I have lived here since 1968. They since ... do we know?
Wonder what the Cherokee word for their flickering selves
is, and back beyond that, the shell-circle builder's word?
Five thousand years.
They were one of the first things—
the second after fall color, and third after twilight
April-gold—that I tried to write down
the beauty of and my love for,
at twelve years old.
So I come back around here at near the end
to the same subject—
rather the same flying lights, different subject.
That first lightning bug poem was about
the disillusionment of wanting to collect,
to bottle up in a mason jar such fascinating beauty.
Every child knows the mess of that.
You catch thirty in a jar and take them home.
They stop going on and off. They glow up, stay on,
melt together, die, turn black, and smell bad.
You throw them out, a cliché for the consequences
of possessive desiring. Their beauty needs
to stay free to overwinter in the ground,
as does mine.
I have identified two young volunteer trees
growing in my yard as black locusts.
The hill I grew up on was called Locust Hill
because a grove of these grew on the side of it.
That was the dell where we children
ran after lightning bugs, little poets looking
for the right word, letting them light
on the backs of our hands, then scintillate
off, which is all they do for the fourteen days
of their short lives, with surely some sleep.
They want, and they want.
They look and flash and fly to mate,
trying to prolong the lineage that brought them here,
these spark-figurations sacred to Orpheus,
that somehow are related to orphans and doves,
and sisters to the rain-golden mist over the ocean
with the sun going down that we call the Pleiades.
People have looked up at night, and out, and down,
and told stories about stars and lightning bugs
in this vanishing of our longing and those lights.
Every life is incomplete,
with much left undone, half-done.
I mourn the paucity of lightning bugs
in the air of this earth-patch yard.
They have dwindled noticeably the last forty years.
Maybe in twenty more they will come back strong,
even more numerous than they were in the 1940s.
Maybe this is not part of the big dying-out going on,
polar bears, frogs, rainforest,
red wolf and gray fox, but it probably is.
Nobody knows what to do.
We are waiting to be told.
Anything, we will try it,
even driving our cars less.
The alder tree is also sacred to Orpheus.
I love to write inside an overarching creeksound
on the bank where the alder lives,
with a black tupelo and a Carolina silverbells.
My grandson Woody
fell in love with a pine cone once in Yosemite.
By statute, you are not allowed to carry anything out of the park,
but no one, not even the ranger, could separate that young man
from the single pine cone almost as big as his head
he had chosen for his soul to feast upon.
They open, you know, as roses do, pine cones,
from being tightly wrapped in themselves
to being how we all might become
this very moment, pointy, sinewy,
and ready for the fire of someone else's presence.
The Georgia Review, Summer 2010