At night the orchard shook with bats
in flight, tight-ropes of sound strung
tree to tree. Between the leaves
their whine evaporated to gnat hum
and toad antiphony. On the way home,
crushing apples underfoot, you’d pause
and listen for the gypsy moths,
for fish teeth clicking, ants among the roots.
We heard, we did not hear.
One night a dark wing grazed your cheek,
aware of your shape, where you stood.
I would transcribe that sonar,
sing your face, or trace the route we followed
home those nights. Instead I write
an alphabet of wings—the first word,
Dusk, spelled out by flights of geese—to say
I think of you when tense wires coil in silence,
when the bats hang sated, upside down, and sleep.
Questions and Answers
What inspired “Bats”?
It’s hard to remember precisely, at this distance in time, what led me to write “Bats.” However, I’ve always loved noticing the minutiae of the natural world. And though I was living in New York City when I wrote this poem (which meant that I was woefully out of touch with the natural world), I was reading a great deal about all the forms of communication between animals. Bat sonar was, of course, an obvious example. But who knew that fish and termites and ants vocalize as well? It made me wonder whether the whole natural world was singing songs I never dreamed of.
Although, I’m sure I was guessing at connections I could not fully see or articulate at the time, I still believe there is magic in simply noticing details of the world around us. The other night, for instance, I noticed that my dogs were rooted in place, staring up into the crabapple tree, ignoring my whistles to come inside although the night was cold. I put on my coat and boots, walked out and looked up… at a screech owl, roosting stock-still so he’d be invisible unless a hound-dog’s nose passed underneath. I stood there with the dogs, astonished, until one of them whimpered with excitement and the owl flew off. That moment is a poem waiting to be written.
What poetic techniques did you use in “Bats”?
I am not very good at consciously parsing poetic techniques in my own work, and would rather leave that to anyone else. From the start, though, I have always been deeply engaged in making music with language (which may be why I was so intent on talking about the range of natural music in this poem). Rereading “Bats” today, I notice the dominant pentameter rhythm, internal rhyming and chiming, and odd punning (“their whine evaporated…”). And I’m still really attached to the phrase “gnat hum and toad antiphony.”