Bald-faced Hornets

I went walking in the woods recently with a friend, and we came across a very large hornets nest – about two and a half feet in length and as wide as a basketball – hanging from a branch six feet above the ground. It was astoundingly beautiful. I learned that it was a bald-faced hornets nest. As you can see from the photo below, these hornets resemble Star Wars Storm Troopers.

Bald-faced Hornet.
www.fcps.edu

With the beauty of the woods that day and the chance encounter with a living work of art, I wanted to write a pastoral poem about it. But it just wasn’t happening. Instead what was happening was Todd Akin. Usually, after several days of the same news story broadcasted over and over again, I tune out, but I became fascinated with this one, mainly because I had no idea some people really believed what Akin said about rape and pregnancy. (This sort of shocking statement makes me wonder about my own ignorance, too. What do I espouse that is just totally wrong? It reminds me of my friend Nancy’s bumper sticker that reads “Don’t believe everything you think”).

In the Seattle Times, Gail Collins explains in her article “Todd Akin and the theory of the delighted womb” that Akin’s beliefs are not unique and certainly not new. She begins the article: “In colonial America, conventional wisdom held that women could not get pregnant unless they enjoyed the sex. People, who would have thought I’d have an opportunity to bring up this factoid right in the middle of a presidential race? Thank you, Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri!”

It seems as though what I intend to write about never actualizes, and every week I have to trust the winding way of discovery, reflection, and serendipity.

POEM:
Bald-Faced Hornets

The first time we came upon the hornets’ nest
back up in the woods, we were not looking
for anything. Not the nest, not peace and quiet,
not ourselves. We were just walking, relaxing,
minding our own business.

The first time we came upon the hornets’ nest
was the day the politician was not making
sense about anything. Not rape, not pregnancy,
not women. He was just talking, bumbling,
minding everyone else’s business.

Photo by Higgins

The hornets’ nest, shaped like an alien’s head,
held hundreds of bald-faced wasps that flew
in and out of the hole towards the bottom
of their home. They were not bothering
anything, yet the potential in that hive!

 

 

 

The politician’s belfry, shaped like an alien’s head,
held hundreds of the bald-faced comments that flew
in and out of the hole towards the bottom
of his face. He was not bothering
with any facts, yet the potential of those words!

Bald-faced hornets chew thin strips of wood
mix it with saliva and spit it out to build
their scalloped layers, creating a fragile
and beautiful yet functional home. Cells
inside provide each wasp its own space.

Bald-faced politicians chew thin strips of words,
mix them with saliva and spit them out to build
their scalloped layers, creating a fragile
and dangerous yet powerful following. Cells
inside their system provide each belief its own space.

The queen lays eggs and feeds them chewed up insects
after they’ve become larvae. These are only female
hornets, and they hatch to build new cells, collect food,
feed others, protect the nest. In autumn, the queen
lays more eggs – females and males hatch.

The politician lays ideas in people and feeds them chewed up facts
after they’ve become convoluted. These are about female,
or “other” targets, and they hatch, collect momentum,
feed others, protect the nest. In autumn, the politician
lays more eggs – female and males believe.

Finally the females and males mate, after which everyone
dies, even the old queen, all except the fertilized females.
These females burrow into old tree stumps or huddle
underground in winter to survive. Each builds a new nest
in spring. You can see the old ones, abandoned.

ELEMENT:
Metaphor

In the poem, “Bald-faced Hornets,” I use the beautiful hornets’ nest I found to speak of the hornets’ nest of politics. I could have continued the comparison for another stanza, or more, but I was already hitting the reader over the head with it. Despite its shortcomings, the poem does lend itself to discussing metaphor.

In a metaphor something familiar (the vehicle) is used to explain something unfamiliar (the tenor).  See the link below for famous examples – with one of my favorites by Walt Whitman, “And your very flesh shall be a great poem.”

Robert Frost is known for expressing that metaphor is saying “one thing in terms of another.”  This is only part of what he actually said, according to Jay Parini in his book, Robert Frost, a life:  “Frost believed that the ‘greatest of all attempts to say one thing in terms of another is the philosophical attempt to say matter in terms of spirit, or spirit in terms of matter’’’ (265).

Parini goes on about Frost’s use of metaphor: “In formulating this, he (consciously or not) is redeploying an aesthetic common to the German Romantics, especially Goethe, who famously wrote: ‘Whoever has truly grasped the meaning of history will realize in thousands of examples that the materialization of the spirit or the spiritualization of matter never rests, but always breaks out, among prophets, believer, poets, orators, artists, and lovers of art’” (265).

