Elegy with Recurring Hornet Nests by Elizabeth O’Brien

Elegy with Recurring Hornet Nests

Because the hornets keep returning, I destroy their nests over and over. The nests are always above the window of this room, and when I find one, I spray it fearfully at dusk with a can of poison, and then knock it down and destroy it.

Every year the hornets return to this same place above the same window. I hate them for it, as I run my fingers along the screen, checking carefully for any gaps each time I open it. But I do understand that for whatever reason, they have to return to this same place.

Because my grandmother’s tree had a branch that crooked out to one side like a broken arm, in my childhood, it became a scarecrow over the summers, with us kids — us cousins — on it like a flock of little crows. Perched every gangly which way against the tree’s dignity, we loved that tree.

And because I was a teenager with time to waste and so was she, my best friend and I would hang our liquor store bags on the Irish Famine statue in the Cambridge Commons, past the unlucky gate, and lounge on the raggedy grass with 40’s of Old Milwaukee and paper plates of Food Not Bombs rice. Talking, or not talking, we let our cigarettes hang slow red points on the twilight. She sang me Anywhere I lay my head there once, and I remember her voice all broken-door-shattered-bottle now, as if I had understood already then, that she would soon be gone. But I don’t remember it as if it were yesterday: instead I feel it under the full weight of the decade that’s passed since.


“But home is the form of the dream,” wrote the poet Larry Levis, “& not the dream.”

Just now, out the window, a girl with a knapsack is passing alone under the streetlamp below, in lacy tights. Walking away, through the darkness, like that.

My friend once bit another girl in a fight in the middle of Harvard Square. Bit her finger nearly clean off, we thought, and after, she refused to be sorry. She was urgently proud of what was in her, which was alarming to me, though I was proud of it, too.

Certain kinds of taking stock will do us harm, while others restore us to ourselves. Soon, the drunks will begin to drip out of the bars, to pass under my window, shambling loud and happy. Because it’s already late. Often, I close the window not to hear them, but sometimes I call down to them, to see what they’ll do or say back. Then I wonder whether it’s irreverence or defiance I hold dearest, and what that difference might reveal about me.

My grandmother’s house was sold ages ago — more than two decades now — but I still know its bones. I know that the critical part of her porch wasn’t how it wrapped the house, or ended with a wrought iron gate and a secret passage down the side steps behind the magnolias, although I did love this passageway, and the magnolias, which gummed my fingers when I touched them, and smelled vegetal somehow, rather than floral, and bloomed the yard into a kind of fairyland when we drove up on a visit.

It wasn’t the deep green awnings shading afternoons like drooping lily pads, and us underwater, or the smooth tracks of the heavy white rocking chairs I’ve seen nowhere else since, though I can still feel how they moved, like boats at sea.

In fact, it was the hornet nest, just a little one: pressing her house there behind the magnolias, like a wad of dried up paper towel, or Wrigley’s gum. Once, I got stung there — only once, though a hornet can sting a person again and again. It was just enough, as I tore pell-mell down the steps every time ever after, to quicken everything.

But if it was the hornet nest, it was also the sticky pink-and-white magnolias.

It was also how, in the Commons, she was my girl, and let me be hers. Let me lay my head in her lap.

What I mean is, what haunts the most are the things I would have changed but could not ever have changed, the things that were, to me, most immutable.

Out the window, the air is pizza ovens and misty not-rain. The bars on the next block are probably full of revelers, and their whoops and cries will soon carry up into my window. But for now, the streets are still nearly empty.

I’m not sure yet which I’ll remember more when I leave this place for good: the rollicking traffic and late carousers, or this calm, when the imminent boistering is yet to come.

Now the girl lengthens, she has moved out past the nimbus of ambered light.

Her boot heels click down the street as she travels on.


Elegy with recurring hornets


Elizabeth O’Brien is the recipient of a Minnesota Emerging Writers’ Grant through the Loft Literary Center, and the James Wright Poetry Award from the Academy of American Poets. Her work has appeared in many magazines, including New England Review, The Rumpus, Ploughshares, Writer’s Chronicle, and Tin House, and her first chapbook, A Secret History of World Wide Outage, is available from Diode Editions. She lives in Minneapolis.


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