Literature to Kill Wasps (from Yes, Poetry)
is all I shall carry from now on
chapters to crush unthorned
antlers searching for a sting
I use my fist, pounding pages
as characters look up to say
“come in” at wrong moments
wasp jam to stain the page
where finally we learn the voice
unreliable as pound-shop repellent
and consider all that’s gone before
in new colours, black words
across hi-vis yellow vests
with danger and authority
Reading is dangerous, especially if you’re a wasp. According to the poem, we wasps have to worry about frustrated literati using books to crush us. A record of kills is even maintained through splattered yellow upon the pages.
Maybe reading is dangerous for more than wasps, though. What is reading, anyway? The poem begins by declaring “Literature to kill wasps is all I shall carry from now on.” Our speaker doesn’t say she plans to do any reading. Her resolution makes me wonder if there is such a thing as reading in some pure sense, whether it is possible to do anything with literature other than kill wasps. To be clear, I think many of us have an idealized image of a reader, one who sits for hours in dialogue with the author of a work, carefully teasing out her logic, appreciating her art, bringing as much knowledge as we can to her work. We have that image, and then we have real life: a million and one distractions attend us, distractions like wasps.
If we follow this line of thought, what exactly is dangerous about reading? The image of the ideal reader? Wasps and wasp-like distractions? Something else entirely? The wasps have their “unthorned antlers searching for a sting,” but chapters in conjunction with fists crush them. Killing wasps, who are not presented to us as terribly dangerous, distorts the text of the book at the very moment the book comes alive. Characters say “come in,” inviting the reader, inviting the wasp, only to have wasp jam smeared all over their speeches and doings. You can see why I’m playing with the idea that wasps are distractions. They literally are, and they are invaluable to reading. It’s like there is no such thing as focus. There’s only being distracted in a way that you’re aware you’re distracted, or being completely unaware that you’re not even remotely on task.
So it seems what’s dangerous about reading is that it kills us wasps. We’re only as good as our distractions, our efforts to read. We started with our fists, crushing wasps between pages, then noticed that we were throwing splattered bugs upon defined, innocent characters. Reading should be dangerous. This, for lack of a better word, “process” brings us to a voice we learn, “unreliable as pound-shop repellent,” yet necessary for life. That voice is part of our considering “all that’s gone before in new colors.” Reading is distracted, fragmented, perspectival. The black words of literature still show through the yellow – there’s a basis for a more common understanding – but the “danger and authority” of those words lies in our bug smashing escapade. We overcome our distractions and upon reflection find them weirdly defining.