Jul/Aug 2007 Poetry Special Feature

The Seventeen-Year Cicadas

by Jennifer Finstrom

Photography by Kawika Chetron

The Seventeen-Year Cicadas

are something out of a myth
or fairy tale. Metamorphosis and
charmed sleep are parts of the story,
the search for a mate's song
amidst all the shrilling voices.
The cicadas known as Brood XIII
are emerging this spring. I dreamed
of them one morning while
drowsing in the living room,
and it seemed that one had found its way
in and was resting on the wall
while its wings dried, gazing at me
with geranium-red eyes.

As a child, I loved insects and things
that crawled and squirmed. I dug
worms in the soft dirt of the backyard
and bore them carefully to my mother
in my cupped hands. I hunted the bright
coins of beetles around my tilted
swing set and crawled beneath
the yew hedge in search of spotted
caterpillars and silent cocoons.

The cicadas are not likely to visit us
in the heart of the city, but I know
how it would be if they appeared.
I look at the oldest trees as I follow
the sidewalk around my neighborhood,
and wonder if the nymphs are there,
sucking sap from the roots and
preparing for their great levitation.
When the ground reaches a constant
64 degrees, they will rise up in number,
like the doomed suitors of a trapped
princess, and crawl onto any tree or bush
that will hold them while their armor
hardens. There they shed their last
skin and combust into the air;
the fallen skins crunch on the ground,
pieces of a broken skull.

The air around me is silent now,
but I wish to feel again the childhood
urge that led me on my knees under
shrubs and through neighbors' yards
in search of what was hidden.
I listen for the small propeller of wings,
look for eyes as red as yew berries
on the underside of a leaf, but it is what
I can't see that I must not forget.
The old story is invisible, but no less real.
It was there long before I was born, dreaming
of itself in the cool ground, waiting
for the time to cycle around again,
for the king and his courtiers to awaken
in a squall of song, for the brief tournament
that claims almost every life.


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