Thursday, June 23, 2011

"What Good Is the Firefly"

or The Wonder and the Joy

We don't actually have fireflies in the western U.S.  My first encounter with them was at the age of 25, on a late summer trip to Ithaca, New York, driving at twilight over the back roads of the midwest.  After I had rhapsodized about them for a while to a friend from Ohio, she told me, "You're probably in more danger from them now then you would have been as a child."

Danger. I hadn't thought of them that way, but she was so right.  I was indeed in danger—of finding fireflies entrancing and magical, of losing sleep and getting mosquito-bitten for the pleasure of staying up late to enjoy the flickering lights, of being immersed in that ephemeral experience.  I suppose the alternative was to see fireflies as, well, insects, as normal summer pleasures/annoyances that—I don't know what for sure, never having seen them as normal—maybe keep you from sleeping well, or that make messes when they smash on your windshield.

All to say, a dear friend just sent me Ballistics, a book of Billy Collins' poetry (Gary, you are as ever a wonder and a joy), a lovely companion to summer evenings on the patio, with small thoughts that glimmer and spark before leaving you again in the half-light, aware of something else in the air beyond you.  In one of the poems, "No Things," Collins muses tongue in cheek on the martyr's impulse to pursue the big, dire questions in life rather than dive into small immediacies like the morning flower, the sparrow, the sugar bowl or the sugar spoon on the table—things that in the right frame of mind give rise to wonder, maybe even joy.

What good is the firefly,
the droplet running along the green leaf,
or even the bar of soap spinning around the bathtub

when ultimately we are meant to be
banging away on the mystery
as hard as we can and to hell with the neighbors?

At the risk of sounding self-serving, "No Things" gave voice to my approach in Microcosm, and I laughed aloud with delight when I read it, not because of the blog, but because it was such a pleasure to find a companion in thought.  Solemnly, dourly pursuing the "big questions" in the void of your own head—how can you know that any quest in such a closed world will lead you down the right road, or even a real one?  But if you stop to marvel at the small things that present themselves—really marvel—you might be surprised at how the "big" questions dissolve inside them.

So, more than most, this post is an ode to wonder, to small happenings, to oddities, to joy.  As Collins suggests in "Despair," the fraternal twin to "No Things," the "ancient Chinese poets" still have much to offer us, especially "Wa-Hoo, whose delight in the smallest things/could hardly be restrained,/and...his joyous counterpart in the western provinces,/Ye-Hah."

From the western provinces, amigos—yee-haw!

Do, do, do read Billy Collins.

I don't know if one of those disclaimer-y things is necessary here, but I'm really not officially reviewing these poems or anything—as I said, a friend sent them to me for my enjoyment, and I enjoyed them, and there you are.


  1. I love Billy Collins but haven't read that poem - I'm going to have to find it! Have you heard him read on Prairie Home Companion? One of the benefits of living in the South is being able to sit on the porch and watch fireflies in the summer. We called them lightning bugs when I was growing up. I wrote a post about them last summer a t
    I SO agree with you about marveling at the small things!

  2. I have not read Billy Collins...will have to check him out. I grew up in the south, and we took it for granted that the fireflies, a.k.a. lightening bugs, were there every summer.

  3. Dear Stacy,
    I am so glad I came to visit today as you are eloquently writing (as per usual) about two of my favorite loves. Fireflies dot the nighttime landscape here and yes to staying up too late with a few buzzing bites. They are pure magic but odd things are going on out there. Another mystery. Two species at play. Billy Collins is a master of seeing into the core of life . . . and a great reader too. It is a joy to hear him read his poetry. This post is why I love your blog and your way of seeing and feeling . . . being and realizing. Your writing is inspiring too. Thank you! Carol

  4. Lovely and perfect -- "But if you stop to marvel at the small things that present themselves—really marvel—you might be surprised at how the "big" questions dissolve inside them."

    I'm gonna be very self-centered and give you one of my poems from my forthcoming book. Feel free to hate me for doing this, but I feel a like mind in your post:

    July, Just Outside of Columbus, OH

    The fireflies are hovering over corn,
    young fields darkened by maple shadows swept
    across the dusk line. Beetle bodies pulse,
    bright chemicals like breath released
    into the body light the ground ahead,
    as if a thousand searchlights were adrift.

    Males are calling, their incandescent lust
    an impatient spark, the female’s waiting glow
    a calm amongst this storm that binds desire
    to action. Windows hover like dim suns while,
    just fifty feet away, the fireflies are

    like pens on paper, brief calligraphy
    transposed to translucent night. Their body-light
    a memory ongoing, dream of purpose
    blown down to grass, then lifted up as if
    a speckled hand were rising from the waters,

    reformed like polished diamonds, cool and warm against our momentary senses. How many
    suns will rise and set on this frenzied hour,
    work that the body needs between lost moments;
    a bloodless still life when we clearly see
    one-hundred lifetimes asking questions when

    our mouths should have been more pensive, full
    with speaking this silence—not ours, not theirs—but meeting at a time and place where neither
    are gods or creatures, one and the same light,
    because we need the dark to find our way.

