- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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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Linda Pastan: “The Deathwatch Beetle”
Growing up on the grounds of a mental institution in rural western New York (my mother was a psychiatrist there), I did what any insouciant preteen with a penchant for reading would do when told she could not go trick-or-treating with her friends: I sequestered myself in my bedroom on Halloween night and read Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” This short but terrifying story, in which a murderer insists on his sanity, fascinated me. But I remember being mesmerized not by the grisly deeds themselves, but by the strange description of the ticking sounds Poe describes in the story. I kept coming back to the mention of the bizarre little insects, or “death watches,” that the narrator says he has heard tapping within the walls of his own bedroom, as he describes the rapt attention with which the old man himself now listens in the night:
I had my head in, and was about to open the lantern, when my thumb slipped upon the tin fastening, and the old man sprang up in bed, crying out—“Who's there?” I kept quite still and said nothing. For a whole hour I did not move a muscle, and in the meantime I did not hear him lie down. He was still sitting up in the bed, listening;—just as I have done, night after night, hearkening to the death watches in the wall.
Linda Pastan’s poem “The Deathwatch Beetle” explores the trappings of another impending death. This one, however, is spoken of with reverence and lamentation by a speaker who bitterly notes, “My whole childhood is coming apart . . . and I will be left—ridiculous, / to write / condolence letters / to myself.” The poem is divided into four crots, or fragments that move quickly between points of view. Even though these crots are numbered, there is no clear sense of chronology. In a poem about the imminent death of a loved one, the form itself is a subtle metaphor for the speaker’s desire to make time stand still or, at the very least, delay it just a bit longer.
As a result, “The Deathwatch Beetle” reads slowly, often maddeningly so. It’s as if the speaker can hear the beetle’s clicking sounds throughout each sequence and, much like the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” starts to go crazy with grief and anguish in the looming presence of death. Pastan sets this tone in the first suite, when a bird appears to go mad:
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.
To slow the poem’s pace, Pastan uses short and clipped lines throughout, often breaking them on brutal verbs: penetrate, ripped out, and escape. Her staccato style echoes the deathwatch beetle’s tapping. Second only to the termite in its ability to damage wood, the deathwatch beetle is about as long as a single grain of basmati rice, and its clicking noise was once rumored to be the very sound of the grim reaper himself. Legend says that the tapping sound was his vigil in the quiet rooms of the dying—his thin fingers impatiently tapping the walls or doorway of the house, expectantly waiting for his newest charge.
Pastan’s poem concludes with supposition, posing delicate questions of mortality and spirituality:
When your spirit
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?
The entire sequence itself shows a sort of fragmentation of the body; for example, the cardinal’s feathers are scattered throughout the poem. The speaker seems to gain some semblance of control and perhaps even consolation over the beloved’s impending death by shifting the focus to individual pieces of the body that rend forth: blood, skull, ear, nostril. It’s as if these parts of the body harbor a certain power over the speaker in ways that even the whole body does not.
Entomologists now know that the creepy sound heard in “The Tell-Tale Heart” (like a “low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton”) is similar to the sound that a deathwatch beetle makes when it knocks the front of its head against the wooden floor of its tunnel to attract a mate—hardly the harbinger of death. In Pastan’s poem, that sound is also the speaker’s farewell to the body. The tapping sound that echoes throughout is created by the head and, tellingly so, not the heart. The “spirit” that is perfecting itself might be planning a most elegant departure from the body, or at least a memorably fierce good-bye.
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Poet Linda Pastan was raised in New York City but has lived for most of her life in Potomac, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC. In her senior year at Radcliffe College, Pastan won the Mademoiselle poetry prize (Sylvia Plath was the runner-up). Immediately following graduation, however, she decided to give up writing poetry in order to concentrate on raising her family. After ten years at home, her husband urged her to return to poetry. Since the early 1970s, Pastan has produced quiet lyrics that focus on themes like marriage, parenting, and grief. She is interested in the anxieties that exist under the surface of everyday life.
Pastan's many awards include the Dylan Thomas award, a Pushcart Prize, the Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry, the Poetry Society of America's Alice Fay di Castagnola Award, and the Ruth Lily Poetry Prize, in 2003. Pastan served as Poet Laureate of Maryland from 1991...
Poems By Linda Pastan
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