Praying Mantis

One morning, a praying mantis appeared on Lisa’s hairbrush. When I touched it, it flew onto the wall, then to the mirror. I did not think a praying mantis could move so fast. I misunderstood its stillness.

We were house-sitting for a poet in Tucson, Arizona (Spring 2014). The poet’s cat, Stella, woke us up every morning with a sound between orgasm and vomiting. There was a small urn on top of the bookshelf. The urn held the ashes of the poet’s friend, a young man, also a poet, who died of cystic fibrosis. His two published books were on the shelf directly beneath the urn. The bookshelf was unsteady. The poet’s books and the urn seemed very distant, if not entirely disconnected, from each other. The urn, a taciturn idol on the unsteady shelf above the dead poet’s books, made a sad though unconsciously more honest altar. I had visions of the urn falling off and shattering, Stella licking up the ashes. I prepared rationalizations: would it be so tragic? The ashes would go on, would pass through Stella, the air, the roots of the mesquite outside, and continue to circulate, in less identifiable, however myriad, forms.

The house was south of a mountain, north of a lake populated by hundreds of black coots, and east of a dry riverbed and a prison. The Virgin of Guadalupe, standing in a small white alcove on the mountain, faced the cream-colored prison, which sat droning like a battery in the fork between dry riverbeds. She wore an eight-pointed crown, a robe with stars, a floral dress, and was supported by a winged infant. The alcove was draped with a wreath of pine and plastic flowers and silver beads and surrounded by rocks and dirt and pale-green cadaverous shrubs. The Virgin of Guadalupe, the Queen of Mexico, the Guardian Angel, held her hands in prayer. The solemnity of her glance and that she was pure white suggested she had outlived the time in which her prayers might have once been essential.

From the air, the prison was a crucifix. I looked up the names of the prisoners and found: Angel A-C, Angel R C, Angel M C, Angel E C, Angel E, Angel G, Angel A R, and Angel P R.

Notes from the Dead House, The House of the Dead, Memoirs from the House of the Dead.

The poet’s house was filled with books and art and photographs of family and friends and gifts from around the world, for which we were also sitting. They were not the body of the poet, but the poet making a body, for herself, memento mori: remember that you have to die, i.e. remember to die. We inhabited the body the poet was making for herself, cohabited with the objects she was writing into the narrative of her body.

Our next-door neighbor Donnie, an overweight man in his fifties with a thyroid condition, had two trees in his backyard that produced the most delicious grapefruits, but because of his thyroid, he could not eat them, so he gave the grapefruits to us. Lisa cut them in half and put them in bowls. I can still taste the fresh, bright, ephemeral suns.

There was a period of time during which whenever people asked me how I was doing, I answered by telling them that I had met a praying mantis. I referred to it as my friend. It possessed a lightness of being that made me think of a bridge, like something I wanted to ride. It was on the mirror and the wall, tiny Virgil on the threshold. The praying mantis looked like a carefully written letter wrapped tightly in grapefruit leaves. It returned in the days before we moved out of the poet’s house.

It has been happening a lot. We arrive somewhere or are about to leave, and a praying mantis appears. Not every time, but enough that I feel I am being followed. One way to describe it: depression. The appearance of the praying mantis, so subtle as to be very easily missed, turns my depression into a sequence that pursues me, to which I might begin to make myself available.

I am feeling low, I say.

My friend, I say, you’re back!

My. The feeling starts to turn. I begin to glow. Neither blushing nor proud, but caught in a column of watery air. Low, like under the valley. It starts in my throat and grows into a feeling that I can once again move. The column of watery air is maybe how a ghost feels in the presence of the living: aware of being the object of the living’s hallucination, or what the living think they are hallucinating. In some cases, yes, it is the praying mantis: hallucinating me, or encouraging me to step out of my column of watery air to join it in a moment lacking self-consciousness.