While at Stonecoast, I attended a lecture by Alicia Ostriker on metaphor. She discussed metaphor in terms of love. She said that in order to create metaphor you have to look at what you want to know (the tenor of the metaphor) carefully enough to notice, to compare, to connect, to jump, to leap, as you have to in love.  She spoke of metaphor as the erotic in language. Without it, language is chilling and cold, and we see this in the language of legal and medical documents, math and logic. Ostriker went on to say that “the pleasure we take in metaphor is consent, an agreement that the distance between the two things is less.” Metaphors allow us to discover and know something at a deeper level, and are not constructed as a game.

Which, perhaps, is how I constructed “Bald-faced Hornets.” But in doing so, I did think deeper about the world of political propaganda and the systemic workings of politicians who lull people into their camps through emotional speech and unsubstantiated “facts.”  And the last stanza in my poem above leaves the reader to interpret the metaphor for him- or herself.  This is an important piece of the poem, allowing the reader to continue the metaphor with personal knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs.

In her talk, Ostriker pointed out that in a metaphor the two things that are joined can neither be opposites nor be too similar. Comparing two things with no shared characteristics doesn’t work; there has to be enough similarity between the two so that the comparison makes sense. Comparing a woman’s hips, for example, to rain doesn’t really work (and I apologize to the song-writer who used this comparison). Hips are solid, powerful, meaty, sculped or bony. They do not share physical or other characteristics of rain, though maybe I’m missing something. Conversely, if there is too much familiarity (i.e. a teapot and a tea kettle) there is no point in comparing them.

(As a side-note, Ostriker also mentioned that language poetry – post-modern poetry – does not have metaphor which is a response to the increasing awareness of the suffering in the world. It is too painful to get so close to. She explained post-modernism as “modernism without the hope.” Scary).

While Ostriker takes on the serious side of metaphor, Tony Barnstone presents us with a fun exercise that gets to what Ostriker was referring to – getting to know the tenor through the vehicle. Barnstone was one of my mentors at Stonecoast and shared a Power Point he created on the “Controlled Surreal Image.” In it, he included an exercise of writing about shoes in a metaphorical way (see below in links). It is fun and gets to the idea of thinking of “one thing in terms of another.”

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):

Famous metaphors
Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America, an amazing book by Alicia Ostriker, which was recommended by another of my mentors, Jeanne Marie Beaumont. Ostriker’s book is a must read for any poet, woman, or person interested in contemporary issues.
Barnstone Metaphor-Image Exercise

 

Skin

Thick-skinned. Thin-skinned. No skin off my back. By the skin of my teeth. He got under my skin.

Tuesday night I had a dream. It was about skin. My skin.

I have thought about skin a lot. And what I think about is the function of it, how you can clean it up time and time again, how it’s waterproof, how it heals itself, and how it’s this tight shell that keeps the rest of me from spilling out all over the place. And how many layers there are. There are so many literal layers to us.

I have also thought about the color of skin, of course, and although that’s not the skin discussion I’m going for right now, I don’t want to ignore the fact that people think about skin color. A lot. When my daughter was four or five and I was giving her a bath, she asked, “Why am I called white when my skin is peach, and why is Yohanna called black when her skin is brown?” She wasn’t asking why we’re different colors, but why we label and categorize people based on those colors. (No wonder she majored in Sociology in college). Bathtub reflections are along the lines of just-drifting-off-to-sleep reflections and children never warn you when the big questions are coming.

Here’s what it says about skin on MedlinePlus, which is a service of the US National Library of Medicine published by the National Institute of Health: “The skin is the largest organ of the body. The skin and its derivatives (hair, nails, sweat and oil glands) make up the integumentary system. One of the main functions of the skin is protection.”

Sometimes, though, our skin protects us a bit too much.

POEM –
Molting

Last night I dreamt I peeled
the skin from my face.
Starting at the hairline, I massaged
my scalp until it curled
under my fingertips, and gingerly
I wrapped my fingers and thumbs
around a thin film –
skin is a delicate matter –
and oh so gently and slowly
I stripped a layer from most
of my forehead. Above my right
eyebrow my skin split,
but I continued pulling
at a diagonal across the bridge
of my nose and left cheek.
I dropped my hands to study
myself in the mirror. None
of my expectations were fulfilled.
No blood. No scars. No revulsion
at the exposure. Instead, new
skin, shiny and tender, lay
next to the wrinkles and leather
of my old face, and my eyes,
both the new one and old one,
stared back at me, freed and focused.

