"Natural Theology"

Article excerpt

Every spring, the same determined caravan - line after line of house ants, scrambling up brick walls, slipping under windowsills to forage the unforgiving kitchen - hands too ready to smash them, countertops washed clean, over and over, of all enticing sweetmeats but their invisible trails. So little to justify their annual pilgrimage - animal faith, animal hope - nevertheless, they come back each year for the overlooked bread crumb; a savory sprig of chicken left in the Boraxed sink; a drop of apple juice, barely visible on the white Formica. So little to take away for their persistence - yet they never fail to arrive, supremely devoted to their all-but-futile quest. Once, I found a bit of wood dust tucked in the narrow of Formica that separates the backsplash wall from the countertop stove. On the ribbon of paneling between the backsplash and low-slung microwave above, Fd hung great-grandmother's china-handled, wooden salad fork and spoon. And her oak-spindled, earthenware rolling pin - All at once spilling over with ants, a river of ants . . . Had their hunger somehow led them through the half-moon gap between the rolling pin's clay body and hardwood axis to find inside it, after all this time, some measure of the bread of life? Reluctantly, I washed them out. And rehung the rolling pin and salad set far away, high up on three nails, on a wall this side of where our April rituals cross.

By Susan Militzer Luther

The entries for this "Spring Is in the Air" issue, not surprisingly, tended to center on renewal and awakening, on the season's potential for thaw and bloom. Many poems addressed literal plantings, whether of field or garden. Others focused on symbolic ones, such as the metaphorical growth that occurs within the classroom, leading to spring graduation.

The best works recognized as well the shadow side inherent in these themes. The most resonant pieces came from the winner and runner-up, for whom spring's annual rebirth evokes fragility and transience not just of flora, but of all life and enterprise, even language itself. Each poem acknowledges in its own way the necessity of loss at the heart of even the most joyful change.

Runner-up Rob Griffith, in his sonnet "Another Birthday Poem," available online, writes that "neither snow nor poems can hold the grief/ Of change, or halt the robin's clear cry," noting that a "winter coup" is inevitable; time cannot be stopped. While the annual rite - here a birthday and the coming of spring - is cause for celebration, it also serves as memento mori: another year has passed, and will not return.

Susan Militzer Luther's winning poem, "Natural Theology," also offers both jubilation and lament in observing the perseverance of what the speaker calls "animal faith": the doomed "annual pilgrimage" of a seasonal invasion of ants into a kitchen scrubbed clean. Her compassionate speculation about the hunger that drives these insects, this "determined caravan," to spill even through her great-grandmother's rolling pin leads her - and us - to recognize a kinship with these tiny, resolute seekers of "the bread of life," even though she quashes them. …