Went on a long walk yesterday to return the key to the house up the hill. There was a praying mantis on the front door of the house, next to the doorbell. I took it as a good faith sign. (July 20, 2016[1]). It happened again: Another praying mantis visited me. Or, I visited another praying mantis. This one was on the stairs of the elementary school. It was on the top stair. I was going to the bathroom. It was midnight. We were leaving the next day. It turned its head. Its eyes were black. (May 31, 2016[2]). The other night, a praying mantis landed on my knee. I was sitting outside by a fire pit. The fire pit was filled with leaves and pine needles. Something blurry approached, then clarified on my knee as a praying mantis. (October 4, 2015[3]). Praying mantis, I said, My sibling! (September 2, 2015[4]). We spent our last few days riding our bicycles around the city. Stared at the clouds and listened to the insects. Then, shortly before we left, an eggplant-colored praying mantis visited us in our apartment! (July 31, 2014[5]). Waved Goodbye to Japan this morning. There was a painting of a praying mantis in the stairwell of our guesthouse. (July 29, 2014[6]). The cicadas are bursting the skin of the trees along the Kamo River. I accidentally stepped on a cicada. I contemplated the mocking elixir of its iridescence. Then yesterday, a pale-purple praying mantis visited us in the apartment where we’re staying. Incarnating our bridge back to the desert. Where I left off: in love with a praying mantis in South Tucson. (July 27, 2014[7]). Now we’re on Naoshima, in the Inland Sea. Boarding a ferry in an hour to a smaller island. Museums and small houses reclaimed by meditative minds, wood-carved flowers and paintings of waterfalls, but the true saints are the insects and cats, the dead butterflies, the praying mantis on the rock. (July 15, 2014[8]). And did I mention the praying mantis I befriended before leaving the desert? I named it Thoreau, I think it was a girl. (July 8, 2014[9]). Today, down the slope from the corn and across the land bridge beside the pond, we saw half-a-dozen vultures circling directly above us. Directly BENEATH us was a single praying mantis. I felt, in that moment, like stained glass. (August 18, 2013[10]).

We rode bicycles along the overgrown banks of the Kamo River, Kita Ward, Kyoto (July 2014), past people walking and jogging, resting on wooden platforms in the weeds. A white heron staring into a small cascade made the river look fast. Cicadas in the trees were loud. The trees sounded like they were going to break, all the cicadas ignite. Then Keiko began to cry. We saw Keiko, an old family friend, three years in a row. Between the first and second year, she suffered a stroke. She was pressing a button on the microwave when she felt a tingling in her left arm. The tingling spread down the left side of her body. She waited seven hours until her husband got home. The doctor said if she had gotten herself to the hospital within three hours, she would have been okay. The third year, Keiko and her husband R took us to a bakery. I made these, she said, placing two small paper cranes on the table. She showed us her drawings: yellow snapdragons, purple irises, in shaky black outline on postcard-sized pieces of watercolor paper. After the bakery, we went to an open-air museum in which ludicrously oversized copies of famous paintings hung on enormous walls around a reflecting pool. The largest was Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment. Keiko, in her wheelchair, facing the order of saints and souls, their flesh pressing out of the radiant blue, said: In Buddhism there are six different hells. The second year, we visited Keiko on the fourth floor of the Kansai Rehabilitation Center. We brought her a large red apple. Her window looked onto the elevated tracks of the commuter train. We accompanied her to physical therapy. She walked slowly, with the help of a nurse, down the hall. Old women were sitting at a long table folding colorful paper into flowers.

The first year, R, who at the time worked for a company that oversaw eleven of Japan’s nuclear power plants, told us about how, shortly after the explosion at Fukushima (March 3, 2011), he sent in a team of his employees to measure radiation. He echoed the mantra of resignation. We talked about the work being fatal, that he had sent his employees, in no simple manner of speaking, to their death. His uneasy smile evoked, for me, an unspoken acknowledgment of the limit of being born on this earth, and into the machinations of one’s fortuitous host. Only a few months had passed.

People who lived in the Tohoku region told stories of seeing, at night, processions of people, neighbors and strangers, covered in mud, walking, flickering, past their windows. Some people, living, became possessed by the dead, humans and animals alike, to the terror of their families, who became afraid of the corrupted creatures before them. They sent their loved ones out of their houses, away to the mountains, to be exorcised. The Heart Sutra was intoned. Then the dead were drawn out through the tips of straining fingers.

When we returned to the tiny apartment where we were staying, we found a praying mantis on the patio. It was pale-purple with translucent skin, in the shadow of our towels drying on the line.

I was sitting on the shore of a lake beneath hundred year-old pine trees in a circle of dozens of young people whose names I never learned when a disembodied voice materialized out of the needles and asked: How was your experience? I turned to the young person next to me and whispered: How was your experience? The invitation to talk about my experience was not an invitation, but an accusation. It disarmed and frightened me. I was nullified. The young person next to me screwed up their face, like I had exhaled a terrible odor, then vanished.

The lake was behind me. I spent countless hours watching ovals of light traverse the white walls of a tiny room in our friends’ empty house in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia (Fall 2013). The lake was throwing ovals of light through a small window; the white sun moved across the lake on the walls. There was a woman on the ceiling. She was old, with long white hair. She was not related to the ovals of light, but a consequence of time passing. From the tiny room, horsetails spread dark grass on the water.

