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Cemetery, 1793

January 3, 2008 1 comment

I run the bath, Charlotte,
and write in my diary, Charlotte,
where my days are numbered, Charlotte,
and I consider the corpses

The shell of a whiskered wasp
on my windowsill
where I kept it trapped by blowing at it,
thinking it to be your messenger,
come to say you do not love me

The shattered stain of a moth
on the splinters and black veins
of the windowframe.
I caught it and crushed it
when it tried to come through,
mistaking it for your hovering
moussaline mouth,
trying to invite me
out into the frost, to fall and make
scorched earth of my knees

The dried, balled woodlice
by the skirting board
I thought to be your beauty spots
brushed off in your haste
to disappear completely
when you heard me on the landing,

The spider now drowned
in the running water, a snip of your hair,
as if you meant to say,
“Jean-Paul, you said you wanted me,
but if you insist on locking me out,
all you’ll have is this lock.”

I have run the bath, Charlotte,
and wait with my dead army and diary,
I wish you’d join me, Charlotte,
I have need of your company

by Jon Stone

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Last Day of Summer

January 2, 2008 Comments off

Would this be the last day of summer? There was certainly a bite in the air that hadn’t been there before. But still, the sun shone, and the sky was almost clear. Tobias stretched out and closed his eyes, listening. It was there again: that rattle. An odd sound, a little too delicate to be a baby’s toy, overhead, then to the side, away to his left and then right fading away and now coming back, louder and louder, overhead, close …

He opened his eyes; fluttering above him was an angel-insect — with sparkly transparent wings, a brightly beaded body and a long tail that bulged at the end.

He reached up but it swept away from him. It was large, larger than his hand (although his hand was quite small), and quite the most magnificent thing Tobias could remember seeing in the whole of his short life. He eased himself up slowly.

‘What are you?’ he murmured, but the creature didn’t answer. It swung its tail (which rattled softly) and darted away towards the bottom of the field. Tobias followed.

At the stile, the insect paused (beating its wings quickly to hover) and waited until Tobias had gingerly dropped onto the other side before flying on again. The rattling faded and the boy ran after it, anxious not to lose it. The sound had become rhythmical and compelling; setting off something that pulsed from his brain into his backbone and then twitched his arms and legs. His breath came in pants, and then his heart seemed to take up the beat. When the insect slowed, Tobias did too. They were linked, he realised, utterly and absolutely. Over the length of the field, they had come to depend on each other. If one stopped, the other one would too.

At the end of the field was a copse of widely spaced trees and then, in the middle of this, a small pond. The creature and the boy stopped. Tobias looked around, his head cranking in time on the pole of his neck as if controlled by gears. He had been in this wood many times but had never before encountered this water. A couple of ducks skimmed across the surface and quacked a greeting, while a single swan gave him a gentle hissy warning not to come close. In the middle of the pond was a small island with a grove of trees. The creature still rattled. It circled twice as if impatient, then darted forward over the water. Tobias stumbled over something in front of him. Hidden in the long grass was a small one-man boat, round and made of skins over a wooden frame. It was light to move and soon he had it floating in front of him on the water.

The creature was pleased. Colours rippled along its ridged back (pinks and then reds and purples). Tobias stepped in and the boat began to drift on its own. He picked up the oars and tried to paddle but he had never done such a thing before and for a few seconds, he struggled. The insect came closer and its rhythm louder and soon he dipped in the blades in time. Above him, the angel rattled its tail in applause and the boy smiled back. But a small cold breeze rippled the water and the sun hid briefly behind a cloud. Autumn soon, the boy thought, and his nose caught the transient whiff of a bonfire.

The island was quieter than the water. Someone had been clearing the scrub and the heavy scent of wood smoke still rose from the ground around him, although the place seemed deserted now. There was too little air; for a few seconds, Tobias struggled to breathe but the insect’s rattle soothed him. It was softer now, more like a whisper; take heart, it said, then: Follow me. So he picked his way between small patches of blackened undergrowth until he reached a broad flat rock. Sit. Was it talking now? He thought perhaps it was. Sit. No, there was no voice, just a thought that became his own desire. He sat and the beat of the rattle grew slower and closer. He couldn’t remember shutting his eyes but they were shut now. He couldn’t remember lying down but now he could feel the rock against his back, his arms and his head. The rock was hot, as if something had warmed it beneath. Even though his eyes were shut, he knew it had become darker. A light rain fell around him sizzling as it hit the rock around him. Something tickled the hairs of his arm. His eyes snapped open. There was the creature sitting on his forearm, its head bent.

‘What are you?’ Tobias asked drowsily and the insect looked up. Their eyes met. On the end of the insect’s body was a perfect human face. It was young, sad and dark-eyed. ‘Who are you?’ he cried out, but still the creature didn’t answer. She shook her head mournfully and minute tears sprang from her eyes and scattered in the air around her. ‘I need something from you,’ she said, then arched her head back, opened her mouth and bit down hard on his skin.

