Cicadas spend most of their lives underground. Maybe that is why poets love them.1 And keep returning to them.2 That, and cicadas’ ability to become, with their sound, the trees (i.e. bodies) they inhabit. In "Sémi," his essay on cicadas, Lafcadio Hearn quotes forty poems by Japanese poets on the subject of cicadas (蝉, or sémi), beginning with this Japanese love song, which is also the essay’s epigraph:
The voice having been all consumed by crying,
there remains only the shell of the sémi!3
It is not the person or heart or soul or mind or body or eyes or face that is consumed by crying, but the voice, as though crying is a troublesome, sometimes burdensome, modulation of the voice, or a version of it, and that crying takes the voice away from itself, keeps it indisposed, while risking the reduction, however momentarily, of the entire enterprise of the cicada to what it leaves behind.
Sémi, the essay, is about the sounds cicadas make. Hearn cannot help himself—or get very far—without turning to the poets for illustration and counsel. What is interesting is that Hearn quotes primarily from poems that express negative opinions about the sound of cicadas—poems that complain of their (shrill, hissing) noise, and that yearn for the moment the noise ends.
Am I wrong? Do poets not love cicadas? Or is it more complicated than that? (Is the poets’ return to the cicadas equal parts self-reflection, self-fantasy, self-flagellation, and self-loathing?)
Some of the poems Hearn quotes admit to more than disdain, including to the possibility that the sound of cicadas might be refreshing (清しき, suzushiki, cool, in the poem). Other poems try to be even more impartial, by contrasting the longevity (長き, nagaki, long) of the cicada’s sound to the brevity (短き, mijikaki, short) of its life. But it is not the cicada’s life that is short. Only its adulthood, its time aboveground, in the trees (becoming the trees), which is also the time of their music, we think, because it is the only time we can hear them.
At some point in the last two months I wrote the following in my notebook:
I do not remember, exactly, what I was thinking about at the time. But the note immediately before it says:
A helpless note. But it is as if insects might act as a mnemonic device, and send me (back) into not only a meditation on insects, but on what I was thinking about insects, including what I was thinking about insects that led me to write that poetry is premature.
Maybe it is working, actually, because I am starting to remember that what I was thinking is that poetry written by a person before the end of their life is not only premature, but impossible, because poetry is the expression of the end of one’s life. It was a thought, anyway, and unfinished. Not that poetry is the expression of wisdom or experience, or resignation or peace or fear or defeat or oblivion, but of what might be mistaken for disintegration, which is actually the opposite: total integration, or the transition one makes, and is always making—physically, psychically—to determine and become oneself. In other words, not the end of one’s life, but the beginning of one’s lives, transformation.
Maybe I was led to that thought while reading about how cicadas spend most of their lives underground, and emerge, at the end of their lives, to climb up the trunk of the nearest tree, grab hold of its bark, then climb out of themselves.
Cicada nymphs—after climbing out of the eggs that their mothers deposited in holes in trees—spend between two years and two decades underground. They spend those years sucking tree roots, digging tunnels and occasionally towers up through the ground for fresh air. After those years have passed, and the nymph senses the time is right, it climbs out of the earth. This phase of its life is called the instar. The sun is usually setting. After the cicada climbs out of itself (sheds its exoskeleton), it lives for a few weeks, then dies.
Do you ever encounter an insect and feel, however fleetingly, that the insect is the incarnation of someone you have been thinking about, who you may or may not have seen in a while, who you may or may not even know personally, but to whom you feel close, even intimate? Or that the insect is less the incarnation of that person, than it is the incarnation of something that person wanted to say, but is incapable of saying? Or that the insect is less the incarnation of what that person wanted to say, than it is the incarnation of the person wanting to say it? Or that the insect is less the incarnation of that person’s desire to speak, or connect, than it is of your own?
I had an encounter like that with an insect in the mountains above Tucson, and I named the insect Gordon Hirabayashi. Gordon Hirabayashi, the person, was a Nisei from Seattle, who fought the forced removal and mass incarceration of Japanese Americans all the way to the Supreme Court. Gordon Hirabayashi, the insect, was a grasshopper, maybe a cricket, or maybe a grasshopper, who lived (maybe still lives) in the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site, seven miles up Catalina Highway, on Mount Lemmon. The grasshopper was, when I met it, bright green and surprisingly large. It flew from the hill above where I was standing, and landed on my shoulder. I was standing in the parking lot of the recreation site, which is the ruins of a prison masquerading, in the seemingly endless ahistorical American age, as a campground.
I have written about the prison and Gordon before. (It is all I can do: keep writing the same subjects, hopefully shifting the orientation a little each time.) The prison operated for most of the twentieth century. It was established as a collaboration between the Bureau of Prisons, the Bureau of Public Roads, and the Arizona Highway Commission, so its purpose was obvious: to generate labor to build a road to the top of the mountain. That is why the prison existed, and why the prisoners were there. Gordon, who defied the curfew that was imposed March 1942 on all Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans on the west coast, was one of the 46 Nisei men incarcerated there during WWII, along with smaller numbers of African Americans, Mexican Americans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mennonites, and Hopi from northern Arizona, most of whom were conscientious objectors.
