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On "The Man-Moth"

Elizabeth Bishop (1962)

I’ve forgotten what it was that was supposed to be "mammoth." But the misprint seemed meant for me. An oracle spoke from the page of the New York Times, kindly explaining New York City to me, at least for a moment.

One is offered such oracular statements all the time, but often misses them, gets lazy about writing them out in detail, or the meaning refuses to stay put. This poem seems to have stayed put fairly well – but as [Thomas] "Fats" Waller used to say, "One never knows, do one?"

from Elizabeth Bishop, "On ‘The Man-Moth,’" in Poet’s Choice, ed. Paul Engle and Joseph Langland (New York: Dial, 1962), 101.

Robert Dale Parker (1988)

… Moths never aspire, and no reader could previously have associated aspiration with Man-Moths, having never heard of the things before. Only people (Men, in the language of the poem) aspire, so that the poem becomes an allegorical commentary on human ambition and the restraint of ambition by fear, especially fear of failure. The Man dares not ascend, because he knows he will fall; whereas the Man-Moth believes he will fall if he dares ascend, but dares not refuse to try.

Wish is the world – or manner of imagination – in which those who do not believe and who do aspire will find the most the pleases them. The world of have they find confining. They aspire to more than they can have, and they cannot believe they will ever reach what they aspire to, so that only wish is left to fill the space between satisfaction in the here and natural, and faith in the hereafter and supernatural. Bishop thus choose wishes instead of unbelief.

… the Man-Moth bravely seeks something sublimely exterior to himself and at the same time fears the ordinary all around him that he seems to fantasize into something sublimely oppressive. He tries, in the first half, to escape into aloneness, but in the second half, the populated world around him reasserts its routine.

The routine comes back so strongly that all of a sudden Bishop addresses her readers directly as if we not only could but probably will enter the Man-Moth’s company, which so bursts the familiar barrier between our quotidian, readerly expectations and his eerie fantasies that, at the last, the poem changes again, once more and finally deserting the world of routine for the unpredictable underworld of shadowy fable:

[Parker quotes the final 8 lines of "The Man-Moth."]

Until this ending, although Bishop has encouraged us to identify with the Man-Moth’s heroic daring and oppressed loneliness, she has led us to identify in emotion, never in action. Then, abruptly, she addresses us as if we share the mythical world that until then she has described as apart from us and as fantastically imaginary. Where before she called forth our identification through allegorical parable and not through any sense that she referred to our world directly, now she assumes casually that we njot only share the Man-Moth’s world but even that we rule it and might well capture him and violate the pristine independence she earlier presented so sympathetically. Like watchmen, we patrol the illusory world and hold it up to the cold, flashlight scrutiny of synthetic vision. The once-pitiful little man-moth emerges as large, with its eye big enough to shine a light in, and – in comically human words – able to "palm" or "hand over" a tear. The poem’s otherworldly scale merges with our familiar scene as now we face a zoological peer, more like a criminal on the streets than an alien sprite. From the sympathetic, opening "Here" that mixes so oddly with the extraterrestrial "above" that Bishop joins to it, we change to the guarded but earthly distance of watching and disarming. By breaking our identification – and her own – with the Man-Moth, the final stanza’s swerve gives a sense of conclusiveness. Perhaps Bishop then feels a guilt or regret for deserting what she had romanticized, which leads her to sentimentalize the final lines, as if to compensate. That hardly helps, for in the process she condescends to the once-wild and boldly wishful creature, reimagining him as timid and obedient.

… At the end of the this poem, therefore, imagination is a beaten or – when it survives – a guilty thing. The Man Moth’s is forced underground or even killed, though killed only incidentally, while Man raids his treasure, like raiding a conquered culture’s art, to supply the trumped-up museum imagination of a culture physically more powerful. The residue of human imagination is thus desperate and wishful, hanging on by its spoils, agonizingly secondary.

From Robert Dale Parker, "Wish: North & South," Chapter 2 in The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 40-41, 47-49.

David Kalstone (1989)

A figure effectively dead turns up in the notebooks, in New York material that Bishop would adapt for "The Man-Moth." She had observed a woman in the subway about whom everything had died – her face dead white, her clothes, her handbag – except her eyelashes. Bishop remembers that in a dream her friend Margaret Miller "had looked into the inside of a small mask someone had pulled from his face, and caught in it all around the eyeholes were the little hairy eyelashes. The woman’s face made me think of that – its expression was a concave one, like an empty interior expression, and its only markings were the little eyelashes." The woman’s eyes were shut, and the lashes seemed like those on a sleeping doll. "It is rather strange the way the eye is surrounded with inhuman stuff – hair grows, I’ve heard, even on the dead." The incident contributes obliquely to "the Man-Moth," a kind of morbid counterpart to the man-moth himself, who has, on rare occasions, the capacity to escape and make his romantic ascents to the surface of the city, each one a doomed foray. We know that a newspaper misprint, reading "manmoth" for "mammoth," prompted the poem: the idea of a doomed spirit trapped in a subway rider’s form, sitting always backward, racing under the city streets (in the world of the third rail "running along silently, as insincere as poison," she wrote in her notebook). In the conditional clauses of the poem’s last stanza she transforms her own notebook observations of the deadened woman on the subway into a glimpse of residual purity and spirit:

[Kalstone quotes the last stanza.]

