Bill Lavender

Infestation: Bill Lavender


Brood II, 1996

I was sitting on the porch in New Orleans with Nancy.
It was August and the cicadas were singing,
a noise like a thin copper band
stretched between trees.
The funny thing about it was
Nanc called them katydids.
She told me how when she was a kid
she collected the dry brown husks
from tree trunks, for everyone knows
when katydids molt
they leave their skins behind
still clinging to their surface.
I told her, of course,
that she was wrong,
that the insects making that noise
like a violin of dry branches
were called cicadas.
But she said “well how do you know
you’re right and I’m wrong?
You could be wrong, and I
could be right.”
I thought about it for a while,
thought about
looking it up,
but beginning to wonder
just what that would prove,
I had to admit
I could not say,
and besides
it seemed a waste
to call these things that one sees
or at least hears
every day in the summer
an ugly name like cicada,
and to call those rare green
haven’t seen one for ten years—
a pretty name like katydid,
and so I thought why not trade names,
call cicadas katydids
and katydids cicadas,
and I said “well
you’ve got a point.
I guess you’re right.”

Later that month
we took a trip up east,
and every time I’d hear the cicadas
I’d make a point of saying
katydids. The truth was, though,
I was having a hard time of it.
Like someone who has learned
to speak, but not yet to think,
in a foreign language,
I had to pause.
I had to think “cicada = katydid”,
the husk of the discarded name
clinging even in death
to the rough bark of its sound.
We drove across Alabama, Georgia,
and South Carolina to Hatteras, then up
through Norfolk and Richmond
to DC. We came back through Virginia
and stopped off to visit Nancy’s sister Katie
in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
We sat on Katie’s porch at dusk
and over the din
Katie told us
about 17 year locusts.
She said she’d been driving
and had pulled over thinking
there was something wrong with her car,
some spring had popped loose
and was dragging and sparking on the asphalt,
a bolt had freed itself
and was rotating in the brake drum
carving a groove in the smooth blue steel
wearing itself to dust.
But it had only been the cicadas.
They spend 17 years as grub-worms,
underground and dormant,
the pupal phase,
and then emerge,
all at once,
and sing in droves by the roadside.
That night as I lay
in bed I remembered
how when I was very young
we called them jar flies.
What a prize to catch one
and have it go off in your hand,
the six legs clutching your skin
and the wings beating
and the thing winding up and
starting to buzz.
It was hard to sleep,
thinking about it like that
and hearing them outside,
and I tossed till I woke Nancy up
and she told me she’d had a dream
in which I’d gone
completely Greek. I was eating
greek salads and baklava;
I was reading the classics
with a big grin on my face,
and I’d changed my name
to Lavendopolis. I don’t know
what it all means
but next morning when we
got back on the road
I was too tired to drive
so she took the first shift,
and as I was drifting off
on the passenger seat
with my head against the door post
and the V-6 vibrating through me
like a buzz down deep in the bones
I felt I was entering
a new phase.
Back home and back
on the porch
I sat listening and looking up
through the trellis
at the big dipper.
I call it a trellis.
Actually it is a roof
that rotted away leaving
only the joists.
It’s hard to see the dipper
through that grid.
I can’t even connect the dots
to see the cup,
much less the bear.
When I go inside
she’s already asleep,
curled on the bed,
those crazy dreams inside her.


