When I was fifteen, Dad moved my sibs and I from the chilly West Coast to the hurricane belt—Grand Cayman Island. We spent six months living by the Caribbean Sea where Dad, bewigged and robed, practiced law in Paradise (thereby proving Law is not Demonology). Much of our routine turned upside down—living with Dad not Mum, eating sea turtle instead of hamburger, wearing conformist grey school uniforms instead of conformist blue jeans, snorkeling instead of skiing, and listening to steel bands, not rock bands. But going to Mass on Sunday was a constant. Though I rebelled a bit.
While the nuns lingered on the side chapel kneelers after Mass, venerating the Sacred Heart, and while Dad was drinking coffee in the hall with a bunch of ex-pats, I ducked out of the church and scaled the convent garden. I hoisted myself up the grandest mango tree in the sisters’ garden, reaching for a mellifluous fruit that pulsed in the Sunday light like an orange sacred heart. As I grasped it, a huge wasp burst out of the pulpy flesh, screeching like a Tomahawk missile. Its stinger plunged into the tender fuzzy skin above my upper lip. That piercing burned like a dentist’s drill. I tumbled out of the tree, and the fruit splattered against the grass.
I groped back over the wall and the pain gradually passed. But I woke in the middle of the night with a cheek torrid and swollen. My right eye was squeezed shut. Lurching out of my cot, I stumbled into Dad’s room. I flicked on the light. Dad made a choking sound. I staggered into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. The Elephant Man’s little brother, gaping and twisted, stared back at me.
I didn’t admit to Dad where and how the stinging happened. He still chastised me--for being so conceited, for being so wound up about my appearance. My penance would be going to school in spite of my disfigurement. On the long walk to class, hunched in an effort to disguise my maiming, I was in full-blown adolescent torment. Teen agony is skin deep. The teen face—all vanity.
But word travels and forks like tropical lightning on Cayman. By the time I passed by the cistern where all the Fifth Formers hung out before class started, word was I had been in a drag-it-out brawl down by the docks. I allowed the gross untruth to stand. There was no higher status in the school than that of a scrapper—someone ready to take and give a punch.
What should be the moral of this story? Blessed are the thieves? Or shame stings?
Stinging wasps have a bad rep in literature. In his tidy translation of the Iliad, Pope renders the Homeric simile:
As Wasps, provok’d by Children in their Play,
Pour from their Mansions by the broad High-way.
These Grecian insects are quick to muster and quick to anger. Just past the gate of Dante’s Hell, naked wretches are tortured by a horde of hornets. The Inferno is ablaze with crazed insects. John Gay’s wasp interrupts an Augustan lady’s mediations on her own beauty, her toilette quite disturbed. Soon a brazen swarm sips the sweet dew from her lip until she learns that these fliers have stings (“The Lady and the Wasp”). Anne Sexton had a horror of wasps. In “Hornet,” she warns that “he wants to leap into your body like a hammer.” Scottish poet George MacBeth calls these insects “droning bombers” and “a jam of striped fighters” (“The Wasps’ Nest”). Ogden Nash mistrusts their “waspitality” (“The Wasp”). Robert Frost notes how the hornet can with ease bypass defences and wound the poet “in the sneeze-nerve of a nostril” (“The White-tailed Hornet”) and elsewhere ironically enthuses how its “stinging quarters menacingly work” (“Waspish”). Darkly, Frost considers how comparisons with lower creatures such as the hornet diminishes humankind:
But once comparisons were yielded downward,
Once we began to see our images
Reflected in the mud and even dust,
‘Twas disillusion upon disillusion.
(“The White-tailed Hornet”)
Canadians are more tolerant. Patrick Lane embraces the mountain wasp’s beauty, “his petal shells/ of yellow and black” (“Prospector”). Another Canadian poet, Gwladys Downes, shows pity:
Yet the hurt from a desperate
wind-spun thing, caught on a skirt
carries no blame
(“On the Sundeck”)
Canadian poets are broad-minded, probably because our country has creatures more dire than wasps—grizzly bears, rabid bats, black widow spiders and telemarketers.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Raised on Vancouver Island, Dan MacIsaac is a third-generation lawyer and served for ten years as a director on the board of the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria. His poetry, verse translations, and fiction have appeared in a wide variety of literary journals and magazines. One of his stories was short-listed for the 2009 CBC Literary Awards, one of his poems received the 2014 Foley Prize from America Magazine, and another poem was short-listed for the 2015 Walrus Poetry Prize. He lives in Victoria. Cries from the Ark is his first poetry collection.