Welcome to this month’s poetry classroom, with poet Tania Runyan, author of A Thousand Vessels and Simple Weight. We invite you to respond to the poems we’ll share here—their forms, images, sounds, meanings, surprises—ask questions of Tania and each other, and write your own poems along the way.
Sestina for Brood XIII
Five billion nymphs have tunneled from the earth,
slipped out of their ghostly skins
and adorned the trees with their red-laced wings.
A bevy of blenders. Motorboats. Buzz saws,
the articles warned. But from a distance,
their mournful chorus, like a cloud of flutes, rises
beyond the old-growth oaks, rises
to the atmosphere’s last hold on the earth.
I drove my daughters some distance
to find them. They collected the skins
from the grass by the pail-full until they saw
the first blood-drop eyes, the first flickering wings.
Gentle, I admonished them. Their wings
can dissolve in your hands. They raised
the cicadas to their eyes like prisms, saw
the seventeen-year handiwork of the earth
for one moment resting on their skin.
I told them how the nymphs suckle roots at a distance
of nine feet underground, their bodies distant
particles in the soil. The hope of wings,
the slow, invisible weaving of their skins
lie forgotten as a human generation is raised
in the whir and clamor above the earth:
Blenders. Motorboats. Buzz saws.
When I was thirteen, bored with the universe, I saw
Haley’s Comet, a dull milky smudge in the distance.
My parents reminded me of my rare chances on earth
to see great things: Columbia’s mighty wings
on its maiden takeoff, the Olympic flag rising
in our hometown, King Tutankhamun’s gilded skin.
I wanted nothing but to inspect my skin
in the mirror. Who cared what else I saw?
Not you, daughters. I know next summer the same sun will rise,
and these cicadas will have flown the distance
of your memory. Their eggs and broken wings
will have completed their lonely burrows into the earth.
But remember, each shed skin is a quarter-distance
of your life. You saw, and a part of you rode away on those wings,
rising and falling beyond the reach of the earth.
For more on the Sestina form, see Write Your First Sestina: It’s a Matter of Pride