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Neela Vaswani

The Body, In Death

Let us begin with the black, downy thorax of a butterfly, the segment squeezed with thumb and forefinger when exterminating Lepidoptera, the segment punctured with a pin when spreading a butterfly on cork after it has been relaxed in a humid jar of cheap gin. Two pair of wings, mahogany, flush with silver, blue, and white, and three pair of slim, jointed legs attach to the thorax. Dressmaker pins skewer the wings, and hold the clubbed antennae stiffly upright in the shape of a bobby pin pried open. The south end of the thorax connects to the abdomen that is lined with spiracles: lung-like, the size of punctuation. Inside the abdomen: the genitals of the butterfly and the long, flexible, tubular heart. At the north end of the thorax is the head where the proboscis coils. Flanking the head: two compound eyes of 6,000 faceted lenses.

The wingspan of this butterfly is petite. 3/8 of an inch.

The violence that can be done to 3/8 of an inch.

The butterfly is muffled in a sheet of glassine paper. In twenty-four hours, the pins will be removed. The butterfly, mounted, in ventral profile. It will be tagged. Named.

Western pygmy blue

Brephidium exilis

captured by Anonymous

3 July, 2004

In a lemon grove. Orange County, California.

Women and Butterflies

On the skin of a North American woman born after 1960, the butterfly is a standard tattoo, like a heart or rose. Permanently spread-eagled to the inner thigh, ankle, top vertebrae, haunch. The places on a woman it is best to lick.

3/8 of an Inch

[ ]

Adult Butterflies

They ingest only liquid. They taste with their feet. Their wings smell of yellow cupcakes and testicles.

They are Dreaming Us

I tell you, Chuang Tzu: we are nightmares of nets and pins.

At Rest

E x p a n d e d is an unnatural pose for a butterfly. Yet, this is how we depict them. Pert-winged, sprawled on our limbs. In museums: martial linearity. Above the cribs of newborns: hung and twisting.

Reposing, a butterfly holds its wings vertically. In this posture, it is thinner than a credit card. In this posture, it is as safe as a butterfly can be. Quiet camouflage: revealed.

What is essential to our fascination is what we maim.

The mutilation of taxa, or, categorization.

My Mother

In 1979, she wore a butterfly T-shirt. The black wings bridged her breasts. She studied Mandarin. She said the only things she had to do were pay taxes and die.

Mandarin for butterfly: hu-dieh.


Float like one, a fighter with conscience. The muscular thorax propels the wings, fulcrumly, in a figure-eight pattern.

For the butterfly, I do not approve of the plushy, idle word: flutter. It is only used because of the false equation: small = delicate.

Those wings are throbbing.


Synesthesia. From the Greek. syn: together; aisthesis: to perceive. An overlapping of senses, such as, heard color: (magenta tire squeal); tasted shape (oval radish bite); visible sound: (Red burlap of C minor). Words with texture, temperature: the furred green edge of the letter P. The slow tinkle of orange. It smells of balloon.

To me, the name Vivekananda is a pool of sulphurous yellow. The repeated v cool, high, on the palate: a cucumber, refrigerated.

Nabokov found Vera, another synesthete. Their son, Dimitri, also synesthetic.

Perception shared, passed on. I wonder if they agreed on the weave of Dimitri?

Tight and bumpy like a good cornrow.

Nabokov, lepidopterist-literati. Wanderer. Whose father was murdered. Who was passionate for the butterfly. Who netted and pinned them with voluptuous, ochre pleasure. A serial killer in the name of the twins Art and Science. To a synesthete, the butterfly is a revelation. Jingling spectrums, flapping words. No wonder he chased!

The flash of a Morpho, steamed blue, wing underside, a slippery brown, grain of brick, like the word quotient. The etymology of butterflies; the entomology of words. How could he resist?

Imagine: a rabble of butterflies, a parish of phlox. To Nabokov, crapulous on color, this was divinity.

Out on a butterfly hunt with a friend, Nabokov ruefully called a common butterfly: "a winged cliché" (Boyd 537). In addition to hunting disappointment, I think he saw a dingy phrase. Something like: her bosom heaved.

His greatest contributions to lepidoptery: his work with Blues, his use of genitalia for taxonomic purposes, scale-counting to classify. He was: "temperamentally a 'splitter,' a taxonomist who recognizes and elevates distinct differences between two types. Those who tend to blur such differences into more generalized types are called 'lumpers'" (Boyd 59).

