I have learned some gruesome things from poems.

This week, after sending Helen Clare’s pamphlet Entomology to the printer, I looked up the word ‘assassin’. According to Merriam Webster the word comes to us via the medieval Latin assassinus, from Arabic ashshāshīn, plural of ashshāsh (worthless person – literally, hashish user). The poem that led me to ‘assassin’ also took me, via Helen’s blog, to a gruesome little film clip of Stenolemus bituberus in action, the Assassin Bug from whom a poem takes its title.

If you want to watch the film, here it is:

The filmed sequence is creepy, though not totally unhinging (like the film I watched earlier this week of a heron, that great poetic symbol of wisdom and priestliness, devouring a duckling). Also the assassin bug in the YouTube clip is in Australia, which makes it (from the point of view of a viewer in Scotland), less threatening. I mind less about Australian spiders being viciously attacked. This doesn’t show I am a good human being, if you extrapolate the reasoning, but let that be. It’s only spiders we’re talking about.

Except in Helen’s poems it’s really people, needless to say. We humans see the whole of the natural world in terms of ourselves: perhaps there’s no other way. Even the name ‘Assassin Bug’ lifts the insect out of Latin and plonks it firmly into a human context. The fascination of knowing how some living creatures kill other living creatures underpins many a natural-world documentary. The more gruesome the method, the greater the fascination.

The poems in Entomology work in, round and about the sonnet form. The great classic sonnet sequences (Petrarch, Sydney, Spenser, Shakespeare) take love as their central theme. Helen takes insects. But love (both dark and delightful) is the key player.

To coincide with the publication of Entomology, the scientist/poet is blogging about some of its dramatis personae. She’s already written about the Emperor Dragonfly and the Assassin Bug here:  There will be more.

Meanwhile, here’s the bug between the lines.


Stenolemus bituberus
Assassin Bug

I love them all. CSI. NCIS.
Law and Order. Criminal Minds. I’ve read

there’s a comfort in these haunted heroes
who’re on our side when the worst has happened.

My favourites are those killers who look
a victim in the eye, tell them what they’ll do,

or leave a trail of clues someone might unpick
but only just in time. And no-one knows

why an assassin bug, after creeping
across a web, stretching, snipping, bouncing up

a screen of vibrations, then mimicking
a trapped fly, gives its prey a gentle tap.

Or why when, before our marriage, he said
he was selfish, I thought he exaggerated.




  1. This poem had a real sting in the tail – I wasn’t expecting that ending, but it worked well, I thought!
    And the narrator/’victim’ is a complex individual, it’s very interesting to speculate about them too.

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