Thursday, February 5, 2009

Dragonfly (page 6)

Okay, back to the serializing of Dragonfly. And, to continue the insect connection, as in my recent beetle-on-a-string theme, this time we focus on the dragonfly. This poem is in fact the title piece of the collection.

Miraculous Dragonfly

Tutubi Milagrosa — a Tagalog phrase emblazoned
across this sack of jasmine rice, also in Vietnamese,
Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Laotian, English, and Thai:
a concert of tongues, scripts, pictographs.

But the crudely drawn dragonfly cruising the names
seems hardly a friendly miracle: metallic globes for eyes,
skeletal legs from a giant mosquito, hairy carapace
like some gene-fused nightmare from a low-budget movie.

Abdomen shaped like a missile — a penile sting.
Not gossamer wings but helicopter blades: Cobra chopper
streaking over silky jungle mist hovers, cybernetic
killer machine poised on a stream of fire, molten metal.

No. Dragonfly out of my childhood is delicate,
a four-year-old's handspan from wingtip to wingtip.
Almost sunset near the Rizal monument in Manila's
Luneta Park — cicadas in full choir, singing a canticle.

A little boy in khaki shorts, a scrape on one knee,
stands still then takes a step like a tightrope walker
in line with the slender tail of a jade
and ultramarine dragonfly. The boy's gaze,

his whole being, funneled into fingertip and thumb.
For a moment, a small universe
of utter beauty and grace in his hand, my hand —
intricate shimmer of wings, the eyes iridescent jewels.

Page 6
NOTE: Image sources at right, from top to bottom: (1) my wife Mary Ann Blue Gotera's artwork for the cover of the original publication of Dragonfly; (2) a Cobra helicopter firing a missile, from Wikipedia; (3) a photograph by Pablo Yáñez, from his wonderful website; (4) a photograph by Judy of the Woods (browse her interesting website on how to carry on a sustainable life at; (5) a photograph by Darrin O'Brien (check out his photostream on flickr).

Many thanks to these lovely people for giving me permission to use their images in the blog. Do click on the images to see them enlarged; the details of the dragonflies in particular are quite exquisite and not quite as enjoyable in these smaller versions I've posted.

This poem happened because I didn't know something. What I didn't know was what "milagrosa rice" is.

There is indeed a brand of rice called "Dragonfly." I tried really hard to find an image online of the bag it comes in but came up empty-handed; you'll have to take my word for it that the bag is indeed marked with the word dragonfly in several Asian languages. On the bag also is a primitive-looking rendering of said dragonfly, and the whole shebang is labeled "Tutubi Milagrosa." I saw a bag of rice just like this in an Asian food store, and that started up this poem.

Now, tutubi (too-too-BEE) is the word for "dragonfly" in Filipino (or Tagalog, as the poem says), and milagrosa is Spanish for "miraculous" — a word imported wholesale into Filipino. Putting two and two together, then, I thought the rice bag said, "miraculous dragonfly." In fact, the word milagrosa, it turns out, refers to a type of rice, so the bag is quite pedestrian in declaring its contents as tutubi-brand milagrosa rice. Nonetheless, the misunderstanding — the resonant phrase "miraculous dragonfly" — fueled in me a mindstorm of meditation and memory, and this poem is the happy result.

First, a couple of facts. If you read the first installment of my ongoing bio in the blog, you know that I was born in the US but also lived some years as a small child (fact one). This poem is set during that time, just like the poem "Beetle on a String," posted on 1-30-2009.

Fact two. You can catch a dragonfly in your hands. This poem is my most-anthologized poem, and it has appeared in several language-arts textbooks for middle school and grade school; I have also performed this poem for students at various middle schools and grade schools, and this is what kids (and adults, I'm guessing) always want to know: can you catch a dragonfly? And how do you do it?

Look at the pictures of dragonflies above; you'll see that their thorax, the part of their body behind the head is quite bulky, containing the musculature for the wings. Although dragonflies have these gynormous compound eyes and probably have much better peripheral vision than we do, I don't think they can see behind themselves. That bulgy thorax gets in the way, like a bulky backpack. Now, I haven't checked with an entomologist on this, but I'm pretty sure I'm dead on here.

So, find a dragonfly that's landed; line yourself up with the tail, so you're directly behind the insect; then sidle up and grip the dragonfly by its tail between thumb and forefinger, ever so gently of course. Now this makes dragonflies really mad, but just hold on. I learned recently that the safest way to hold a dragonfly, so you don't harm it and it doesn't harm itself thrashing, is to bring the wings together above the insect and use them as a kind of handle. The bottom picture above demonstrates how to do that.

Try this out the next time you're near dragonflies; you'll be amazed at how easy it is. But of course, do let the dragonflies go. Don't keep them in a jar and try to feed them plant stuff. They are carnivores and must catch their prey, other insects, on the wing. Even if you put insects in the jar with them, they won't be able to catch them because they have to do it while flying. So don't keep them very long. In fact, it's best to let them go right away.