ELEMENT:
Syntax

The website Poetry Archive explains that, “Syntax refers to word order, and the way in which it works with grammatical structures. As we are used to hearing things in certain orders, the effect of breaking with normal syntax is to draw attention to what is being said and the way it is said.”

When the normal order of words (i.e. subject + verb + object) is intentionally changed, an emotional or psychological shift occurs. In poetry (like in other types of writing) syntactic rules can be stretched and bent and broken for reasons such as emotional impact, emphasis, and intentional ambiguity. Additionally, in poetry, how the sentence is broken into lines causes an interplay of sound and meaning, an intentional pace, and an interesting compressed visual composition.

Let’s look at the above poem in terms of its sentences:

  1. Last night I dreamt I peeled the skin from my face.
  2. Starting at the hairline, I massaged my scalp until it curled under my fingertips, and gingerly I wrapped my fingers and thumbs around a thin film – skin is a delicate matter – and oh so gently and slowly I stripped a layer from most of my forehead.
  3. Above my right eyebrow my skin split, but I continued pulling at a diagonal across the bridge of my nose and left cheek.
  4. I dropped my hands to study myself in the mirror.
  5. None of my expectations were fulfilled.
  6. No blood.
  7. No scars.
  8. No revulsion at the exposure.
  9. Instead, new skin, shiny and tender, lay next to the wrinkles and leather of my old face, and my eyes, both the new one and the old one, stared back at me, freed and focused.

There are several things that happen when I lay out my poems in sentences like this. At the most basic level, I clean up some punctuation issues. For example, when copying the poem out in the numbered form above, I omitted three unnecessary commas. Please let me know if there are other grammatical errors like this.

Secondly, I can see more clearly the lengths of my sentences.  I don’t watch for sentence length (or sentence construction, for that matter) while drafting my poems, focusing instead on meaning and sound, but I do pay attention to line length in crafting my poems. In this particular poem, there is a short introductory sentence (is this sentence even needed?), followed by a long compound complex sentence that contains the majority of the action. This sentence, in my opinion, has to be long in order to convey the action as one continuing motion and to draw out that motion over time. This wasn’t a quick stripping of a Band-Aid; it took a long time to reach my nose! The action continues without interruption down to the bridge of the nose where a shift occurs – the skin splits – and therefore a shift to a new sentence complements this. This is followed by two short sentences and three sentence fragments and I consider these to be a transition to the revelation in the poem – that exposure, in this case at least, is a good thing, not gruesome, but liberating.

Thirdly, laying out the poem in sentences allows me to double check the unfolding of the narration.  This is extremely helpful in making sure that details are placed in the “correct” order so that the images are constructed in the readers mind.  Let’s look at the second sentence where most of the action takes place:

Starting at the hairline, I massaged my scalp until it curled under my fingertips, and gingerly I wrapped my fingers and thumbs around a thin film  – skin is a delicate matter – and oh so gently and slowly I stripped a layer from most of my forehead.

Does this fold out the action in a sequence that you can follow? Can you picture massaging your head at the hairline and getting hold of a layer of skin and peeling it like a the layer of adhesive from the back of sticky contact paper? At first I had the words “hairline” and “scalp” switched in the sentence. Writing it out made me realize that that made no sense at all. Starting at the scalp? Your scalp covers your entire head. No, I started at the hairline. What other confusion is there in the sentence? Is the interjection “skin is a delicate matter” a distracting unnecessary commentary, or does it convey something more and connect the physical action with a meaning beyond the literal?  Laying out the sentence like this allows me to double check the image-building of the action.

In Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, Virginia Tufte states, “Cohesion that seems smooth and relaxed is sometimes quite hard to get and is always a matter, partly, of syntactic choices – from the straightforward use of connectors to the most ingenious patternings” (251).

Indeed.

Related Links (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):

Shedding Skin (a poem by Harryette Mullen). Disclaimer: I did not know about this poem until after I wrote mine and searched for other poems about skin!
Body parts idioms
Sin and Syntax 

 

Road Trip

A few weeks ago I took a road trip from Vermont to Colorado. It had been many years since I’d taken such a trip with long days in the car, the windows down in the summer heat, the hills fading in the background and the corn, and corn, and corn, and corn rolling by. There’s always something about passing through places that I like, catching a glimpse of something that leaves me with a warm first impression or a feeling that I’m sooo glad to be moving on.

