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American Life in Poetry: ‘The Vanity of the Dragonfly

Nancy Willard, who died in February, was one of my favorite poets, with an enviable gift for inventive description. She published poetry, fiction, essays and children’s books, one of which, “A Visit to William Blake’s Inn,” was a winner of the prestigious Newbery Award. For those of you who don’t have time to read our archive at www.americanlifeinpoetry.org, here’s a poem we used with her permission several years ago. There are many of her books available and I recommend them all.

The Vanity of the Dragonfly

The dragonfly at rest on the doorbell—

too weak to ring and glad of it,

but well mannered and cautious,

thinking it best to observe us quietly

before flying in, and who knows if he will find

the way out? Cautious of traps, this one.

A winged cross, plain, the body straight

as a thermometer, the old glass kind

that could kill us with mercury if our teeth

did not respect its brittle body. Slim as an eel

but a solitary glider, a pilot without bombs

or weapons, and wings clear and small as a wish

to see over our heads, to see the whole picture.

And when our gaze grazes over it and moves on,

the dragonfly changes its clothes,

sheds its old skin, shriveled like laundry,

and steps forth, polished black, with two

circles buttoned like epaulettes taking the last space

at the edge of its eyes.

Poem copyright 2012 by Nancy Willard from “The Sea at Truro,” Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. Poem reprinted by permission of the author and the publisher. American Life in Poetry is made possible by the Poetry Foundation and the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. We do not accept unsolicited submissions.


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