff, budging half-rotten logs, hoping to meet the shy creatures hiding in that beautiful, dank darkness. Maybe because I felt icky about myself for much of my childhood (okay, for much of my adulthood too), I’m drawn to facets of the planet that most others find icky, or at least not worthy of positive attention. These are my peeps: the silent, coiled and uncoiling snake; the slow and sticky-skinned salamander; the mantis twisting her neck in a measured swivel; the tiny, purposeful ant bearing his impossible load; the spent dairy cow, knees crumpling, being thrashed to keep her walking those final, painful steps toward the kill line.
On the other hand—and, somehow, there must always be an other hand—I’d met an amazing woman at the UU who seemed to me to embody a love and zeal for the natural world that was based not on hokey clichés but on genuine knowledge. Mary Ellen Ryall puts her science and her wisdom and her concern into action. This I admire immensely. Though she is known primarily for her expertise on butterflies, especially the monarch, Mary Ellen understands that the monarch is part of something much, much bigger—the “biotic community” that Aldo Leopold describes in A Sand County Almanac(1948):
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
I decided I wanted to write a new poem for the Earth Day reading, and since I’d been so inspired by Mary Ellen’s grace, intelligence, and passion for all earth’s inhabitants, I thought I’d try to write one for her. Of course, it had to be about her beloved monarch butterfly. But me being me, I knew that my poem had to be gritty, by which I mean not ugly or intentionally bleak, but simply real. And it occurred to me that the way to do this would be to write a poem that reminded us that butterflies belong to that despised category of animal life colloquially known as “bugs.” Scientifically, the classInsecta, which includes reviled species such as flies, mosquitos, termites, wasps, and cockroaches. Somehow, because our culture has sentimentalized and romanticized butterflies as symbols of beauty, the fact that they are (poisonous!) insects (and not “flying flowers”) escapes us.
(There’s a wonderful short story, “Butterflies,”
by Maori author Patricia Grace that hinges on, among other things, the disconnect between those who understand the butterfly as a biological creature and those for whom it is merely the representation of an idea. When I teach this story in my college writing classes, almost every student—not surprisingly—fails to “get it.” Does our biotic community’s critical condition have anything to do with the fact that we’ve allowed connotation to obscure denotation? I believe so.)
That’s why my poem emphasizes the creatureliness, not the symbolization, of the monarch. To honor a thing, we must know it, insofar as we can, for what it is, which to me is more important than what itmeans—or rather, maybe I’m trying to say that what something means cannot/should not be distinct from what it actually is. Which reminds me of the last lines of Archibald Macleish’s poem “Ars Poetica”:
A poem should not mean