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August 2023 Issue [Poetry]

To the Cuckoo Paper Wasp

Illustration by Fumi Nakamura

Illustration by Fumi Nakamura


To the Cuckoo Paper Wasp


The first crisp tool in a small set of
perfect lockpicks this slick
wasp learns how to twist
is time. A solitary operative
whose name honors
the bird famous for its

home invasions; obligate brood and
crafter without craft,
not a papermaker like her makerspace-
hostess who 3-D prints

a many-chambered paper shelter
with her drooling mouthparts,
cuckoo paper wasp
whose patience is a weapon whetted slowly
just waits as the
real paper wasp foundress

spit-forges her nest, killing time late-
lying in her bed of
winter mind-humming
“Helter Skelter” to the cuckoo paper wasp
eggs depth-charging
within her. Then, prepared

by visions shared by the most poised of
athletes, practitioners
of mental training
who feel their achievements before achieving
them because they
know imagination

is muscle equal to the heart, she
emerges from her long
already on the hot prowl; malware’s mascot,
she creepy-crawls
the spring wind with her six-

jointed forelegs, watches paper wasp
complete and provision
her nest from a short
distance whence, as if out of swift nowhere, so
is the paper wasp and

consequently not en garde against
what she can’t imagine,
serves herself as both
eviction notice and quick enforcer, a
example of how those

of us who don’t know how to make our
homes make the ones we find
ours, story lines I’ve
followed alone too many times on hotel
scaled back for anodyne

apocalypse programming that the
entire history of
is the slow-motion dress rehearsal for: she
murders her and
usurps her nest. How? In

place of skill, paper wasp 2.0
honed her face to use as
a club. Pronouns hung
a scrim behind which wasp double-crossed wasp and
her nest became
hers; then she lays further

claim to it by laying her own wasp
eggs there among those the
authentic paper
wasp placed first, each forthcoming life a secret
froth brimming its
neat wasp-paper cell, the

weirdest cupcake batter aquiver
in thin paper liners.
What a terrible
birthday party planned in resentment and guilt
and love. Hard to
grasp in pictures, I climb

a step stool with a flashlight and peer
into the rafters to
see this nest myself
resisting my sister-in-law’s demands to
use the broom she’s
trying to hand up to

me to sweep it down, and even then
who knows what’s what, who’s who,
can tell a fatal
cradle from a throne? By now the new queen has
assumed the scent
of the host she killed by

rubbing herself against the nest to
take on the essence of
the paper chewed in
that murdered wasp’s small mouth, like dry-bathing in
the parched jaw of
death, a sacred lake bed

whose dust consecrates her in what’s called
“chemical camouflage”
by those of us who
think we have the distance not to become the
subjects of this
queen. But who knows? To the

queen the queen is the queen. Deception
and Self-Deception was
a popular course
at the college I attended long ago
that was one of
those mansions before that

built on other people’s loss on farm-
land secured by slaughter.
Of the spirit of
the bald eagle, observed more easily in
situ than the
real estate dealings of

wasps, Benjamin Franklin is said to
have said he wished it not
the chosen emblem
of this land. That bald eagle’s dishonesty
is bald-faced. You
must have seen one perched high

upon a dead spruce, his visage in
serious profile so
iconic it’s like
beholding a living coin transacting the
wild air. There
is an eagle somewhere

on our money, isn’t there? I could
swear it but what a long
time since studying
a quarter. Remember the satisfaction
letting go of
one into a slit cut

for it exactly, utterly in
sync with spending power
departing the loud
arcade with one coin left over to phone your
mom? The heft of
the cold receiver and

delve of the coin into a Delphic
cleft in metal where that
eagle descended
to fish—if he fished. Too lazy to hunt for
himself, he trains
his aristocratic

long-range gaze on an osprey fishing
two miles downriver. When
that bird has made his
catch and is bearing it back to the nest to
feed his young our
bird pursues and steals it.

You have seen one perched on a spruce and
known the score. But here in
this paper nest I
can’t stop looking at there’s no seeing what con
the cuckoo wasp
larvae are pulling to

move the worker paper wasps, emerged
now with no suspicion
that their queen is dead
or that spring said long live the queen, to feed them
first, before they
feed their own. That subtle

incompetence a cuckoo paper
wasp is born wielding that
a real paper wasp
responds to with its wasted love is what makes
a cuckoo wasp,
not a papermaker

but maker of the law, a better

is the author, most recently, of Information Desk: An Epic, which will be published this month by Penguin.

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August 2023

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