Poem of the Week | August 21, 2008
Jude Nutter: "The Insect Collector's Demise"
This week’s poem is “The Insect Collector’s Demise” by Jude Nutter, which originally appeared in TMR 31:1 (2008) as our Editors’ Prize winner in poetry. Jude Nutter’s first collection, Pictures of the Afterlife (Salmon Poetry, Ireland), was published in 2002. The Curator of Silence(University of Notre Dame) won the Ernest Sandeen Prize from the University of Notre Dame and was awarded the 2007 Minnesota Book Award in Poetry. A third collection, I Wish I Had a Heart Like Yours, Walt Whitman, is forthcoming. In 2004 she spent two months in Antarctica with the National Science Foundation’s Writers and Artists Program. She currently works in Minneapolis.
“As a girl, I was a fanatical insect collector and ‘The Insect Collector’s Demise’ [is a poem that charts] the shift I made, in my early teens, away from my killing jars and nets. I still loved insects but could no longer justify the killing.”
The Insect Collector’s Demise
On mornings free of cloud the insects
mistake my windows for clean platters
of sky and knock against them, seeking entry.
Some make hardly a sound-a sand grain
blown against glass; but others-butterflies,
for instance, kiss a bit harder and leave behind
a whiplash of dust. The mind is a jailer
whose job it is to wake us
when we are not sleeping and I
am suddenly the child I used
to be, running amuck through the garden
with my killing jars and my nets; a child
so in love with the world that she carried
pieces of it everywhere so she would never forget.
There was nothing beautiful
in such dying, in such bluster and panic. My net
had a mesh as soft as a stocking and it held
the scent of chemicals and breakage-a bitterness
like tarnished metal. Every day
there were items left behind-torn wings
like scraps of propaganda, the leg
of a cricket like a dropped hat pin. Forget
formaldehyde and ethyl acetate, forget
the suspect, precarious terrains
into which all collectors go
for a rare specimen; imagine what happens
to a child in that moment
when the matte-black pin, thin as a horse hair,
breaches a cricket’s lacquered façade and passes
smoothly, and without resistance, through
the body beneath. In the killing jar,
the crickets were the worst of all-their leaps
against the glass the music
of someone fiddling with the small change
in his pocket. What hubris
to think the insects loved their lives
less than I loved mine. Each one
a verb snatched from the world’s mouth.
This is how I grew afraid of details, of all
the precisions of suffering and fell in love
with landscapes viewed from a distance, where
it was everything I could not see
that saved me; where, if there were animals,
they were small and clean on the earth’s
green manicure: sunlight washing like varnish
over the backs of black cattle in the fields; sheep,
falling to their knees to get closer
to the sweetest, lower stems of the grass.
And being rewarded. From a distance
each tree was a green trawl of light.
Too far away to hear the leaves’ sad
fricative or every tiny murder
in the dirt, this was a world
in which even the hooves and the teeth
of the horses grazing under the eaves of an oak
had never once hurt the grasses; there were
no blast zones of pewter feathers,
no flusters of corruption or scandal
on the leaves’ plain crockery;
no ticks dug-in between the jackdaw’s
feathers, not a single moth like a banner
in the jaws of an ant. Not a single ant
in a blackbird’s beak. At the end
of every trouble, I thought, were fields
like this, fields like sunlit platforms.
God’s failed attempts at imagining paradise.
It was everywhere I wasn’t: I could step
right into it and never arrive;
and it was always behind me, where the grass
had already shrugged off
the dark kiss of my small boots.
And before me the wrestle of the river,
all purpose and no wastage, and I could feel
the trout’s perfect fit within it
where the current grew snug on the inside curve.
I have wasted my life trying to enter this promise.
I will waste whatever life I have left.
In the inch-deep darkness of a tree’s body, the egg
of the ichneumon, that persuasive burglar, lies
next to the egg of the wood wasp.
What the world gives, the world
then takes away.
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