Potcake Poet’s Choice: Martin Elster, ‘The Woolly Bear’

Along a sylvan lane, you spy a critter
creeping with a mission, a woolly bear
fattened on autumn flora. So you crouch,
noting her triple stripes: the middle ginger,
each end as black as space. Her destination
is some unnoticed nook, a sanctuary
to settle in, greet the fangs of frost,
then freeze, wait winter out—lingering, lost
in dreams of summer, milkweed, huckleberry.
Though she’s in danger of obliteration
by wheel or boot, your fingers now unhinge her.
She bends into a ball of steel. No “ouch”
from bristles on your palm as you prepare
to toss her lightly to the forest litter.

She flies in a parabola, and lands
in leaves. Though she has vanished, both your hands
hold myriad tiny hairs, a souvenir
scattered like petals. When this hemisphere
turns warm again, she’ll waken, thaw, and feast
on shrubs and weeds (the bitterer the better)
then, by some wondrous conjuring, be released
from larval life. At length she will appear
a moth with coral wings—they’ll bravely bear
her through a night of bats or headlight glare,
be pulverized like paper in a shredder,
or briefly flare in a world that will forget her.

Martin Elster writes: “In the New England autumn, the leaves aren’t the only colorful feature in the landscape. Caterpillars are on the move, so they are more easily chanced on. A few years ago I lived briefly in a mainly rural and hilly town called New Hartford in the state of Connecticut. On my daily walks, I encountered many kinds of animals, including numerous lepidopterans (moths and butterflies), one species of which inspired this poem, an appropriate poem, I think, for late autumn or early winter.
The Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella) in its larval form is called the “banded woolly bear” (or “woolly bear” or “woolly worm”). The most remarkable attribute about the little critter is this (from Wikipedia):
“The banded woolly bear larva emerges from the egg in the fall and overwinters in its caterpillar form, when it literally freezes solid. First its heart stops beating, then its gut freezes, then its blood, followed by the rest of the body. It survives being frozen by producing a cryoprotectant in its tissues. In the spring it thaws.”
Covered in thick, fluffy-looking hair, the woolly bear sports bands of black and reddish-brown. There’s an age-old belief that the amount of brown on this critter can predict the severity of the coming winter. The more brown, the milder winter will be.
For the geeks: the rhyme scheme of the first stanza of the poem, similar to the bands on a woolly bear (ABA), is a chiasmus: ABC . . . CBA.

Martin Elster, who never misses a beat, was for many years a percussionist with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra (now retired). He finds contentment in long woodland walks and writing poetry, often alluding to the creatures and plants he encounters. His honors include Rhymezone’s poetry contest (2016) co-winner, the Thomas Gray Anniversary Poetry Competition (2014) winner, the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s poetry contest (2015) third place, and four Pushcart nominations. A full-length collection, Celestial Euphony, was published by Plum White Press in 2019.
This poem has appeared in The Road Not TakenAutumn Sky Poetry Daily, and The HyperTexts. His work has appeared in the Potcake ChapbooksCareers and Other Catastrophes‘ and ‘Robots and Rockets‘.

“Banded Woolly Bear (Isabella Tiger Moth) Caterpillar, Virginia” by Dave Govoni is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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