We lived for a week with the poet Eileen Myles and their pit bull Honey in a house in Marfa, Texas (September 2015). The house belonged to a woman we did not know. Eileen told us to look for the brie-colored house. Suddenly all the houses in Marfa looked like cheese. Eileen’s Chelsea Girls, out-of-print for a decade, had just been reissued. Their copies had just arrived. The cover is a photo of Eileen taken by Robert Mapplethorpe when Eileen was thirty. They told us how Mapplethorpe was laid back and gregarious, like a friend, at first, then how, when it came time to take their picture, he disappeared into emotionless instruction: Turn your head. Look at me. Look away. Turn your chin. Their eyes were glassy from being hung over. They look hung over, yes, but with none of the blur, the frayed edges. Their look is sharp. They are young, but it is the moment when one could say: no longer.

We asked Eileen to read to us. We had been traveling for a month—Kaohsiung to Taipei to Marfa to St. Louis to Portland, Oregon—and had returned to Marfa to live, and dog-sit Honey, in the house Eileen had just bought, but the house was not ready. We sat at the kitchen table. Eileen read Light Warrior: I see my existence as similar to that of a sundial’s when I simply stand, and slowly the notion of movement is suggesting itself to my consciousness and action is also appropriate in the realm of the saint, the character who begins her life in the windows of a church, in the religious air of her own imagination… As they read, a praying mantis appeared at the window screen. It was night. The contours of a pine tree were just visible. The praying mantis climbed through the screen onto the sill. Then, having gotten a good look at us, rose towards the bare light bulb, where it flew in circles, casting long, fleeting shadows on the ceiling. Then it flew into the other room. I found it on the curtain, but when I leaned closer to see its face, it rose again, this time into a slow arc, and, as if to testify upon the spirit, landed on the neck of young Clarice Lispector, staring up from the square coffee table.

A praying mantis is kin to the cockroach. It is the intimation of leaves and leeks and bamboo and good fortune. A threshold, not yet the abreaction of interior space. Between January and September 2015, we lived in seven different houses in Marfa, a town 1.6 square miles in size. I sat with friends before a fire and watched pollen transmogrify through the smoke into a praying mantis. It fluttered for a moment then landed on my knee. The loneliness of a pilgrim who has defected his community in favor of an unchaste relationship with a continuously shifting mirage, but I felt like it was I who was being hallucinated.

We are always arriving somewhere or are about to leave somewhere else. We spent a night in a guesthouse in Izumisano, Japan (July 2014). It was our last night in the country. At the top of the stairs was a painting of a praying mantis with two baby chickens. The praying mantis was small and looked like an ear of corn. The baby chickens were giants. They loomed over the praying mantis, yet looked more curious than hungry, while the praying mantis stared up at them, hard, like it wanted to spring up and kill them. I admired the praying mantis, but felt more like the chickens: unwieldy, uneducated, utterly without fate. I stood on the stairs. I felt like a shadow that antagonizes a painting into a state of hermetic self-protection. But the painting was ugly, an illustration. It was crooked. I lied on the floor of our room and watched the modest, workaday sounds of Izumisano move like waves across the old wooden ceiling.

There is a silent cordiality, always on the threshold of one brief phase of existence and another. It is a kind of friendship shared by strangers. It permits, without judgment, an idiot yearning.

I wrote a book about my dead grandfather. I wrote about how when he was young and disobeyed his grandmother, she sent himself outside to pull weeds. Then she made him take his shirt off and lie facedown on the wooden floor. She put the weeds on his back and set them on fire. He smelled the smoke above his head, I wrote, the impoverished incense of wood, burning hair, crushed grass, Yumi Taguchi’s knees.

The praying mantis was a sprite. I felt foolish for possessing the ability to speak in the company of this mute universe. But there is something obtuse bordering on idiotic about a saint that stands in doorways and startles whenever it is touched. Its stillness made peace with being on the threshold of nowhere. It was telling me of a simpler way, if only I could reduce myself and follow. But there was nowhere to go. If I narrowed my eyes, the light eggplant and green ear of corn possessed the predatory zeal of newly discovered planets. To what was I, am I, connecting my feeling of embodiment, friendship? If I stand very still and reduce myself, attempt to know and understand the excess, the measurability, of myself, I thought, I think, I might reduce myself to the diameter of a thorax, and return, like a vapor to a bottle, to the perfect inaccessibility of a mysteriously familiar body.

Mantis, in Greek, means prophet.

Let’s live in a cave, I said, one evening, to Lisa.

We’ll make a fire and the praying mantis’s shadow will be enormous on the wall.


[1] email to Karen McAlister Shimoda
[2] email to Lynn Xu
[3] email to Karena Youtz
[4] email to Lynn Xu
[5] email to Emmy Reis
[6] email to Joshua Edwards and Lynn Xu
[7] email to John Melillo, Johanna Skibsrud, and Joshua Marie Wilkinson
[8] email to Wong May
[9] email to Wong May
[10] email to John Melillo

Variable Planes of Motion

There are select moments in time, he thinks he hears someone say, where we can feel the breath of the earth’s soil. When the sulfur starts to fill the air and everything around you is thick as night.