It stung like vinegar on a cut, and seared like a speck of boiling oil. Tobias screamed, flailed out and then leapt towards the water. He held his arm under the surface until the coldness made it numb, then brought it out and looked at it: there were two small holes and around them, the skin was red and swollen with poison.

The rain was coming down harder now. Tobias listened. The rattling was still there and once again he was drawn towards it. He came upon her quickly. He raised his foot to stamp on her but she turned her white face towards him and looked at him accusingly. Her wings were crushed and her body was black and bulging. ‘Pick me up.’ Her voice warbled like breath over pipes. ‘Over to the water.’

The wind was picking up now. He shivered. Why had he come so far without his coat? Reluctantly, he eased her onto his hand. The rattle was becoming fainter. At the water’s edge, he gently put her down. She leapt forward and lay on the surface of the pond, her tail still twitching. Then, slowly, the water began to creep over her and dissolve her, and her black body and silvery wings were swept away until they were just pin-pricks of light drifting over the surface and the rattling became the beating of the waves.

But then, as Tobias watched, the specks of light stopped and began to wriggle towards him. He gathered them up in his hands. The creature’s children, he thought, and, in some way, his, too. Then, as the wind churned up the water and howled through the trees behind him, he let them go and they buried themselves in the mud.

by Clare Dudman

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Pandora’s Box, Afterward

January 2, 2008 2 comments

The box, unlike its appalling
contents, did not depart.
They screeched ecstatically,
whizzed, thumped into windows
and ricocheted off the walls.
They inserted themselves
cleverly into crannies,
while the box clenched
its hellgrammite claws.

The box sat quietly
on its haunches; ugly
pupa enclosing a larva,
budding nymph, waiting
for its carapace to split open
and the damp, wrinkled imago
to emerge. Hope unfurled
her transparent promises
to beat against the wind.
Of course she didn’t stay.

When she comes to tea,
she balances precariously
on the edge of the lid,
while tiny hands wave,
squeak, and swear happily
from under the sofa.

Hope can’t visit long,
but she always says
Goodbye; I had a lovely
time. Thank you for having
me.
The discarded box
answers in its creaking voice.

by F. J. Bergmann

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Grasshopper Delight

January 1, 2008 Comments off
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Butterflies in the Zoo

December 31, 2007 1 comment

So that they don’t escape
there are two doors —

one to shut behind us
before opening the next

We stand in between
checking our hair and collars

for stowaway wings
If we find a butterfly

spotted, striped, or injured,
we take its picture, cup it

within our hands, return it
to captivity

If we find nothing,
we are free to go

down the path
to the next exhibit —

elephants being hosed
from dusty ears to muddy toes

by Pablo, Miguel,
and Alejandro.

by Therese L. Broderick

Download the MP3

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houdini

December 30, 2007 Comments off

as i sat one summer
and read

about the black-robed
judges,

the teachers, the grey-suited
administrators,

law-writers, spies
and film-makers,

the white-coated
industrial chemists

who kindly continued
in their posts

once the once-great
family firm

had been busted
for irregularities,

the wasp in the downturned
glass had vanished

through a slat
in the new garden table

to resume its feeding
on the fresh cherries.

by Alistair Noon

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The Ant Analogy

December 29, 2007 3 comments

As a child, one of my favourite books was Insect Life, a cartoon-strip introduction to insect behaviour published in 1948. The date of publication is significant, since it comes shortly after the Second World War, the style of the book being influenced by wartime propaganda publications.

This was a book that exerted a fascination on me through its strange mixture of factuality and imagination. The chapters I enjoyed most were those in which insects were allowed to appear in humanised form: bees, silkworms, spiders, termites and ants. The Colorado beetle and the common house fly received no such anthropomorphising treatment. Instead, these pests were subjected to a damning by statistics in which one individual was seen to lead a cohort of offspring, their pyramidal marching formation suggesting interminable expansion in numbers.

The insects that seemed most “at ease” as humans were the bees, the termites and the ants. Individuals belonging to these groups appeared in various human outfits: scout leaders, women factory workers, soldiers, dandies, peasants, doctors, milkmaids or princesses. What these insects were shown to have in common with man is their social way of life, the comparison clinched by the specialisation of individual members of a colony to specific roles.

The chapter on termites always unsettled me, and now, reading through it again, I see it was meant to, being introduced in the following terms: “Here is the Nazi of the insect world, living to destroy. Ruthlessly efficient, backed by infiltration and fifth column tactics undreamed of even by Hitler, a Termite sacrifices everything, life itself where necessary, for the common purposes of destruction.”

The termite chapter ends with a different analogy, one which points towards the future. The second to last frame is a picture of a termitary, darkly shadowed at sunset, its mud towers reaching skywards. Beneath the picture, a caption reads: “When the young princes and princesses have flown to their martyrdom, the openings of the gloomy prison close for another year.” The last frame is a scene of a city in the style of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, long lines of commuters disappearing into the dark entrance of buildings whose stark towers resemble the termitary. Underneath is written: “With eyes, sex and wings sacrificed to the common good, the termites in their joyless tomb provide both an example and a terrible warning of what may be man’s own destiny.”

