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Yesterday afternoon, I rested a pair of scissors on top of one of my split rail fence posts while I was mulching. When I reached for it later, my hand fell on a cicada shell.

The screaming coming off the trees for the last week, I now realized, was late-summer cicadas.

I looked for a cicada poem, and here it is.



by John Blair

A youngest brother turns seventeen with a click as good as a roar,
finds the door and is gone.
You listen for that small sound, hear a memory.
The air-raid sirens howled of summer tornadoes, the sound

thrown back against the scattered thumbs
of grain silos and the open Oklahoma plains
like the warning wail of insects.
Repudiation is fast like a whirlwind.

Only children don’t know that all you live is leaving.
Yes, the first knowledge that counts is that everything stops.
Even in the bible-belt, second comings are promises
you never really believed;

so you turn and walk into the embrace of the world
as you would to a woman, an arrant
an orphic movement as shocking as the subtle
animal pulse of a flower opening, palm up.

We are all so helpless.
I can look at my wife’s full form now
and hope for children,
picture her figured by the weight of babies.

Only, it’s still so much like trying to find something
once lost. My brother felt the fullness of his years, the pull
in the gut that’s almost sickness. His white
smooth face is gone into living and fierce illusion,

a journey dissolute and as immutable
as the whining heat of summer.
Soon enough, too soon, momentum just isn’t enough.
Our tragedy is to live in a world

that doesn’t invite us back.
We slow, find ourselves sitting in a room that shifts so slightly
we can only imagine the difference.
I want to tell him to listen.

I want to tell him what it is to crave darkness,
to want to crawl headfirst into a dirt-warm womb
to sleep, to wait seventeen years,
to emerge again.


These are the seventeen-year ones, not this summer’s smaller emergence, and the poet uses their long underground life and the way, once they emerge, their wail can sound like a warning siren, to make a point about human life.

He begins with his memory of a younger brother who, having gestated for seventeen years, suddenly left home forever with a bang.

The “warning wail of insects” tells us that “repudiation is fast like a whirlwind.”


Meaning it’s pretty easy and exciting to ditch it all and with the fervor and disdain of youth do your own fine full life. When you’re that young you don’t see that “all you live is leaving.” Life is something we have to leave, and most of life – whether we dramatically repudiate or undramatically persist in it – is departure of one sort or another, the loss of this, the erosion of that.

Our experience of the passage of time deepens our tendency to be borne back ceaselessly into the past, since adult life moves toward deterioration and makes our youth seem an icon of wholeness.

The brother’s repudiation is therefore both “arrant” and “orphic” – extreme (plus, given the closeness of “errant,” in error), and mysterious, unaccountable.

Even obviously future-oriented thoughts – provoked, say, by looking at your pregnant wife – are “still so much like trying to find something / once lost.” Pregnant to bursting with his own future, the brother has broken through the door into – illusion, dissolution (things falls apart), the immutable truth of all lives. The drone of the cicada tolls this immutability: that we slow down, undone as much by the pull of mortality as by the impulse to disbelieve it.

So listen to the cicada; consider its incredibly patient rhythms, its relationship to darkness and light; hear it tell our fast fragile passage through existence. Seeing as “we are all so helpless,” adopt pity rather than disdain. Pity for everyone, including yourself.


The poem reminds me of Philip Larkin’s Poetry of Departures.


Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
As epitaph:
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off,

And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
Elemental move.

And they are right, I think.
We all hate home
And having to be there:
I detest my room,
It’s specially-chosen junk,
The good books, the good bed,
And my life, in perfect order:
So to hear it said

He walked out on the whole crowd
Leaves me flushed and stirred,
Like Then she undid her dress
Or Take that you bastard;
Surely I can, if he did?
And that helps me to stay
Sober and industrious.
But I’d go today,

Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in the fo’c’sle
Stubbly with goodness, if
It weren’t so artificial,
Such a deliberate step backwards
To create an object:
Books; china; a life
Reprehensibly perfect.


UD thanks John Blair for permission to reprint the poem, which appears in The Green Girls (LSU Press, 2003). His most recent book of poems is The Occasions of Paradise.

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2 Responses to “Cicada Poem for Late Summer”

  1. david foster Says:

    OT: Something you & others here might find interesting…thoughts re on-line education from professors Cliff Orwin and Paul Rahe, sparking an extensive discussion at Ricochet:


  2. University Diaries » A New Yorker Appreciation of Jack Gilbert… Says:

    […] I wrote about a cicada poem here, and the cicadas do the same thing in John Blair’s poem that they do here in Gilbert’s. […]

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