Brood X, 2021

as it was Nanc’s birthday
and at the same time a big cicada season
I thought of that poem I wrote
25 years ago when the majestic
Brood II was coming out
it took some doing to unearth the poem
and then when I found it in a dusty
corner of the hard drive it opened
first as gobbledy-gook, having been originally
coded in some now-forgotten software
which made me think how short-lived
such things are, that language these days only
lives with constant push—in the new digital
world where there is room for everything
we no longer have the luxury of longevity
or if something lasts it is something
that has been forgotten and then reemerges
transformed after long dormancy
the memory
of the occasion is coming
back to me now
Nancy and I had only just hooked up and
weren’t yet living together that
trellis that was actually a rotten roof
was at the place on Rendon
I moved into when I was first divorced
I had been invited to read at the Insomniacathon
a crazy event that ran from 10 AM
on a Friday morning continuously
through Sunday about noon
in August of 96
(you can still read the event schedule,
depending on when you’re
reading this, at
though you won’t find my name on it
and I’m not sure why that is
as i remember reading there quite clearly)
and it was one of those things where
I didn’t worry about it until the last
minute but woke up Thursday
in a panic that I didn’t have anything
to read so wrote that poem very quickly
showed it to Nanc the next day and she
was like that’s how it happened so what?
funny how the fact that it was basically factual
blinded her to the wordplay that
when I read it now
seems its most prominent feature
that and the synaesthesia
which is what I was thinking about this
morning at 3:30 when I woke up
(for as I approach 70 I am plagued by
insomnia and also we had the kids and
grandkids over last night for Nanc’s
birthday and we drank a lot of wine and
I can never sleep late when I’m hung over)
but lying there in the
half-sleep thinking about the poem and
about cicadas in general
I had this vision of catching one of their
songs in my hand and then sort of balling
it up and putting it in a bag
thinking that later I could take it
out and throw at someone
like if I were mad at them or
needed to get revenge for something
they (or anyone) had done to me
you know the way some people take
up martial arts or buy a pistol thinking
ok asshole I dare you to fuck
with me now so that was
me with my balled-up cicada songs
and the other thing I was thinking
about was in the news yesterday
my old boss at the university was
suspended after being outed
for the affair he had had with a teen-aged
student 42 years ago when he
was teaching high school
she had kept a diary and on
there was a picture of her holding
it open to an entry and a picture of him
younger than I had every seen him
back when he had hair
and I thought about the long dormancy
and metamorphosis of this event in their lives
for when it went underground he had
all the power and she none
now it is the opposite
at first she was naive and flattered
but gradually over the decades began
to realize what he’d stolen from her
and finally decided that for her own
mental health she needed to take him down
dreams come true i’ve found
like after Nanc had that dream I
really did get into the Greeks
I didn’t change my name
to Lavendopolis but I did write this thing
called La Police and in it researched
the history of the polis and also decided
I wanted to reread Sophocles in a couple
of different translations and in my novel
used some choruses and settings
from Oedipus at Colonus at the end so
in that condensed displaced
way that dreams point to things
it did come true—
we’re going to miss the cicada chorus
this year for Brood X won’t come
to Louisiana and we won’t be going
to Virginia to visit Katie or anything
there’ll be a few of the annuals
around town of course and we’ll
listen to them in the evening
when we sit on the front porch
drinking wine or maybe futzing
with the garden digging in the soft
soil with our fingers and feeling
the song wrap around us like a band

Bill Lavender is a poet, novelist, musician, carpenter and publisher living in New Orleans. My ID, his eleventh book of poetry, was published by BlazeVOX in October, 2019. His novel trilogy, Three Letters, (comprised of Q, Little A, and The Private I) was released in 2021 by Spuyten Duyvil. His verse memoir, Memory Wing, called by Rodger Kamentetz "a contemporary autobiographical masterpiece," was published by Black Widow in 2011. A chapbook, surrealism, was published in 2016 and translated into Spanish by Enrique Solinas and Peter Thompson; the bilingual edition was released by Yauguru in Uruguay as surrealismo in 2017. He founded Lavender Ink, a small press devoted mainly to poetry, in 1995, and he founded Diálogos, an imprint devoted to cross-cultural literatures (mostly in translation) in 2011. Lavender Ink/Diálogos now has more than 200 books in print. Read an interview with Bill about his poetics and about the press at Jacket2, or visit his Amazon author page. He is the co-founder, with Megan Burns of Trembling Pillow Press, of the New Orleans Poetry Festival.