In the kingdom of insects mantis is king.
Chicken arts fall into disuse.
Seeds and stones and soft wet things
lie undisturbed.
There is only waiting and the electric charge.

I forget when it was I wrote those lines or what prompted them, but it is not difficult to detect a certain anger, a certain fastidious repulsion, a certain febrile impatience. Likely a moment of political friction in the department, of which there were many. I had put the poem away, and not thought about it again until just the other day.


At an outside table, at a Starbuck’s café, a golden-brown praying mantis appeared on Penny’s shoulder out of nowhere. It took a moment to register that this was a living animal. It should have been a brooch, the sort of thing, in hammered gold, with ruby eyes, the Duchess of Windsor might have worn. I put out a hand and it walked up my arm and I carried it over to some nearby plantings and eased it into a bush.

You don’t see praying mantises much any more. They’ve disappeared, along with grasshoppers and crickets. I remember them from my childhood in Brooklyn. On hot summer days occupying a place on the sidewalk, indifferent to everything, waiting and still, a little frightening in their composure.

On the way home that day we saw another praying mantis. Smaller than the brooch-insect, green rather than gold. Outside a research institute, all glass and angles and harsh shadows, and the creature was there in the most barren place of all, clinging to the curve of a chromium bike stanchion, far from any greenery or likely source of food, exposed to any passing predator.

What to do? Lift it off, and put it where it surely belonged? We did nothing. Penny took a picture of it.mantis


All that following week, whenever we passed the spot, the mantis was back again on its improbable perch. Sometimes there was another one. Once we saw three. Surely this was an anomaly, a failure or short-circuit in the creature’s life strategy. Was shiny metal somehow luring them away from leaves and twigs and garden litter? They are said to be beneficial in a garden. Why out here in steel and glass and concrete? I remembered the mantises on the sidewalks in Brooklyn.

The one helpful thing I found in looking up the experts on praying mantises was the remark that their feeding strategy was neither trapping, nor stalking, nor grazing, but ambush.

I had been considering the mantis from the wrong end. I now considered its behaviour from the standpoint of its prey. Say you are a moth or butterfly or beetle, fluttering or buzzing about in the sunlight, in the barren glare of steel and glass and concrete. There, inside that steel curve, a little shelf of something green . . .

An ambush.

The other thing the experts are agreed on is that, contrary to common belief, mantises are of no special benefit to the gardener, since they eat everything, the good and the bad alike.

In the kingdom of insects mantis is king.