  5. Beautiful. I especially like the part about when we focus on the wonder of the little things, the big things in life take care of themselves.

    Very enlightening!


  6. Stacy - Whenever I read your posts especially your more pensive ones, I start off reading in an English accent (in my head) then I realise it should probably be American, but I can't fit an American accent to the words. Have you ever thought of doing a voice-over? (I would never do it myself, so it's probably not fair to ask!) ... I also appreciate the smaller things. I think people latch onto this, especially salesmen, who never take me seriously.

  7. b_a_g has a point. A voice over? I was intrigued and disconcerted to find a voice over for the poem I used today. It is like hearing Dylan Thomas read Under Milk Wood.

  8. I don't know where to start. I've been watching fireflies in the garden this week and marveling at the mystery of their light signals, flashing green in the dusk. As a person who used to get lost (and despairing) over the big questions, I experienced the grace of realizing that God's presence is most accessible in the small things in nature, the fireflies, if only we slow down and open ourselves to the experience.

    Beautiful poem by Billy Collins. And I loved the one Benjamin Vogt shared. Thank you so much for a post that I will want to return to!

  9. I, too, still glory in the sight of fireflies. I can remember summer evenings in childhood when we would try to catch them in glass jars. Now I just lie in my bed on warm summer nights and happily give up sleep to watch them flash their lights in the few hours of real dark. -Jean

  10. Ginny, I haven't caught Billy Collins on PHC before but could see how that would be a great match. Does the sly, folksy kind of wit in his poems come across in person, too? As a child I always envied people who lived in places with lightning bugs—it's nice to know they're harmless and can be enjoyed without reservation. Your post captures all those magical childhood memories of summer so well!

    Sage Butterfly, I've just discovered Billy Collins myself, thanks to this friend. He's one of those writers you actually enjoy spending time with, if that makes sense—the tone of the poems makes you feel like you'd have fun talking to him over coffee. I don't know why that should matter, but the world of ideas often strikes me as cold, so it's a pleasure to find some you want to make friends with.

    Carol, thank you so much! It's been lovely to see in the comments how many people do get caught up in those ethereal lights and look forward to them as one of the hallmarks of summer. I can almost picture Flower Hill Farm alight with them, as beautiful at night as it is during the day. I'll have to find some recordings of Billy Collins reading his poems—you and Ginny have made me want to discover more.

  11. Benjamin, it's hard to hate a poet for writing poetry, really. Thank you for including this one, with its mixture of urgency and...hmm...not quite sure how to say it—the calmness of life, in its largest sense, carrying on? I love the last quatrain—“our mouths should have been more pensive, full/with speaking this silence..../because we need the dark to find our way.” It's very Quakerly in all the best ways.

    Elaine, thank you—I've been thinking about you and hope you are well at heart.

    b-a-g, hmm. Thanks for the suggestion—it's an intriguing one—but I think I'd feel way too self-indulgent, like I've become overly fond of the sound of my own voice or something. When I write I suspect that my American accent gets filtered through all the Georgette Heyer and Dorothy Sayers novels I've read over the years... Salesmen are a breed apart. It's really a compliment (though a nuisance) when they don't take you seriously.

  12. Diana, poems are so full of play that I find recordings of them like listening to different versions of an orchestral piece—so many different facets come out than you might have expected. And sometimes you discover that the composer/poet isn't necessarily the best interpreter of his/her own work—Copland didn't conduct his music nearly as well as Bernstein did...

    Sheila, I'm so glad you found this one meaningful. I'm afraid I've always been more like Snoopy doing his happy dance while Lucy tries to drum into his head how serious the world is, and have always felt I should be “deeper.” Noticing and reveling in the small things in nature seems to be a (lovely) happy medium between the two.

    Jean, as I was saying to Ginny, I was incredibly envious of children like you when I was a child! Catching fireflies and going to the seaside were two experiences that children in books always got to enjoy and that westerners just didn't. It's been really lovely to see that people don't all get jaded to them as they grow up but still glory in them, as you say. The fireflies will be a wonderful adornment to your new Serenity Garden, once it's past the “infrastructure” phase.

  13. I recently rediscovered the wonders of the firefly...this summer they are lighting up the dusk and night like twinkling lights or stars fallen to earth...what a joy to chase and capture them for a short watch them light up....I will definitely check out this author...the delight of life is in the small things...