This demonising view of the termite contrasts strongly with the next chapter about ants which are portrayed as courageous and inventive animals, despite the fact that their social mode of life is really not so far removed from the termites’. The South African naturalist Eugene Marais had a lifelong fascination for termites. Where the writer of Insect Life saw sinister machinations in the termites’ behaviour, Marais observed deep mystery. In his book The Soul of the White Ant, first published in 1928, Marais expounded his view that the termite is not a group of organisms functioning as a society, but a single colonial organism in which the individuals act as “cells,” and in which specialisation of individuals creates various different “organs” within the “body” of the termitary.

This idea of a colony so well organised, so specialised, so perfectly reproducible that the various polymorphic forms of ant or termite begin to resemble different organs of the body, starts to hint that insect societies are not really that similar to human societies after all. Individual humans are adaptable, both mentally and physically. A person whose job becomes redundant can retrain to do something else. As naturalist Julian Huxley, brother of novelist Aldous, observed in his book Ants, published in 1930: “man does not find his tools growing upon his body; he has to make them in infinite variety.” For Huxley, the comparison of ants and men is a misleading enterprise. He begins his book by stating boldly that: “Innumerable comparisons have been made between human society and the social organisation of ant, bee, or termite… almost without exception the moral has been false.”

A few years ago, in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, James M. Costa reviewed how philosophers and writers down the ages have perceived insect societies, and the lessons they have drawn for mankind. He notes how the 17th-Century English philosopher and writer of Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes, viewed the society of ants as providing a model of the natural law which dictates that every society requires a strong leader at its head: the queen bee or ant. He was writing at a time when England lacked exactly that: a strong ruler.

Kropotkin, on the other hand, an anarchist and early communist writing in revolutionary Russia, interpreted ant society as a successful model of socialist values in which every worker had a role and a defined place, working unanimously towards the success of society. Costa shows in his paper that the lessons insect societies hold for mankind depend very much on the eye of the beholder. The advantage for a philosopher who “goes to the ant” for his philosophy is that it will seem that what he presents to his reader is a “natural” law. For Costa, this is a dangerous aspect. For what is really a “natural” law, when interpretation is nine parts of the result?

While Huxley went out of his way to note the differences between ant and human societies, the American myrmecologist Caryl P. Haskins took the opposite approach. In his book Of Ants and Men, published in 1939, he compared the lives of insect and man in a myriad of ways ranging from the morphological to the behavioural. The danger of this approach is that we very soon start to suspect that Haskins knows much more about ants than he does about men, and what is more, that he is projecting his own cultural bias onto his interpretations.

For example, he compares the evolution of three major ant groups: the Ponerines, the Myrmicines and the Formicines to “evolution” of human society from primitives, to empire-builders and, finally, to pioneers. Of Ponerines he says: “The young are, for ants, extremely athletic, competent, and able to care for themselves, exactly as the children of primitive peoples display an early competence which belies their later deficiency.” Or: “the ease with which the entire economy of the colony may be overturned by a very slight alteration of the environment all bespeak primitiveness.” So much for Ponerines who are, eventually, dismissed as carnivorous, barbaric and always on the move looking for new prey on which to feast.

Of Myrmicines Haskins notes: “the life span of the Queen increased while the stature of the workers decreased” and “the Queen founds colonies among inhospitable regions.” Suddenly, it seems we are reading about the British Empire in miniature… But, the Myrmicines are not plastically adaptive because of their “sanguine disposition.”

Haskins reserves his highest praise for the Formicine subfamily which “excels all other ants.” He describes these ants as pushing “hard upon the edges of the (American continent’s) melting glaciers … an aggressive, sensitive band of pioneer Formicines” whose “simplicity in social life is evident” and who “rely on their own resourcefulness.” What is disturbing about these descriptions, apart from their ill-founded, ethnocentric point of view, is that observations proceed from philosophical insight. They are driven by a preconceived model.

Finally, I’d like to return to that image of the termitary I mentioned at the beginning of this article, with the setting sun behind it, and ask: is the termitary really a good analogy for today’s metropolises: the long lines of commuters filing away into their office buildings? Is the visual analogy, the societal analogy really sufficiently compelling that we should take this warning about our own future seriously?

It is a relevant question. Millions of people around the world already pass much of their waking lives in this way. Have their “eyes, sex and wings been sacrificed to the common good”? Do they spend their lives in a “joyless tomb” as the author of Insect Life suggests? Certainly, I recognise a certain physical truth in the analogy, but I also believe that there is no useful conclusion to be drawn from it simply because, and it is as simple and important as this: a human is not an ant.

Those people working in office blocks are real people, people who love and share and think and feel. It remains the case even though we are distanced from them physically, by their inaccessibility, by the media of disasters or by the disinterested cinema camera. If we look at them from afar, they may seem to be behaving like termites or ants, but when we look at them close up we see that they are as human as all the other human creatures on the planet. In this context, I think it is important to recall again the words of Julian Huxley: whenever comparison between humans and ants is made, “without exception the moral has been false.”

by Jonathan Wonham

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