My veins are difficult to pierce. My father, a physician, draws my blood with a butterfly needle. My mother faints. My father and I are connected to the needle and no one is there to catch her.

"When Nabokov caught his first butterfly in 1906, at the age of seven, his mother showed him how to spread it" (Boyd 3).

Nabokov referred to butterflies as: she. (Boyd 473).

If you hold my arms, I will attack you. It is involuntary.

Women know the violence that can be done to 3/8 of an inch.

I am pinning words and time.


Butterflies see in pixels like Seurat and television. They see ultraviolet wavelengths on

flowers and the wings of other butterflies. They see polarized light and track in it the precise tilt of the sun. They see red and avoid green when feeding (it is not a liquid color) but hover to it when laying eggs. The eyes of some are bifocal, magnifying pollen.

As the butterfly beats its wings, the shingled feathers tip and reflect, the scales, iridescent. To a creature who sees ultraviolet, the butterfly flickers, communicates, in flight.

We do not see ultraviolet. We are burned by it. To us, butterflies appear colorful.

To Nabokov, verbose and tinctured. To each other, they must be rapturous.

From the Cornell lectures, March 1951 (page 473 of Nabokov's Butterflies):

"You will ask—what is the feeling of hatching? Oh, no doubt, there is a rush of panic to the head, a thrill of breathless and strange sensations, but then the eyes see, in a flow of sunshine, the butterfly sees the world, the large and awful face of the gaping entomologist."

Vultures, My Mother, and Butterflies

In the myths of butterflies, the sun is a burning compass.

We run calculators by the sun.

Vultures coast on thermal air.

A carcass is a carcass.

Nesher is a Hebrew word translated as eagle in the King James Bible. In contemporary Hebrew, nesher means vulture. The current translation of Exodus 19:4:

And I bore you upon wings of vultures and brought you unto me.

The vulture, seraphic vehicle.

For a literature class in 1993, I was asked to consult a King James Bible. Knowing nothing of bibles, I asked my mother to buy one. She mailed me a Catholic Bible with a Francis of Assisi bookmark (beneath the lamination, birds perched on his shoulders) and a note that read: Your grandmother would not allow a King James Bible in the house.

My Catholic Bible says eagle, too.

My father taught me that Garuda is half-vulture, half-man. Most call him half-eagle. In Kashi, a renowned wrestler and crematorium worker told me that Garuda—born into slavery, enemy of snakes, king of birds, mount of Vishnu—is half-vulture. Not eagle, he said.

I said: haanji. Definitive "yes."

In the myths of humans, eagle and vulture overlap, categorically.

Without vultures, rabies and anthrax.

My Aunt Sonja is 1/2 Parsi. Parsis leave their dead for vultures in stone towers (fire, water, earth are sacred and must not be defiled). Since 1993, vultures have declined by more than 95 percent in Pakistan, India, and Nepal. The vultures are being poisoned from eating carcasses of cattle treated with the veterinary drug diclofenac (made in the U.S.A.), an anti-inflammatory that alleviates pain in beasts of burden and arthritic humans.

There are not enough vultures to eat the Parsi dead. In Mumbai, the Parsi panchayat erected solar reflectors to hurry decomposition in the Towers of Silence. A U.S. educated Parsi engineer built "an ozone-generating machine to...combat the stench...from bodies left out.”

In the northern mountains of Cambodia, where lychees and strawberries thrive and diclofenac is not available, vultures are flocking: the slender-billed vulture (Gyps tenuirostris), the white- rumped vulture (Gyps bengalensis). A winged, silent message. Vultures know the power of a crowd. They know how to confirm an hypothesis. Their heads are nude, efficient. Ideal for entrail dipping.

In the myths of vultures, we have grown elusive.

How right, how vulturous, they are. They are taxonomic lumpers, dunking their glabrous heads into carrion of any species. They are angels. Mourners. Janitors. It is ingratitude that labels the vulture marauder. It is fear of omens, symbols.

How kind, to feed the birds! I would be happy to be digested, to fuel the span of vulture wings. Happy, for the bits of my flesh to take flight in the ultraviolet sky, visible to the butterfly.


Works Cited

Boyd, Brian and Pyle, Robert Michael, eds. Nabokov's Butterflies. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.

Brock, Jim P. Butterflies of North America. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

The New American Bible. Nashville: Catholic Bible Press, 1987.

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