Thursday, June 12, 2014

Photinus Pyralis

Marc R. Hanson, Firefly Dance

 Busy lately. Been revising a batch of short stories written in the last six to eight months and trying to find homes for them. Doing some blogging over at Carve. (I'll provide links later this month; the posts are written some weeks in advance and several haven't gone up yet.) Just finished an "author's notes" post for The Town Crier about a short story I wrote for The Puritan. (I'll also post a link to that whenever the Town Crier folks put it up.) And I'm finally beginning to work on that Bob's Burgers writeup to complete the Bouchard Buffet. This all means I haven't got much to offer this week.

Hmm. The fireflies have started to appear in the backyard. Once again I find myself missing my two-year home in Pennsylvania. The fireflies out here only appear sporadically; they're nowhere near as abundant as they are in the Crum Woods or even in the forests around the family digs in Jersey.

Since fireflies were on my mind tonight, I thought I'd share a short poem about them. A short poem that I wrote—written long enough ago that I can shrug off any criticism with "yeah, whatever, it was a while back, I know better now."

I had a hard time finding it on my flash drive; I'd forgotten that I'd saved the file under the name "hotaru" and changed the title at the top of the document to "firefly" whenever I shared it with somebody.

"Hotaru" requires some explanation. Thanks to SNK, I'm aware that "hotaru" is the Japanese term for the type of insect that English speakers identify as "firefly" or "lightning bug." (In the United States, the most common species is Photinus pyralis; Japan has Luciola lateralis and Luciola cruciata.) And I have to admit I've preferred the term "hotaru" to "firefly" or "lightning bug" because they are such awful names for the thing they denote.

Maybe awful is too harsh a word, but the appellations are certainly misrepresentative. When I use them I can't help feeling like I'm doing a kind of semantic injustice to this creature that I love.

Here's what I mean.

First, "firefly." A compound of "fire" and "fly."

So we're using two words—one for the light, heat, and flame produced by the process of combustion, and the other for an insect of a totally different order—to describe Photinus pyralis. One of the words in the compound is inappropriate; the other is unfortunate.

"Fire" blazes. It consumes, rages, blisters, scorches, crackles, incinerates, calorifies. To use the word "fire" to characterize the soft chartreuse flashes of Photinus pyralis is as malapropos as using the word "horse" to describe a dog.

As for "fly:" none of the most salient qualities we attribute to the rapid, noisy, shit-eating, maggot-breeding pest Musca domestica are shared by the gentle Photinus pyralis but the fact that they are flying insects. Again, we are calling a horse a dog. (More literally, we are calling a member of the order coleoptera a member of the order diptera.)

Second: "lightning bug." Is this any better? Not really.

"Lightning" is no more analogous to bioluminescence than "fire." A flash of lightning is brilliant; the flicker of Photinus pyralis is faint. Lightning is quick and violent; Photinus pyralis floats gently and harmlessly. Lightning BOOMS; Photinus pyralis makes no sound we can hear.

"Bug" is maybe a better noun for this compound than "fly" for its vagueness, but all sorts of animals can be called "bugs:" spiders, caterpillars, maggots, silverfish, gnats. "Bug" is suggestive of something with hundreds of legs, a stiff carapace, and pinching mandibles crawling up your pant leg. "Bug" might also be something so small and insignificant that it might as well be squished. Photinus pyralis deserves better than "bug."

I always thought "hotaru" is such a nice term for Photinus pyralis because it names the creature without reference to unrelated animals or bad metaphors. And also because I never did my research.

Lafcadio Hearn writes:

Written today, the Japanese name of the firefly (hotaru) is ideographically composed with the sign for fire, doubled, above the sign for insect. The real origin of the word is nevertheless doubtful; and various etymologies have been suggested. Some scholars think that the appellation anciently signified 'the First-born of Fire' . . .

Well, fuck it all. You know what? Now the stupid poem is going to be called "Photinus Pyralis"—a term which has its roots in the Greek term for "light" and the Latin term for "funeral pile." It seems humanity is afflicted with longstanding lack of imagination with regard to these animals.

Anyway, here's the damn poem about some bugs that I wrote a bunch of years ago.

Photinus Pyralis

What do they all—
these things that I carry—
what money I spend—
and titles I've earned
what objects are mine—
what facts I presume—
what do they mean,
these things that I carry
what purpose have they
for the voiceless ones
who need only love
to light up the


  1. How about "Luciole"? That's what they're called in French.

    1. Maaannnn. What doesn't sound better in French?

  2. They're called "Luciernaga" in spanish, but it does sound better in french.

    1. Hmm. I'm curious about the etymology. What does "naga" mean?

    2. Apparently it derives from the latin "lucerna" wich means lamp or oil lamp, and the suffix "aga"… and I don't have a clear idea on what that means…