Photograph by Jason Edwards / National Geographic
This Is Not a Poem: Confession
I am afraid.
Of this page I keep staring at. Of these words crawling onto the page like a colony of ants.
I’m afraid of their power to save me or sink me.
I’m afraid of giving them that power, or taking it away, or pretending I have any say in the matter.
Earlier today, I decimated an ant infestation in our bathroom. My neighbors are renovating—have been renovating for a while now—so all kinds of critters make their way upward to safety, then into our apartment, through the tiny bathroom window: ants, silverfish, spiders (big, hairy, incredibly frightening).
I wrote ‘safety’ above and find that morbidly funny.
Some critters survive, but not many. We take turns with those we can trap—spiders, mainly. They get deported to the balcony in an upended glass. We watch them scurry away from behind closed doors. Everyone in my family has arachnophobia, but everyone has also read Charlotte’s Web. We don’t kill spiders. We can’t catch silverfish—like, ever. Ants, though? They die in droves.
I have no problem bringing down a giant index finger and grounding each one of them individually into dust. I’m angry when I do it: this inexplicable, visceral anger, as if my tiny enemy embodied everything that was wrong with the world. An ant’s death leaves an acidic smell on my skin, which I find exciting and repulsing at the same time. Perhaps repulsing because it’s exciting. Or vice versa? I wash my hand immediately to get the smell off, then regret washing my hand. Why? Something must be wrong with me to take pleasure in murder, no matter how insignificant the creature. And yet, if the ants keep coming, if chasing each one individually becomes overwhelming, I have no qualms spraying them with ant killer and watching them writhe in agony, even though I can’t stand the smell of ant killer. It’s like watching a horror movie, though you’d rather crawl under the blankets. What am I steeling myself for? Writing?
It’s hard not to feel god-like in moments like these. The fate of something alive is in my hands. I could share my living space with it, but choose not to. What would you do?
The guilt comes later.
These are the same ants whose anthills I marvel at in the woods: hard-working folks, carrying 5000 times their own weight, living in complex communities, working toward a common goal, dividing their labor, communicating as if one mind inhabited them all. I’m in awe of ants—there, in the woods.
Some wars begin when someone we remotely admire, maybe even idolize, dares invade our home. Our thoughts. Our peace. Too often, the intruders don’t even know they are intruding. Or that they are about to reap the spoils. Or have their heads ripped off. Our mind does all the work for them. What they would say. How they would act. What they would give us. What they would take. The fact that they might acknowledge us fills us with hope. Then we’re ashamed of ever desiring to be acknowledged, accepted, treated as an equal.
Before this becomes too vague, let me go back to the ants. They are the reason I’m writing this morning, after five days of silence, five days of struggling to put something down on paper, anything. I’m going through a post-NaPoWriMo letdown. My fear tells me I’ll never write again. Not one single poem. I tell her, “You’re crazy.” She says, “You’ll see.”
I really don’t want to see that happen. Or not happen, I guess.
A few days ago, I found out that two of my poems have been accepted by a literary magazine. It was a joyful day in my household. I took myself seriously for one whole hour. OK, a couple of hours. Then, this inexplicable fear of never being able to write again. Of being ashamed of daring to think of myself as a writer, anything close to a writer.
Hence, the ants. Their sacrifice—one I’m sure they wouldn’t have chosen, had I asked.
Or maybe they would have. Maybe they would have crawled into my palm and collectively decided to fast until death transmuted them into something ideal—into words, perhaps.
I did their work for them. I took away their choice. I took their deaths in. Now, I watch them scurry across the screen, colonizing this page, building their little community, feeding me to their young.
It’s how things should be—the giving, the taking, the dying, the feeding yourself to others. The forgiving yourself for hurting someone. The forgiving someone for hurting you.
This is not a poem. But, for now, I’m at peace.