I was doing something perfectly domestic yesterday—possibly the dishes—when suddenly I heard Margaret Atwood’s voice on the radio reading a sexy poem about cicadas. Atwood is roughly of an age and class and place with my late mother and her sisters—all of whom have left this vale of clamor for the great lakeside dock in the sky—so it is always a strange and lovely surprise to hear her voice, echoing as it does the matriarchy of my own family. Atwood, as my aunts did, also seems to delight in shocking those around her with the kind of earthy candor borne of proximity to the Canadian bush. And make no mistake, this is an earthy, sexy poem.
This clip first appeared on November 13, 2020, shortly after the release of Atwood’s first poetry collection in years, Dearly, but it was re-aired yesterday, as cicada Brood X wakes up all over the eastern seaboard. So now seems the perfect time for a close-reading of Margaret Atwood’s sexy cicada poem. (And no, one need not be a semiotician to sort through this.)
“Finally, after nine years of snouting through darkness.”
Cicadas don’t really have snouts (they’re little snub-nosed things) but the image of an elongated nose moving into darkness… Yes, that is sex.
“he inches up scarred bark and cuts loose the yammer of desire”
“Yammer” is not a sexy word (do not yammer during sex, please), but the implied unsheathing here is undeniable; and “cutting loose” in this context has a wild and impulsive connotation.
“the piercing one note of a jackhammer vibrating like a slow bolt of lightning,”
Ok that’s just fucking and then an orgasm.
“splitting the air and leaving a smell like burnt tar paper.”
Who among us has not begun a romantic evening with all kinds of candles in the room but then lost track of things because the sex is good and suddenly something’s on fire? (Also, “splitting.”)
“Now, it says. Now, it says, now, clinging with six clawed legs.”
Obvious echoes of Molly Bloom = super-sexy. Obvious echoes of Gregor Samsa = less sexy.
“And close by, a she like a withered ear, a shed leaf brown and veined shivers in sync and moves closer.”
Ok, if the unsheathed male cicada is most certainly a penis, then by implication what we have here, friends, is a vagina (though “veined” ever-so-slightly confuses the image).
“This is it. Time is short. Death is near.”
You’re fucking right it is. Everyone have sex! (Also, can this be the motto of post-pandemic summer 2021?)
“But first, first, first, first in the hot sun, searing all day long in a month that has no name”
I love the rhythm of this line, how it calls back to the climaxing build of “Now, it says. Now, it says, now…”, and how it evokes the way that sex can be a blissful annihilation of both time and language.
“this annoying noise of love, this maddening racket, this admitted song.”
Look, we’ve all had to listen to other people having sex, which can be embarrassing, arousing, sweet, and terrible, all at once. But in the end, isn’t it kind of joyous?
So thank you, NPR, for re-airing this poem, and thank you, Margaret Atwood, for being one of my honorary aunts, always ready to cackle in delight at this rich, coarse, and beautiful world.