April is the Cruelest Month: A Poem by Darcy Cummings "Insect Song for a Fortieth Anniversary"

By Ryan Latini

Let’s finish T.S. Eliot’s opening lines of The Wasteland:  “April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.”  For the speaker in Eliot’s poem, there is cruelty in the hope of spring—the hope in a spring rain that will quench the dry and rattling wasteland. 

Why is hope cruel?  Are we just trying to be brooding in hip rebellion against the beautiful and beatified rebirth of spring?  Hope, for Eliot, seems to be cruel if it goes on unrequited by our fellows and unanswered by…by whatever, whoever—who knows?  The thunder and lightning in the end of The Wasteland seem to articulate the need for rain, but is the light and noise a promise of quenching rain, or “aethereal rumours”?  Is the season talking the talk, or will it walk the walk?

This month’s archival revisit looks at Darcy Cummings’ poem, “Insect Song for a Fortieth Anniversary.”  Cummings opens with, “What hums in you sounds / the ground note of our connection.” 

The humming of life—it’s coming.  That timpani roll of crickets, locusts, and buzzing gnats that swells in the late spring and summer twilights.  But there is a stronger buzz that exists between us, and Darcy Cummings captures it in her poem.

If we believe, like Darwin, that everything which exists has evolved out of its usefulness, then what is that humming between us—that humming we feel when we connect with someone: is it love, empathy, humanity?

Upon first reading, Cummings’ poem could be misconstrued as a love poem.  There is, however, a more universal beat and a more cosmic question beyond love: the hum of life.

She ends with a thirteen line hypothetical (called modus tollens in propositional logic—if p, then q): 

The premise:  “And if that same C, the one note / obbligato, plucks our tendons, / like a mosquito whining in the eye, / or like the grind and groaning of desire.” 

The implication: […] then, / when our empty jaws are filled with sand, / that infinite electrical note shall / still sound between us, / […] what hums in us.” 

My conclusion: we are not the players; rather, we are instruments.  Nature plucks us—mere vehicles for the notes.  If this conclusion robs the scientists too much of free will, or if you think I am playing to the theists in metaphor, then what of string theory—what of the vibrating membrane of space, time, and the quantum world?  What of the hum of atoms and the charged exchanges of subatomic particles?  What of the sinoatrial node in the right atrium of our hearts that uses our body’s electricity to control the beat of our hearts?

I am not here to argue the identity of the player, just urging you to appreciate the humming around you and inside you this coming spring.  Think of it as music appreciation.  Think of Cummings’ poem as the syllabus.

Unlike T.S. Eliot who leaves us hanging in The Wasteland with the potential for unfulfilled hope, Cummings tells us not to fret, gives us comfort in the “constant regeneration” of “maggot, / to chrysid, to jewel-scaled moth”, and the fact that the beat goes on.

The hope for Cummings’, I believe, is that we are plucked for a time and when the instrument warps, breaks a string, or is smashed onstage by the Musician, our notes echo on.  That is the hope.

So let’s view Cummings’ humming hope in Darwinian terms: it has evolved out of usefulness.  Why?  So when faced with unreciprocated hope, as in Eliot’s Wasteland, we persevere because, as Cummings’ says, “when our empty jaws are filled with sand, / that infinite electrical note shall / still sound between us.”

This “electrical note”, to use Cumming’s words, is “obbligato”—the notes must be played exactly as written or molecular bonds fall apart, the world as we know it crumbles, the sinoatrial node stops pumping blood, you lose focus on your computer screen as it flies apart across the cosmos, and everything fades to black.