I take Recreation to mean: reenactment. The campsites occupy the footprint of the prisoners’ barracks. I have visited the ruins many times, but I have not camped there. Someday I will interview people who have. I will ask them about their dreams.
The last time I visited was August 2019. I was leading a tour of the site for a group of incoming freshman from the African American, Asian Pacific American, Latinx, and Native American Student Affairs groups at the University of Arizona. I, like the students, did not, when I first moved to Tucson, know that there was a prison in the mountains, nor that the prisoners built the road to the top. But as I started telling people that I was researching and writing about Japanese American incarceration, the prison was revealed—someone told me, someone directed me there—so I made it a point to reveal it in turn, which has been a practice of not only getting close to, but passing through, the obliterative mirage of white American history, in order to reach and spend time with the histories that have been under threat of obliteration.
Disclosure. Revelation. Storytelling. Maybe ruins is the wrong word. Maybe any attempt to erase—i.e. turn into ruins—an inconvenient history automatically renders the ruins that are produced as a simulation, not real, and not a genuine expression of what happened, or that anything did. Maybe the subjects of the ruins would disagree. Maybe the subjects are still there. Which would make the ruins active, not yet ended. So then what are we looking back on?
The grasshopper was a flying sailboat. There were also, in the grass, thousands of crickets, as well as spiders clinging to the foundation of the administrative building. I stood on a rock wall and talked with the students about Gordon Hirabayashi, the Hopi prisoners who Gordon befriended, the hunger strike that was led by one of the only Black prisoners, Arizona’s role in Japanese American incarceration, the migrant concentration camps that were—and still are—proliferating throughout the United States, including some in or near the sites used during WWII. I talked with the students about the creative possibilities of redressing the suffering and the silence of our ancestors, of imagining ourselves as the complex realization of what they, in the middle of the night, might have projected onto the impossible reaches of their futures.
Not everyone felt comfortable in that space. Not everyone feels comfortable in that space. Storytelling is often a vulnerable proposition. Stories, because they are human, therefore the manifestations of fallibility, have the capacity to displace, by representing, a multifarious community with the monolith of a single experience. Sometimes as soon as the first words of a story leaves our mouth, the world—no matter how accommodating and sympathetic it presents itself—seizes those words, shuts our mouths, and completes the story without us.
But also, not everyone felt comfortable in that space, because it was the ruins of a prison on a mountain in the desert in August.
Recreation Site. I do not believe that we die only once. I believe that throughout our lives we die many times, so many times that it could be said—or I also believe—that life is a process of continuously dying. Now that I have written that down, it does not seem as profound as it seemed in my head. It seems obvious. But maybe what is less obvious—for being invisible—is that our lives are populated (overpopulated) by all of the (invisible) markers of all the places where we have died. That our lives are a landscape of crosses and mounds and memorial stones, each marking a place where a part of us—part of the ongoing momentum of believing that life is a process of continuously living—was arrested, lost, stolen, lopped off, fell away, and became, in the end, irrecoverable: died. So that by the time we break out of the ongoing momentum, and rest our heads against the final vibration, we have produced, in our past and in our wake, not only a life, but a graveyard.
At 1:25 pm on Tuesday, July 22, 2014, my partner, the poet Dot Devota, and I visited the grave of Murasaki Shikibu, the novelist, diarist, and poet, who lived during the Heian Period in Kyoto, and is famous for writing what is considered the world’s first novel: Genji monogatari, or The Tale of Genji. Murasaki’s grave is at the end of a dead-end alleyway one block south of the Kitaoji-Horikawa intersection, in Kita Ward, Kyoto. Murasaki’s grave is—or was, when we visited—a large weed-covered mound of earth with a small stone at the head, a small stone at the base, and a white teacup filled to its lip with clear water, in which the leaves of a small tree were reflected. Someone had just been there. Someone had just filled the cup. There was a blue hose. And a faucet. Late July, it was hot. I envisioned Murasaki in the tree, drinking the water out of the air. The weeds, thickest over where I imagined Murasaki’s feet, had tiny white flowers.
The body reveals itself to be mysterious to itself as a structure within a structure, like a pond inside of a pond. In the sinuses flow one’s dreams as mucus, which, when inhaled, disperse into the mind as a light lifting off the frenetic behavior of the constituents who hold the world in transit.
Directly across the street from Murasaki’s grave is 7-Eleven. We stopped for onigiri and water.
There is a character in The Tale of Genji named Utsusemi, aka the Lady of the Cicada Shell. She appears early in the book. Genji spies on Utsusemi playing Go with another woman. Utsusemi does not return Genji’s interest. Sensing Genji’s presence, she flees from the room, but leaves her robe (in some translations, her scarf) behind, which Genji picks up, and takes back to his room, where he composes a poem: Beneath a tree, a cicada’s empty shell ...
