The Deathwatch Beetle

A cardinal hurls itself
at my window all morning long,   
trying so hard to penetrate
its own reflection
I almost let it in myself,
though once I saw   
another red bird, crazed
by the walls of a room,   
spatter its feathers   
all over the house.

My whole childhood is coming apart,   
the last stitches
about to be ripped out
with your death,
and I will be left—ridiculous,
to write
condolence letters
to myself.

The deathwatch beetle
earned its name
not from its ugliness
or our terror
of insects
but simply because of the sound   
it makes, ticking.

When your spirit
perfects itself,
will it escape
out of a nostril,
or through the spiral
passage of an ear?
Or is it even now battering   
against your thin skull, wild   
to get through, blood brother   
to this crimson bird?

Linda Pastan, "The Deathwatch Beetle" from The Imperfect Paradise, published by W. W. Norton & Company. Copyright © 1988 by Linda Pastan. Permission granted by the author through the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, Inc.
Source: Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems 1968-1998 (W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 1998)

Writing Ideas

  1. Pastan’s poem takes inspiration from an actual insect—the deathwatch beetle is a woodboring beetle that makes a “ticking” sound to attract mates. Choose an insect whose common name interests or inspires you. Do some research and, like Pastan, make its habits and behaviors the center of a poem.
  2. Isolate the action verbs in each section—so in the first: hurls, penetrate, let in, saw, spatter. Either write a poem in which each line uses the same verbs, in the same order; or, do the same exercise, using antonyms.
  3. Take five to six notecards and write a few words on each. These could be nouns, verbs, descriptions. Try to use your surroundings for inspiration. Then shuffle the cards and lay them out. Like Pastan, try to build a poem from the new order. As you “fill in” your jottings on the cards, think about connecting the poem through sound, color, or mood, rather than chronology or semantic meaning.

Discussion Questions

  1. What role do birds and insects play in Pastan’s poem? Why might she choose these particular birds and insects in her meditation on the death of a family member? Research both deathwatch beetles and cardinals (birds that famously don’t migrate): how does knowing more about them help you think about the poem in new ways?
  2. In her poem guide, Aimee Nezhukumatatahil notes that the poem’s “crots” or fragments offer “no clear sense of chronology.” If not chronologically, how does time work in the poem? Think about how Pastan achieves the effect of non-chronological time through numbering, fragments, and tense.
  3. Print out the poem and mark all the words or syllables where you hear a heavy stress. What does the poem looked like scanned? How do sound and rhythm contribute to the mood of the poem?

Teaching Tips

  1. Pastan’s poem finds not just inspiration but analogue in insect and animal life. Use her poem as a springboard for discussing the role of animals, insects, birds, creatures, and nature or natural life in poetry. Ask students to research and find other poems that observe, suggest, or draw from nature or animal life. You might suggest the read some poems by Lorine Niedecker, Jack Collom, and Forrest Gander, or consider the work of Jonathan Skinner, founder of the journal ecopoetics. Perhaps lead a discussion on “nature poetry”: what it means to your class, what problems writing about nature might present, and how poets such as Skinner, Niedecker, Collom, and Gander think through issues around nature, landscape, animals, and ecology in their work. Ask your students to both expand and trouble their idea of “nature poetry” by having them consider the definition of ecopoetics. Perhaps guiding your students through the first writing idea above, have them write their own works of ecopoetical exploration.
  2. Pastan’s poem is a kind of pre-elegy: a poem directed to a “you” about to die. Ask your students to think about the role elegy has played in poetry. Try putting the poem in conversation with other elegies. Ask your class to generate kinds of speech acts or writing that celebrate and mourn the dead. What are the characteristic or conventional subject matters, tones, images, and rhetorical gestures in such writing? Gather, or have your class research, elegies through the ages. You might make a timeline of poems: beginning with Ovid and ending with Ted Berrigan’s “People Who Died” or Julian Talamantez Brolaski’s “elegy for kari edwards.” Think about how changes in language and conventions of grieving persist or change across the poems your class has collected. Do these elegies look or sound very different from one another? In what ways? If they also seem similar, discuss how and why. What does Pastan’s poem—as a pre-elegy—share or not share with the poems your students found?
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