By Ange Mlinko
Poetry Media Service
“In the light of the moon, a little egg lay on a leaf.” The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a great favorite at the moment; my two-year-old son, Gray, seems to have it memorized. He gets very concerned when he reaches the end of the long list of foods the caterpillar has eaten, for there he is, the little creature, sad-faced in the illustration. “That night he had a stomachache!” “Oh no!” Gray exclaims, bending over very close, wearing a pained look. “He’s sad! The caterpillar is sad!”
“Since that first morning when I crawled / into the world, a naked grubby thing, / and found the world unkind.” A few months ago, I happened on Stanley Kunitz’s “Hornworm: Autumn Lamentation.” By coincidence, I had seen my first hornworm around the same time—it was my first foray into growing tomatoes—and the thing, thick as a man’s finger and green as goo, almost turned me to stone then and there. It was covered with white—what looked like eggs. I looked it up on the Internet and learned that they were parasitic wasp pupae eating their host alive. The caterpillar was en route to being a splendid sphinx moth when its future was usurped by the hymenoptera, but I wasn’t supposed to pity it; gardeners hate these tomatovores. Gardeners rejoice at the wasps. The distinction of Kunitz’s poem, of course, lies in its taking the hornworm’s side, telling the story of creation’s injustice in the hornworm’s own voice.
You can’t judge a work’s value by whether it moves you to tears. When Gray bursts into tears at renditions of Brahms’s Lullaby and tells me, “The song is so sad,” I know that weak vehicles can stand for a tenor so vague and tremulous it is unknowable. My tears spring unbidden at the third verse of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” as well, the vision of a holistic, animate, feeling world: “All thy works with joy surround thee.” I realize that the very word “creation” moves me deeply. It touches the feeling I’ve always had that making things was what I was for (the root of poetry is simply making), and the vision of the world as made, and continually being made, and endowed with consciousness of its making—all this was an early glimpse into the power that unifies the subterranean ground between making poems and making new human beings.
The flip side is a sort of naked terror I never felt before I had sons to feel terrified for. There’s something marvelously true to experience in Laura Kasischke’s work—I’m thinking of her book Lilies Without —which locates this terror beneath the surface of suburban motherhood: poems such as “May,” where a cherry tree planted outside a school in memory of a dead kindergartener “shrieked into blossom.” In “New Dress (3),” a suburban mother and a mall security guard eerily end up in the same nightmare, “screaming” during a friendly exchange over a trapped pigeon. While gothic suburbia was captured—practically trademarked!—by David Lynch a couple of decades ago, Kasischke gives it a fuller treatment from the point of view of the mother who stands between her child’s innocence and death, negotiating the narrow space between them. It is a tonic to the notorious visions of suburbia as wasteland or graveyard of sexuality, as in the famous Larkin poem “Afternoons,” where “Young mothers assemble / At swing and sandpit” and
Their beauty has thickened.
Something is pushing them
To the side of their own lives.
While suburbia is—to put it mildly—unlibidinal, there’s something trite at this point in Larkin’s poem, something that feels too much like a man playing to others’ prejudices. There’s an appearance of sympathy toward the women, but the melancholia is misplaced. Women with young children still have a lifetime ahead of them.
Ange Mlinko is the author of two books, Matinees (Zoland Books, 1999) and Starred Wire (Coffee House Press, 2005). The latter was a National Poetry Series winner in 2004 and a finalist for the James Laughlin Award. Excerpted from “As if Nature Talked Back to Me,” originally published in the September 2009 issue of Poetry magazine and available at http://www.poetryfoundation.org. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation.
© 2009 by Ange Mlinko. All rights reserved.