I grew up with The Tale of Genji. When I was in elementary school, my mother was in undergraduate school, getting a Bachelor’s in Art History. When I was in middle school and high school, she was in graduate school, getting a Master’s in East Asian Studies. One day a shelf appeared above her desk, and on it, books by Japanese writers: Essays in Idleness, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, novels by Yasunari Kawabata, Kenzaburo Oe, Junichiro Tanizaki. I remember a hardcover edition of The Tale of Genji, with torn dust jacket.
Isn’t creation a response to what is felt to already exist, but as of yet without shape? Lady Murasaki Shikibu died one thousand years ago, although no one—or no one living—knows for sure.
Despite the clear water, and the water’s suggestion that someone was watching thoughtfully over the place, the grave, and its surroundings, felt neglected. The grass at one end of Murasaki’s grave was dead, there were ants on the mound, and termite tunnels along the edge of the grave, near a wall. How could a writer—a person—as illustrious and legendary as Lady Murasaki Shikibu be remembered by such a nondescript and weatherworn grave, I thought. But then I thought, what kind of grave would make more sense?
Does the grave of a writer have anything to do with the writer’s work? The grave feels, somehow, part of it—part of the body of work. How could it not? The body of work is complete and fully integrated when the body of the writer is dead and disintegrated, because it cannot, then, be more than it is, it cannot go any further. Is that true? If it is true, isn’t it also true that the body of work continues to proliferate? How so? It continues to transform, it continues to move in and out of various spheres of reading and response and translation, which are synonymous with enactment and commiseration and silence, transformation. More importantly—and maybe also more simply—the work, when complete, arrives posthumous, in that the writer has already left it. As it is, most of what I read feels, because it is reporting from a time that has already passed, like the afterlife.
Termes: woodworm, white ant. Terere: to rub, wear, erode. The gods, I thought—standing beside Murasaki’s grave—will know what it means to be sentient: to be neglected, forgettable.
We were staying in a tiny apartment near the Kamo River, not far from Murasaki’s grave. There was a tiny patio, on which lived a tiny praying mantis, and the praying mantis was purple. We rented electric bicycles, rode up and down the river. The bicycles did not move, or start up, by themselves, but once the pedals started turning, they generated momentum, and then it was like coasting on wind. The Kamo was lined with enormous trees. And in the trees were what sounded like eleven million cicadas. The cicadas were so loud, I thought the trees were going to lift off the ground, or explode.
But what do I mean when I say that maybe poets love cicadas because cicadas spend most of their lives underground? Is it that poets can relate to—or, more accurately, aspire to be—a creature that spends most of its life underground, only to emerge—with weeks left to go in its life—to climb a tree, shed its robes, and fly away to sing through its membranes? Are those final weeks the time of the poem? In other words, is the life leading up to those final weeks preparation for the time of the poem? In other words, is the life leading up to those final weeks not the time of the poem? Or is the life leading up to those final weeks the time of the poem? Is the sucking of tree roots, and the digging of tunnels and towers, the time of the poem? Is the transition between the years and the weeks the time of the poem? Is the final instar the time of the poem? Is the shedding of the exoskeleton the time of the poem? Is the entrusting of the ghostlike exoskeleton to the tree and flying away the time of the poem? Is the singing through membranes the time of the poem?
What is the time of the poem? A mother cicada lays her eggs in narrow holes in a tree. She cuts the tree with her saw-toothed ovipositor—a tubular appendage—then deposits hundreds of eggs.
Here are the notes immediately preceding the note in my notebook that says insects:
I am afraid that by the time I reach the end, or the beginning, of remembering, I will have forgotten everything. Unless the afterlife is the complete reconstitution of every fogged-over relic of experience into a single, unified museum of one’s life, when I reach it, if I reach it, I will have almost nothing to look back on. An empty museum though is nice. Even preferable?
As I write this, I feel very far away from myself. Like I have separated, and am looking back, across a divide I have not yet reached. It feels like a trick though, like writing is tricking me into a feeling of presence. Or maybe it is a bridge. Arched very high, a long way up, that is a circle.
Around the same time that a shelf of books by Japanese writers appeared above my mother’s desk, a framed print of a painting appeared on the wall: Shibata Zeshin’s Autumn Grasses in Moonlight. I remember, when I was young, going into my mother’s office, and looking—through the grass, through the moonlight—at the insects.
Seiju Omoda, Cicada (1930), Adachi Museum, Yasugi, Japan.
All the images of handwritten text are from my notebook, April-May 2020.
Chandra X-ray (NASA) image of the supernova remnant G299.2-2.9: nasa.gov/mission_pages/chandra/exploded-star-blooms-like-flower.html
Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi, in the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s production of Jeanne Sakata’s Hold These Truths.
Trees at the Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Site, August 2019.
Google Street view of the 7-Eleven across the street from Murasaki Shikibu’s grave.
Google Street view of the entrance to Murasaki’s grave.
Shibata Zeshin, Autumn Grasses in Moonlight, 1872, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.