Fact three. (And this is a confession.) When Mary Ann needed a dragonfly for a model when she was working on the book cover, I went out and caught one. (She didn't actually think it could be done; who says you can't learn practical facts from poems?) We kept it in a jar and tried to feed it. But no go. It died, alas. So I know whereof I speak from actual experience. And my penance is to tell people not to keep dragonflies. Besides, here's a little fact that might intrigue you. The dragonfly forms a cage with its legs and uses it to scoop and trap other flying insects. That's why it can't catch another insect inside a jar, not enough room to get up some speed.

By the way, there's a cool story (fact four) behind Mary Ann's dragonfly illustration for the cover (top image above). She spent a summer drawing dragonfly after dragonfly and although they were wonderful renderings, I thought, Mary Ann was never satisfied. One day, she ripped a dragonfly shape out of white construction paper. She liked it okay, but the color seemed wrong. So Mary Ann pasted it down on another sheet of paper and painted the dragonfly black. After she let the black dry, she lifted up the dragonfly and the black part of the image above was what was underneath, on the throwaway sheet. Mary Ann simply added the turquoise accents, and there it was.

Okay, enough with the facts. "Just the facts, ma'am." Oh, wait, I wanted to add about Mary Ann's art experience that I just love how accident and serendipity can be such important aspects of art; another way to say it is that art can often be a gift to the artist. From the universe, from God, from whatever greater benevolent force you may believe in. And we, the artists, are just a conduit for that grace.

Changing gears. I'm teaching a course in Beginning Poetry Writing right now, and we're at that inevitable point in class when (some of) the students assert that a writer can be universal, can reach the widest audience, by being vague and ambiguous. The argument goes like this: readers won't identify with one's specific detail because it will contradict their own detail, their own memories, so one ought to write generally in order that readers can inject their own feelings into the poem. Nothing could be further from the truth. The poet must provide her own concreteness, and write those details out of her own life so that they glisten and scintillate with her own experience and vision; readers find joy in those specifics, feel that they are in capable hands, and trust the poet to "bring it." Ironically, it is at moments like this that readers bring in their own details, noting how they resonate with the specifics the poet has laid out.

I hope you can see this dynamic at work in this poem. Note in the second stanza the details of "metallic globes for eyes, / skeletal legs from a giant mosquito, hairy carapace / like some gene-fused nightmare from a low-budget movie"; as a child, I was enthralled by those old black and white 1950s movies filled with monsters inevitably produced by atomic radiation, for example, the movie The Fly starring David Hedison (later remade with Jeff Goldblum as the mad, but loveable, scientist). Comic books too were full of that stuff: the Hulk erupting periodically from scientist David Banner who had been exposed to radiation from the gamma bomb he had designed. (These 50s and 60s "morality plays" are, for my money, related to guilt about atomic holocaust, but that's a story for another blog entry.) My point here is that these insect/robot/cyborg details are specific to my own pop-culture interests, but they surely intersect with similar C-movie details gleaned by everyone from Saturday matinees and late-night TV.

Ditto with the war vs. nature stuff in stanza three: "silky jungle mist" vis-à-vis "cybernetic / killer machine." For people of my generation, this screams Vietnam. But, since the twentieth century and evidently the twenty-first too are times of wars and wars, this material should reverberate for most readers: the Gulf War, the war in Afghanistan, the current war in Iraq, etc. (And those are just the American ones.)

In the second half of the poem, there are details that are more closely related to the specifics of my own life: "a four-year-old's handspan from wingtip to wingtip"; "the Rizal monument" (José Rizal is the national hero of the Philippines, so there are both personal and national references in this passage); "cicadas." And much more specific and personal: "khaki shorts, a scrape on one knee." These details are designed specifically to ground the poem (and the reader, of course) in verisimilitude, in an apparent reality, to help them feel as if they are "there." Although perhaps someone may not have worn khaki shorts, everyone will have had abrasions and bruises. So a common humanity is invoked by these small details.

In the final stanza, I start to include general ideas, notions that aren't concrete: "his whole being," "a small universe," and "utter beauty and grace." But notice that this is one stanza out of six, and the earlier five act as contextualizing ballast: all the Asian languages mentioned in the opening stanza, for instance. This transition from the specific to the general allows the speaker then to reveal: "his hand, my hand." And the last line returns us to specific detail: "intricate shimmer of wings, the eyes iridescent jewels."

As we used to say in poetry workshops of the 70s and 80s, the poem earns the right to use large, universal concepts by anchoring the poem first in concrete detail and then re-anchoring the poem at the end with concrete detail.

Once again, though, let me remind you that the writer is never the best source about his or her own writing. So I would love to hear what you think about all this; leave me a comment below. Or if you have questions, ask away. Thanks. I hope you are having a truly marvelous day today.



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