Regard for Frailty

Trending ‘fragility’  especially the message that it is a source of strength rather than failure and therefore, not to be glossed over or be ashamed of stamps the end of the second decade of the 21st century. That fragility and strength are two sides of the same coin (and I don’t mean flipside) is only to be expected since the duality of diametric opposites – that both confront and feed upon each other – is the very essence of nature and humanity.

Nor is this perception unique to Romantic philosophy and its descendants. The Ancient Greeks – founders of Western civilization – typically got there first. At least in the western world. They expressed this awareness even in the most mundane aspects of daily life. Look at their earthenware: pots, basins, jugs, amphorae. They either depict black figures and signature meandering border against a terracotta background, or vice versa.   For them, the world of light, beauty, and music embodied in Apollo was ever intertwined and enmeshed with Dionysius’ world of darkness, madness, and revelry. Indeed, the synthesis of their viewpoint defined every sense perception, desire, action, and non-action.

I am deliberately omitting ‘thought’ because the Ancient Greeks were unhindered by the Cartesian split between thought and feeling – a distinction which in my opinion explains a great deal about our missing the wood for the trees, going around in circles and wading in a mire of confusion. Just like a dancer cannot be separated from the dance, the same applies to head and heart.

Character and the subjectivity inherent in responses to life experiences have inevitably had human beings veer from the Apollonian to the Dionysian world throughout their lives, amply manifesting the complexity of being human. Yet the summation of a life ultimately demonstrates a  gravitation towards – even the clinch – of either a world of light or a world of darkness.

But I am going off at a tangent. Or perhaps not.

For though fragility is immediately associated with weakness and something that is easily broken, it is also linked with pride, arrogance, and vanity– a mesh which the Greeks called hubris. And once again, the Greeks hit bull’s eye when they rightly concluded that hubris is the worst transgression and predictably leads to a fall from grace and a woeful ending. Far from being dated, the wisdom of the Ancient Greeks is more relevant than ever precisely because we live in an unprecedented hubristic age that has long lost all sense of shame and sobriety.

The rub of the matter is: Why is fragility hogging headlines? ‘Why’ invariably posits the million-dollar question since it coalesces the contributing and determining factors of zeitgeist and personal demons. I believe that two interconnected reasons lie beneath people latching on to the hype and striving to give it their own imprint.

The first is the join-the fray-syndrome to project our trendiness, which actually manifests a deep insecurity augmented by today’s addiction to constant validation as well as spiritual void. The second is a rejection of such vapid neediness to be part of the ‘it’ crowd and genuinely delve into the impact of acknowledging fragility and coming to terms with it. The point where fragility enables us to gain the wisdom of insight and integrity to face our essential human frailty. Here the first step is recognition. I would like to home in on this defining moment by sharing my commentary on ‘The Wasps’ Nest’, a poem by James L. Rosenberg.

The Wasps’ Nest

Two aerial tigers,

Striped in ebony and gold

And resonantly, savagely a-hum,

Have lately come

To my mailbox’s metal hold

And thought

With paper and with mud

Therein to build

Their insubstantial and their only home.

Neither the sore displeasure

Of the U.S. Mail

Nor all my threats and warnings

Will avail

To turn them from their hummed devotions.

And I think

They know my strength,

Can gauge

The danger of their work:

One blow could crush them

And their nest; and I am not their friend.

And yet they seem

Too deeply and too fiercely occupied

To bother to attend.

Perhaps they sense

I’ll never deal the blow,

For, though I am not in nor of them,

Still, I think I know

What it is like to live

In an alien and gigantic universe, a stranger,

Building the fragile citadels of love

On the edge of danger.

At the surface, the poem tells of the poet’s persona who is undecided whether to destroy or allow the nest that a pair of wasps are building in his metallic mailbox. Significantly, wrecking their nest does not require much physical effort. At a deeper level, the poem delves into the frailty of our existence in a world where we think ourselves superior to all creatures and masters of the world. Consequently, illuding ourselves with a gross delusion.

The ongoing juxtaposition of contrasts is hinted at in the very title. For we are presented with the danger of stinging insects that instinctively makes us cringe while looking forward to the warmth and safety associated with creating a  home. The first clash of opposites further points to how repulsive creatures are homemakers too –  another jolt to out biases.

The jolt becomes stronger in the beautifully evocative metaphor projecting the wasps as ‘Two aerial tigers,/Striped in ebony and gold’ connoting ferocity in full flight and underlined with the vibrant colour combination of black and gold. By choosing ‘ebony’ and ‘gold’, Rosenberg is clearly harping on the precious and desirable allure of the most magnificent wood and resplendent metal respectively. Significantly, the vivid onomatopoeia which follows ‘And resonantly, savagely a-hum,’ imbues more beauty in the poem’s stunning opening. The adverbs ‘resonantly’ and ‘savagely’ produce another dramatic confrontation which continues to jab at our urge to repel wasps.

