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The Man-Moth -- Elizabeth Bishop

Guest poem sent in by Tim Diggins
(Poem #1395) The Man-Moth
Man-Moth: Newspaper misprint for "mammoth".

     Here, above,
 cracks in the buildings are filled with battered moonlight.
 The whole shadow of Man is only as big as his hat.
 It lies at his feet like a circle for a doll to stand on,
 and he makes an inverted pin, the point magnetized to the moon.
 He does not see the moon; he observes only her vast properties,
 feeling the queer light on his hands, neither warm nor cold,
 of a temperature impossible to record in thermometers.

           But when the Man-Moth
 pays his rare, although occasional, visits to the surface,
 the moon looks rather different to him. He emerges
 from an opening under the edge of one of the sidewalks
 and nervously begins to scale the faces of the buildings.
 He thinks the moon is a small hole at the top of the sky,
 proving the sky quite useless for protection.
 He trembles, but must investigate as high as he can climb.

           Up the fa├žades,
 his shadow dragging like a photographer's cloth behind him
 he climbs fearfully, thinking that this time he will manage
 to push his small head through that round clean opening
 and be forced through, as from a tube, in black scrolls on the light.
 (Man, standing below him, has no such illusions.)
 But what the Man-Moth fears most he must do, although
 he fails, of course, and falls back scared but quite unhurt.

           Then he returns
 to the pale subways of cement he calls his home. He flits,
 he flutters, and cannot get aboard the silent trains
 fast enough to suit him.  The doors close swiftly.
 The Man-Moth always seats himself facing the wrong way
 and the train starts at once at its full, terrible speed,
 without a shift in gears or a gradation of any sort.
 He cannot tell the rate at which he travels backwards.

           Each night he must
 be carried through artificial tunnels and dream recurrent dreams.
 Just as the ties recur beneath his train, these underlie
 his rushing brain.  He does not dare look out the window,
 for the third rail, the unbroken draught of poison,
 runs there beside him. He regards it as a disease
 he has inherited the susceptibility to.  He has to keep
 his hands in his pockets, as others must wear mufflers.

           If you catch him,
 hold up a flashlight to his eye.  It's all dark pupil,
 an entire night itself, whose haired horizon tightens
 as he stares back, and closes up the eye.  Then from the lids
 one tear, his only possession, like the bee's sting, slips.
 Slyly he palms it, and if you're not paying attention
 he'll swallow it.  However, if you watch, he'll hand it over,
 cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink.
-- Elizabeth Bishop
Reading that poem by McGough [Poem #1335] made me immediately think of "The
Man-Moth" by Elizabeth Bishop, which has a similar "justification" for
starting the poem, but quite a different use and tonality.

It's hard to comment on The Man-Moth, because I have no idea what it means
as a whole poem. Most of Bishop's poetry (with the exception maybe of "One
Art") seems to me like that - where it is hard to come up with an
understanding of the poem in total but instead one has a mixture of
impressions - in this case a sense of human emotional fragility (just the
image of a man-as-moth, the tear, but this is also undercut by various
narratorial attitudes to him: Dwelling on his failures ("he trembles",
"although he fails, of course", "he can't", "he does not dare"...) and the
limitations of his lifeworld ("The Man Moth always..." "he must...", "He
regards it as...", "he has to..."). In the last stanza, the narratorial
voice starts to hint that the man-moth has his own desires and identity ("If
you catch him"... "Slyly he ...")

But it's the last sentance that makes me unsure of how to understand the
poem as a whole. The "However" introduces a turn of the poem to something
different - is it to the purity of nature (as opposed to our man-made
buildings and cracked sidewalks through which the man-moth emerges)? I'm not
sure, but this last turn in the poem coming with its confidence after all
the man-moth's uncertainty, seems as refreshing as the man-moth's tear.

Tim Diggins

Biography:
  [broken link] http://www.poets.org/poets/poets.cfm?45442B7C000C01

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