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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Number 151: Stanley Kunitz "Hornworm: Summer Reverie" and"Hornworm: Autumn Lamentation"

Hornworm: Summer Reverie

Here in caterpillar country
I learned how to survive
by pretending to be a dragon.
See me put on that look
of slow and fierce surprise
when I lift my bulbous head
and glare at an intruder.
Nobody seems to guess
how gentle I really am,
content most of the time
simply to disappear
by melting into the scenery.
Smooth and fatty and long,
with seven white stripes
painted on either side
and a sharp little horn for a tail,
I lie stretched out on a leaf,
pale green on my bed of green,
munching, munching.

--Stanley Kunitz

Hornworm: Autumn Lamentation

Since that first morning when I crawled
into the world, a naked grubby thing,
and found the world unkind,
my dearest faith has been that this
is but a trial: I shall be changed.
In my imaginings I have already spent
my brooding winter underground,
unfolded silky powdered wings, and climbed
into the air, free as a puff of cloud
to sail over the steaming fields,
alighting anywhere I pleased,
thrusting into deep tubular flowers.

It is not so: there may be nectar
in those cups, but not for me.
All day, all night, I carry on my back
embedded in my flesh, two rows
of little white cocoons,
so neatly stacked
they look like eggs in a crate.
And I am eaten half away.

If I can gather strength enough
I'll try to burrow under a stone
and spin myself a purse
in which to sleep away the cold;
though when the sun kisses the earth
again, I know I won't be there.
Instead, out of my chrysalis
will break, like robbers from a tomb,
a swarm of parasitic flies,
leaving my wasted husk behind.

Sir, you with the red snippers
in your hand, hovering over me,
casting your shadow, I greet you,
whether you come as an angel of death
or of mercy. But tell me,
before you choose to slice me in two:
Who can understand the ways
of the Great Worm in the Sky?

-- Stanley Kunitz

Hap Notes: Kunitz, in addition to being a poet, was a patient and observant gardener. I posted both of his hornworm poems to show both this and how perspective plays into the poetic observation.

The summer hornworm poem is an observer imagining the monologue for a hornworm to be a bit more patiently playful and contented. The second hornworm poem indicates a consciousness of a God and the facts of natural life. I put them together because we rarely see them that way (except in Kunitz's Collected Poems) and the first one takes a bit of the sting out of the second one. Conversely, the second one makes the first one a bit more poignant.

The tomato hornworm (which is what all the pictures are and the moth the hornworm will become) can be infected with the parasitic eggs of the braconid wasp which feed on the host worm, feeding on it until it is just an empty husk of a creature. Most gardeners find it advantageous to leave a hornworm with parasites alone because the eggs hatch into wasps which are not dangerous to their plants and breed more wasps which kill more hornworms. Hornworms have a voracious appetite for leaves.

It's one of the few examples where parasites kill their hosts, usually parasitism is more of a complementary relationship with the parasite providing something to the host because if the host dies, so will the parasite.

So what are the worms, or rather what is Kunitz, saying about all this? Well, I've read analyses which claim the autumn worm is a bitter pronouncement about our beliefs in god. Kunitz himself once commented that "The God I believe in doesn't exist." (You are going to have to think on that one a bit since it's not atheism he's claiming in that statement.)

Even Darwin had trouble with the hornworm and wondered how a beneficent God could have created the wasp to feed off a living organism. (I guess he never ate meat? As a matter of fact this is an issue of some contention. Darwin wrote that he thought a vegetarian diet was best but there's no evidence to suggest that he was one himself. More controversy-- thanks Charles. We all need to be kept on the edge of intellectual uncertainty and he's certainly helped with that.)

Notice in the autumn poem how the hornworm knows that the gardener is not a god but merely some messenger. This, in itself says something. Stanley is not letting the god issue off the hook by making the worm see man as a god i.e. as though "primitive" weaker, smaller creatures see bigger more powerful creatures as gods. No, there's a Great Worm in the sky because gods are created in our own image- man is just a messenger of that worm god. Maybe.

The issue in this poem is not whether hornworms "dream" of becoming moths. Our narrator moth is saying something about the human condition because our narrator is really Kunitz, a messenger. Maybe of that Great Worm in the sky.

It's worth noting that someone of Kunitz' jewish background (or anyone really), post WWII, would call god the Great Worm.

Here's where we have talked about Kunitz before:

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