It was dark and I could hear the cicada out the window, where there is a lawn, several very large pine trees, and a pond, and it was going like crazy—dur-rip, dur-rip. Sometimes dur-rip-a-rip, but in no particular sequence. Mostly it was dur-rip, dur-rip, but piercing, as in the poem by Bashō that goes something like “Deep stillness: the voice of the cicada drills into the rocks.” I was feeling restless anyway so I went out into the dark and lay down on the lawn (which was wet and the air was cold) and found myself looking right into the eyes of a cicada that just kept at it, dur-rip, dur-rip, apparently indifferent to my presence. I said to it, trying to sound sociable without sounding needy, “Did you know that the poet Jim Tate died?” And the cicada said, “Can’t you see that I am trying to attract a mate? Would you please get the hell out of here.” And I said—I was a little hurt—“I thought you’d like to know.” The cicada said, you could almost hear it sighing or the circadian equivalent, “Was he a friend of yours or something?” And I said, “More a companion spirit than a friend. We were both poets. We crossed paths occasionally over the years. I admired his work. I think he liked me. Do you feel like you work beside other cicadas you respect?” And he said, beginning to be interested in the conversation (which I was grateful for), “Of course not. We compete relentlessly. What do you think I’m doing out here in the dark?” “But there must be some other cicadas whose style you admire. You know, you’re both out here working. You must find yourself thinking, ‘That dude is pretty good.’” The cicada said, “We would never call each other dude. That’s totally a human thing, and I need to get back to singing. You’re really getting in my kitchen here.” “Well, I can go back inside. I have a book of Jim Tate’s poems that was published after he died. They’re prose poems, mostly. Kind of odd little stories.” “Can you attract a mate with prose poems?” the cicada asked. I said, “Probably not.” “Well, that’s why I’m committed to the lyric. So, anyway, I’m going to make a joke, okay. Bug off.” And I said, “Well, let me just quote to you this one Japanese poem, okay. It’s pretty famous in the human world. It goes: ‘You’d never know / from the cicada’s cry / that it was going to die.’” I went back to my room, where all you could hear outside in the dark was dur-rip, dur-rip, but I was pretty used to it, and I picked up the book of Jim Tate’s last poems, The Government Lake, and began to read.
Robert Hass’s most recent books are What Light Can Do, a volume of essays, and The Apple Trees at Olema, selected poems. He teaches literature at the University of California at Berkeley.