The observer’s curiosity and effort is rewarded by extracted signs of life, but as in her windowpane illumination, as in "the Weed," there is a link between vision and tears. …

from David Kalstone, "From the Country to the City," Chapter 1 in Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989 19-20

C.K. Doreski

Early ("Man-Moth") and late ("Pink Dog") examples of her personae of exile illustrate her fascination with extreme isolation, with freaks and outcasts. Though their admittedly distorted perspectives are convincing, they engender no sense of kinship, nor are they intended to. Their purpose is to engender languages of extremity, and to plot with their grotesque narratives the border beyond which the psyche and language no longer appear to coincide.

Robert Lowell has most clearly described the kind of difference found in Bishop's exile poems. When discussing the uniqueness of "The Man-Moth" [NS] he said:

In Elizabeth Bishop's "Man-Moth" a whole new world is gotten out and you don't know what will come after any one line. It's exploring. And it's as original as Kafka. She's gotten a world, not just a way of writing. She seldom writes a poem that doesn't have the exploring quality.

The otherworldliness of "The Man-Moth" beckons; like the shadows of German Expressionist films, it looms uncomfortably near enough to darken the familiar world. The man-moth is an oddly plausible figure, drawn to the surface from tunnels and nightmares of the ordinary imagination. The "whole new world" he occupies depends upon negatives or opposites: shadow and light, verticals and horizontals, forward and backward, sun and moon. The shadowy mirror-images (unlike the playful distortions of "The Gentleman of Shalott") challenge his grip on the surface of the earth just as they challenge the ordinary viewer to define a comfortable self-image, a grip on sanity.

Yet even this world of negatives and opposites has limits and rules. The Man-Moth's discomfort during this "visit to the surface" is palpable. The nature of his other life, underground, remains undetermined; but unlike Crusoe this alien shares, somewhat unwillingly, what humanity he contains:

        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.

The Man-Moth's humanity reveals itself only in the terms of its subterranean world, the "entire night" of its eye, its single tear.

Bishop conjures similarly self-inhibited spirits throughout her writing. For example, in "Gwendolyn" part of the child's self- definition required definition of her opposites, in somewhat the way the adult process of self-discovery might entail an encounter with an opposite in the form of a Man-Moth-like creature. Bishop's larger concern is to generate a language of sufficient latitude to permit observation of these intersections of like and unlike. The actions of Crusoe occur within a carefully depicted emotional frame, but the Man-Moth embodies the unknown or the unconscious, "an entire night in itself." In the end, his surfacing is an incomplete gesture, an attempt to reach out to others that is partially negated by his unwillingness to make a gift of his emotional self. The truncated first lines of these stanzas indicate how very tentative this gesture really is. Though the images are tethered to the knowable world, the poem heightens the contrast between shadow and light, the strangeness of ordinary landscapes, and the potential oddities of perspective. Bishop has dramatized the way the ordinary daylight world forcibly persuades the outsider to conform:

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

The rather grim simile—''as from a tube"—underscores the solitary nature of his journey; society has no place for him, no means of accommodating such a creature. The compactness of his world, the tension of his stance, in these lines is oppressive. The density of the stanzas, the longish lines dominated by monosyllables, suggest what the Man-Moth must penetrate. These contrasting worlds of shadow and light, underground and surface seem mutually exclusive, beyond interpretation or knowledge. The ordinary world has broken down into cubist planes of darkness and reflected light, while the poet-observer stands to one side, manipulating those reflections in the terms of self-definition.

from Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language. Copyright © 1993 by Oxford UP

Marilyn May Lombardi (1995)

Bishop’s fascination with the "third rail" stems from a set of private associations the poet refuses to develop within the poem. These associations are preserved, instead, in her working notebooks, where a direct relationship is forged between the fatal third rail and the dangers of alcoholism. In the journal she kept following her graduation from Vassar, Bishop plays with certain ideas that would eventually find their way into "the Man-Moth," including the observation that "the third rail is almost worth some sort of prose poem. Running along silently, as insincere as poison" ("Recorded Observations," 1934-1976, p. 6). As we have already seen, she would come to think of alochol as a poison with "flattering" effects, thus establishing a connection between ingratiating liquor and the "insincere" third rail that runs beside the subway track like an "unbroken draught of poison." Alternating between a tone of elevation and deflation (to match the ascending and descending fortunes of her protagonist), Bishop creates in her hyphenated creature a veiled portrait of the artist as addict.

