New verse by Wellington writer James Brown
Here, the cicadas sing like Christian women’s choirs
in a disused cotton mill.
‘Letter from the Estuary’ by Erik Kennedy
When I hear cicadas, their singing always reminds me of
Christian women’s choirs in a disused cotton mill.
I picture the conductor’s arms bent in supplication
as she tries to draw forth the correct ‘cicadian’ rhythm
from the collective gasp of Christian women.
Now her arms fall to her sides like the wings of a
cheap clockwork cicada made by Team Happy children
on a tymbal treadmill in China.
‘The acoustics are wrong,’ she says. ‘Perhaps
we need to try this someplace else. Yo,
what about that cotton mill down the road?’
So down the road the Christian women troop,
like a group of aspiring DJ cicadas in the flightless,
nymph stage of their life cycle, eager to graduate and
test their turntymbalist skills and scratching mettle
on some Technics SL1200 wheels of steel.
‘Yes, we should have thought of this. Thanks.’
The cotton mill’s machinery ums and errs
like a shift of red-eye cicadas banging their tymbals
against the thickness of two short planks.
The Christian women file out
across the thread-stretched floor and
over the road to a conveniently
disused cotton mill next door.
‘Hang on a minute. Just one
Christian women’s choir may be insufficiently strong.
These are cicadas we long to imitate. Let’s invite
some Baptist, Lutheran, and, maybe, Presbyterian
women to unite with us in song.’
And so it comes to pass that the massed tymbals of several
Christian women’s choirs fill the disused cotton mill
like a flock of rhetorical cicadas ascending Mt Improbable.
‘It’s nearly there, but … I’m sensing there may be
some among us who are questioning their faith.’
A small woman tymbals awkwardly, like a cicada nymph
trying to break out of its skin, and scuttles for freedom.
Then another woman stands and walks
calmly through the disabused cotton mill
like a Tibetan Buddhist cicada
shamelessly swinging her tymbal.
‘Now I’m getting a low note, a tone beneath
the vocal range of the common Christian woman
and, it goes without saying, the common chorus cicada.’
I raise my tymbal in public confession and remove my wimple.
Only male cicadas produce the distinctive cicada sound,
and only for courtship purposes, but this is hardly
a defence, nor does it prevent Christian women’s choirs
from uniting in innovative mimicry attempts.
So honesty and gender force me to
vacate this adventurous simile at the
crucial moment, unjust minutes before it
reaches its unique potential in a disused cotton mill,
where the Christian women’s choirs finally syncopate
their trilling ululations and handmade tymbal shakers
into rhythmic tonal twerks sounding not unlike
James Brown, 2018
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