The conflation of visual and aural imagery renders the poem both suggestive and descriptive –  a brilliant, deliberate choice which enables Rosenberg to build on the vigor of both half hints and elaborate details as well as interweave the upsurge of a climax and the wane of an anti-climax. Moreover, this technique revs the continuous divergences for the next lines introduce the persona’s bland ‘metal mailbox’ and the nest being built of ‘paper and mud’. The metal’s strength, when compared to paper and mud, is instantly obvious.  In fact, the persona smugly notes the nest’s vulnerability in ‘Their insubstantial and their only home’ – thus very easy to tear down.

Nevertheless, ‘only’ in particular stops him in his tracks. For it is at this point that his own fragility begins to dawn upon him. He begins to realise that neither wincing postmen, nor his ‘threats and warnings’ will stop the wasps from their fervor to build their home – the fervour of religious zeal connoted in the onomatopoeia of ‘hummed devotions’.  Their fanatical building also comes through the lines: ‘Too deeply and too fiercely occupied/To bother to attend.’

The persona knows the feeling of supremacy any master of a home feels, the very one which intensifies the resolve to protect it at any cost. As a result,  despite his enmity (‘I am not their friend’), he empathises with the wasps which he admits that he can easily crush with one mere  ‘blow’ but knows that he will not. Indeed, exploring their struggle, their drive, and their defiance, he sees them as a microcosm of his very own and all of humanity’s fragile existence.

The grappling tone reinforced with the use of free verse and staccato punctuation projects a mutual power struggle between him and the wasp couple. Tellingly, he intuits how they may intuit both his wish and his inability to obliterate them – ‘Perhaps they sense/I’ll never deal the blow’. In effect, indifference emboldens them. Nevertheless. what explicitly trashes the differing power scales is the persona’s recognition that any semblance of dominance is a mirage. This is why the poem culminates with his realisation that through them he views himself as insignificant, isolated and estranged:

What it is like to live

In an alien and gigantic universe, a stranger,

Building the fragile citadels of love

On the edge of danger.

The last four lines never fail to give me goosebumps for they reveal that openness to love is the single hope we have to pull us through a life worth living. Once again, another poignant weakness/strength contrast is imparted in the oxymoronic ‘fragile citadels of love’ since a fortress usually connotes impregnability; but which now looms as yet another chimera of potency. In this way, Rosenberg debunks our associations of home as a haven without undoing its sanctity because true living and nest-building takes place on a never-ending experiential precipice.

It is truly uncanny how Rosenberg depicts two buzzing wasps to create an existentialist poem to show us that authentic and integral strength lies in humility.

Noemi Zarb
Noemi Zarb
Writing, teaching, marketing. I have pursued three totally different career paths with the power of words serving both as link and lynchpin. Now I dedicate most of my time to writing - a never-ending romance. Typical of content writing I have been and am still responsible for scripting webs, advertorials as well as full-length articles. As a feature/opinion writer, I have over 600 articles published in Malta's leading newspapers and magazines (and still counting) - an experience which honed my interviewing skills when I interviewed countless painters and people involved in the performance arts. I also have over two decades of teaching English Literature and Critical Thinking via Textual Analysis under my belt having prepared students for the IB Diploma in English Language and Literature as well as MATSEC, IGCSE and SEC examinations in English language and English Literature. TEFL sometimes punctuated my summer holidays. Dealing with young people keeps you young and I have truckloads of cherished memories of my past students My current writing continues to be inspired by what life throws at me together with my critical thinking of what goes on (or doesn’t) around me firing my sense perception and vice versa. Being immersed in the corporate world gives me endless opportunities to observe facets of human behavior which invariably have me brood over. Learning and thinking over what I learn is still my way forward.

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  1. Dear Noemi,

    All your thoughts and the dichotomy between two contrasts are summarized in the beautiful and deep poem by Rosenberg on the apparently trivial subject of a wasps’nest …

    Thank you for your beautiful article and keep up the good work !!!

    Take care !

    • Thank you so much, Manuela, for your time and appreciation. It is always a wonder to me how poets create marvels from what we consider slight, ugly or even horrifying to make open our eyes with heart.

  2. Thank you Noemi for this gorgeous and thought-provoking article. I agree with everything you state. The poem is haunting, and yes, in this narcissistic and exhibitionistic era, we must return to the roots of humility and recognition there is something or, as I believe, some being greater than us. I appreciate your elegant prose. Happy New Year!💖

    • Happy New Year to you Darlene! Thank you ever so much for your time and appreciation. The more I think about it, the more I feel that a lack of humility takes us down a very unhappy road. As you rightly say, pondering upon ‘some being greater than us’ would help a great deal in realising and acknowledging our frailty and inconsequence.

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