Four legs to the trip, mostly on Interstates 80 and 90, made the 2025 miles quite bearable, pleasant even: 1. Burlington, Vermont to Cleveland; 2. Cleveland to Iowa City (to see the folks and a couple of brothers); 3. A short 4-hour evening jaunt from Iowa City to Omaha; and 4. Omaha to Boulder.  Along the way, the dashboard gauge that measures the outside temperature climbed to 105 degrees in western Nebraska, and when I told my brother back in Iowa, his reply was that his wife’s gauge had registered 113 degrees. Not hard to believe as I witnessed the dried up rivers, the brown shriveled corn, and read on stops along the way about the surface-water rationing by farmers.

On such a trip, the experience is one of a living collage with snippets of scenes, smatterings of strangers, alternating and fleeting feelings of anxiety and excitement about visiting family. All of which is perfect material for short poems such as Haiku and Senyru.

The scene, unfortunately, that began the trip was waking to the news of the shootings in Aurora, Colorado. As the next few days unfolded, there was a surreal juxtaposition of life going on in my ordinary world while the lives of the surviving victims and their families and the lives of the families of those killed – as well as the perpetrator’s life – were horribly changed forever.

POEM –
Haiku and Senryu

for sale: insanity –
no morning in Aurora
news from the dark side

wearing the helmet
on the back of his Harley
life-size bobble-head

will she or won’t she
remember who I am – yes,
still a flicker from Mom

running then and now,
a puddle of sweat at my feet –
Iowa melts me.

train slows, stands on tracks
in the middle of my run –
quick! up and over!

in Iowa’s night,
turbines blink red eyes above
train-whistle lullabies

empty cattle trucks
rattle Nebraska highways
after the slaughter

Lincoln County Fair –
don’t miss Main Event: Wrestling,
Men, Women, Midgets

I meet my brother’s son:
Baby Buddha in a high chair
smiling through two teeth

 

ELEMENT –
Compression and Word Choice

The best explanation of haiku that I’ve come across is from Sonia Sanchez’s introduction to her book, morning haiku. In it she says, “This haiku, this tough form disguised in beauty and insight, is like the blues, for they both offer no solutions, only a pronouncement, a formal declaration – an acceptance of pain, humor, beauty and non-beauty, death and rebirth, surprise and life. Always life. Both always help us to maintain memory and dignity” (xiv).

If we look at haiku and all the “rules” that are supposed to be applied to it, there are many aspects that could be discussed here. These include, but are not limited to: kigo (season word), makura-kotoba (pillow word), joshi (the introductory word), kakekotoba (pivotal word), kireji (cutting word), mitate (metaphor), and uta-makura (place word).

But I don’t want to talk about any of that here. (If they really grab your attention, feel free to read my essay “Haiku Primer” found on my Haiga page).

What I want to talk about is compression and word choice. A poem gets to the essence through the shortest means possible, and due to the nature of the conservation of words, each word must be selected carefully. What haiku and senryu (and tanka) do, of course, is turn up the compression intensity. In my opinion, to convey a delight, a deeply painful moment, a revelation, a message, an aha-moment with so few words is the ultimate challenge.

It is comparable to that famous six word story that Hemingway supposedly wrote at the challenge of his friends: “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.” (Interested in the six-word story? See Links section below).

When the form is so short, each word has to be exactly right; you don’t have the rest of a poem or paragraph or novel to explain what you mean.  In order to help get this idea across to my middle-school students, I have them close their eyes and think of themselves sitting under a tree in the summer. Then I change the image to sitting under a maple tree (I’m in Vermont – maple trees are important here). Then to a maple tree in autumn. Then to hemlock (they generally know hemlocks, too). Then to a hemlock in winter. Or even better, during February break. As each scene becomes more specific and the image changes in their heads, they start to understand how important specificity is.

Specificity is important for compression, but ambiguity is often still the result (with the poet’s intent). Baron Wormser explains this further in his book, Teaching the Art of Poetry: “For their part, poets purposefully allow for ambiguity. The beauty of ambiguity for poets is that there does not have to be a choice. Different meanings can exist at the same time” (100). I love that. It means that, even if we are interpreting the same poem differently, I am right, and you are right. And if I interpret the same poem many ways, I am still right.

A case in point is Sonia Sanchez’s first haiku in the series “10 haiku (for Philadelphia Murals)” from the book mentioned above, morning haiku:
1.
Philadelphia roots
lighting these walls
with fireflies

Given the title, I imagine a mural of roots and vines and ivy with fireflies flitting among them. But I also think of the people themselves as the roots lighting the walls with their lives, the children as bright fireflies among them. And I also think of the buildings, the row house where my brother-in-law and his family lived for so many decades in Philadelphia, and the windows lighting up the late hot summer nights, like fireflies. All these ideas and images from seven words.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc):

Drought Monitor
Haiku Society of America
It All Changed In An Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs