Poem of the Week - 'As Wasps Fly Upwards' by Judith Beveridge (2015 Peter Porter Poetry Prize Winner)

Australian Book Review
Published in May 2015, no. 371

Our sixth 'Poem of the Week' is 'As Wasps Fly Upwards' by Judith Beveridge. ABR's Poetry Editor, Lisa Gorton, introduces Judith who then discusses and reads her poem. 'As Wasps Fly Upwards' won the 2015 Peter Porter Poetry Prize and was published in the May issue of Australian Book Review.


 

 

As Wasps Fly Upwards

I’m walking home in the dying light of a summer’s day.
I do not know that within the minute
a tiny beetle will veer into my left eye,
its blade-like parts meant for slicing plant tissue,
slicing my cornea.
I do not know that within an hour
my eye will feel as though it has undergone a corneal graft
with razor blades, burning match heads
and acid rinses – Christmas eye, a doctor will call it.

I’m remembering this
because I’m reading about entomologist Justin Schmidt,
who once clung to a tree
suspended over a Costa Rican gorge
while enraged wasps squirted venom into his eyes;
a man stung by more winged insects than anyone,
who has classified all the piercing, irreverent,
bold, electric, smoky aches down to precise
decimal gradations
on a five-point Sting Pain Index.
I’ve also been reading a study that describes how Catholics
feel the ferocity of pain ease
if they contemplate images of Mary;
atheists if they watch documentaries
featuring David Attenborough – so I wonder,
when Schmidt steps on a nest of red harvester ants
and pain shoots like mordant dye through his body,
what angelic or analgesic image does he conjure
to demobilise the piercing, crunching agony;
or can he just sigh
and look into the distance and let his mind find relief
in the palliative cotton of wind-blown clouds?

I recall, once or twice in childhood, the pencil-point pressure
of a fang shooting an aggregation
of misery along my arm
as a spider discharged its voltage before dropping from my wrist
like decommissioned fuse wire.
And then there are the pangs that spasmodically flare
along the nerves on the underside of my upper right arm –
and I wonder if this is like the pain
Schmidt feels in his fingers
when digging up a colony of fire ants.

I remember, too, when an abundance of work and worry
has made my cranium feel as if it belonged
to a large-headed baby undergoing hours of obstructed labour.
Though perhaps if I’d been bitten by a bullet ant —
which Schmidt likens to fire-walking over flaming charcoal
with a three-inch rusty nail
grinding into your heel –   I might have a better point
of comparison and without hesitation
be grateful I’ve never had to invent a pain scale,
drawing and quartering metaphors for the way toxins
can burst open cellular membranes, or for the way
suffering can be internally transacted,
made dangerous and monstrous
by the fallacies of the self.

Sometimes I lie awake at night and remember
that death will come – perhaps, suddenly, from a tree
or an overhanging rock, or from a sliding shadow
in the grass; or from a knot of dark blood
bivouacking in my brain.
Or perhaps from a fever, my skin crawling
as though I were lying in the path of a horde of bull acacia ants;
or intense itching and burning as if I’d been
rubbed with a concoction of wasabi, hot mustard
and the necrotising venom of a white-tailed spider.
Or perhaps, just from a build-up over the years
of light, ephemeral stings –
barely noticed, no pain worth recording –
just a remote hum in a honey-vault of light
                                    then a smoky drifting away.

 

Judith Beveridge won the 2015 Peter Porter Poetry Prize. Her latest poetry publications are Devadatta’s Poems and Hook and Eye, which has just been published by George Braziller for the US market. She currently teaches creative writing at the University of Sydney and is the poetry editor for Meanjin.

Published in May 2015, no. 371