Requiem in the Key of Bees, a Cento

taken from Virgil

The signs of it in the bees, without any doubt
nearer and nearer. Mother, let me take you
to blow across the deep in hurricane,
flash on flash from heaven. Every sign
easy to see because from a single root:
Life brings sickness with it. You can see
one certain lust drives every creature
eating its way as it burns inside a furnace,
leaving me weeping, with so much still to say.
Could any star rise at night, single and marvelous
or sing what I, in silence, had picked up from you.
Sing as we walk—it makes the trip less painful.
It’s true for bees as it is for human beings.

Centos are like a quilt, my mentor told me—you find the used fabric in other people’s poems and then you stitch it together to make it new. The lines I gathered here from various Virgil works have different weaves and textures from their various translators. Yet when stitched together, the fragments form a new whole—much the way a wound might heal when stitched together, with new implications forming an interconnective tissue that bridges the pieces that have been brought together. Little is known about the actual life of the Roman poet, but his work bears witness to much war and destruction of the land; some of it in an apocalyptic tone. There’s much in the world and its current climate that feels that way to me right now. The tenuous existence of bees, the busy pollinators who do so much to hold our food system together, often seems a portent to me. Who knows if they buzz to comfort one another? I know that as long as I can hear that buzz, it will be a comfort to me. A sign that not all is lost—a sound that tells me there are still enough scraps left to stitch together a new whole, to begin to heal this planet.

The End of Night

For you fleas too
the nights must be long,
they must be lonely.

For the fire ant, the sun is a large coal; for
you it is a slow sentence. And looking up the
fleas can guess the weight of the moon, stars
too if you asked, far more accurately than you,
the isolated animal. The questions you ask
nights and cockroaches go unanswered, but you
must know, it’s only because you never ask of
be and us, instead always asking why and how
long, as if the planets held only reasons and
they kept time in countable grains. Sit, if you
must, on your antsy feet. Say with the silverfish:
be, be, be. Watch the night end without saying
lonely. And when the sun burns again, say we.

This poem came from a conversation with a friend. We were both mourning the disintegration of “us,” how isolated and selfish much of our civic and personal discourse had become. Our inability to value or even acknowledge others, as a society, seems to go hand in hand with our inability to value or even acknowledge the environment around us or the damage we seem so willing to do to it. When I came across Issa’s haiku, the interspecies empathy radiated off the page and I immediately wanted to dialog with the poem. How had we lost our capacity for empathy with each other as humans, never mind our empathy with the “fleas”? The form is one I believe Richard Garcia made up, something he calls a “haiku acrostic.” Each word of the original haiku becomes the first word of the line down the left hand margin. As I wrote, I used the new poem to dig into my question. In a world of isolated “I’s” taking their pain out on the world around them, I believe that Issa’s empathy holds a beginning toward healing—both for humans and the world around them. It starts with the realization that in the “slow sentence” we’re under as a planet, humans and non-humans are in this together.

About the Author

Erica Charis-Molling is a creative writing instructor for Berklee Online and was the Eco-Justice Anthology Support Intern for Split This Rock. Her writing has been published in Crab Fat, Broad!, Anchor, Vinyl, Entropy, Mezzo Cammin, and Apricity. An alum of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, she is currently pursuing her M.F.A. in Creative Writing at Antioch University. More of her work, both published and performed, can be found on her blog:

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