Underscoring this theme of consumption and addiction is the man-moth’s resemblance to the Baudelarian vampire, imbiber of forbidden fluids. … Like the vampire the man-moth seeks to penetrate the physical boundaries of this universe and be born into a new existence, one that escapes the laws of mortality and gravity that weigh down the natural man. Thinking of the moon "as a small hole at the top of the sky," his aim is to "push his small head through that round clean opening." But instead of escaping those laws he is trapped in an existence ruled by bodily drives and marked by reiteration (he "must be carried through artificial tunnels and dream recurrent dreams").

Along with the inference of sexual deviance or unnaturalness that vampirism inevitably suggests, Bishop’s allusions to the undead reinforce the impression that she is grappling in this poem with the compulsive artist, a slave to the body’s mechanisms and to the machinery of art.

from Marilyn May Lombardi, "Abnormal Thirst: Addiction and the Poéte Maudit," Chapter 5 in The Body and the Song: Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992)

Anne Colwell (1997)

[Colwell quotes the last stanza in "the Man-Moth."]

The image of the flashlight relates to the central image pattern of the moon, the third rail and the eye; like these, iy represents and conducts energy. Holding up the flashlight to the Man-Moth’s eye, a kind of anti-moon, reveals both complete isolation, "all dark pupil, / an entire night itself," and the presence of a permeable membrane, a portal or hole that proves protection useless and connection possible.

The connection between Man and Man-Moth in the final stanza differs from the Man-Moth’s earlier attempts at connection because it involves a kind of strict attention that does not investigate outward but drinks in. By comparing the tear that may be drunk to the bee’s sting, Bishop makes explicit the implicit threat of each opportunity for connection and transcendence. The tear resembles a bee’s sting, which poisons the receiver and kills the giver; the vulnerability in any moment of connection – sexual, natal, or even intellectual – is equally dangerous. … The Man-Moth’s desire to palm his tear manifests this desire for displacement, the desire to hide and protect the internal self, like a coin he’d rather not pay. It also connects the Man-Moth with strange legendary creatures like genies and leprechauns, who must surrender their treasure when caught or summoned. In each case, attention can reveal the openings in the external facade and make connection with the internal or other world possible. The suggestion that the tear be drunk, that the other be internalized, relates to the image of the moon as birth canal; the mortal risk and the possibility for true connection through internalization seems to me a profoundly feminine image.

The Man-Moth’s tear belongs to a pattern of images in Bishop’s poems that concerns abolishing the self in order to preserve it, or in [Karl] Malkoff’s terms, escaping the self in order to realize it. earned by painful attention, the moment of connection concerns giving over control and enlarging perspective, rather than making reality small, manageable and egocentric. The tear is, as Lloyd Schwartz says, "a clarifying vision for whoever asks for it." To the criticism of readers who, like [Jerome] Mazzaro, complain about Bishop’s restraint, who lament "if only she had given up her ‘one tear,’" the poem answers, "You’re not paying attention." The price of attention is pain and vulnerability to pain, and the gift of attention is sensuous perception. "Cool as from underground springs" recalls both the subway home and the "entire night" of the Man-Moth’s self. "Pure enough to drink" suggests that the tear is not otherworldly, perfectly pure, but human, sufficient. In the act of imbibing the tear, man risks, the danger of self-annihilation, transcendence and understanding.

From Anne Colwell,"North & South: Finding a Language for How We Know," Chapter 1 in Inscrutable Houses: Metaphors of the Body in the Poems of Elizabeth Bishop (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997), 62-63

Helen M. Dennis

One of the problems of romanticism is the divide between the phenomenal and the noumenal which I have just referred to, and one of the tasks of the romantic poet is thus to find ways of linking the two. I am not suggesting that this presents such a crisis for the modernist poet, yet traces remain and are clearly visible in Bishop's work of the question of what is heautonomy (autonomy) and how it can be achieved? Even if Bishop's footnote to the "The Man-Moth" implies it is a whimsical, playful poem, based on a "Newspaper misprint for 'mammoth'," it is a poem which plays on the sense of the self and its double. The man-moth foregrounds the "imaginary" identity and plays down the actual, and yet there are moments of linkage:

                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. (15)

Here the simile is used in reverse. The fantasy world of the "imaginary" is proffered as the norm, and details from what we normally accept as the "real" world, the world of commuter travel becomes the descriptive figure of speech. The figurative and the real, or the vehicle and tenor have been inverted. The sublime is the locus where phenomenon and noumen should meet, it is an indeterminate space which should act as a bridge between the two; or as a place where the impossible leap can be made to connect the two. "The Man-Moth" articulates the difficulty of this, and does so through allusion to a version of the sublime which emphasizes the trope of th vertical:

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. (14)

There is a desire for security but a compulsive attraction which draws him to the awful elevation. So that this is a type of attempt at aesthetic transcendence, in a modernist parody of what Brooks calls the verticality of sublime landscapes. Yet even in the romantic project the ascent is doomed to a fall. The vertical landscapes of the romantic sublime with their dizzying heights and peaks lost in the clouds emphasize the impossible but ineluctable ascent and the subsequent fall back into the merely human. The pattern of aspiration and falling back is replayed here by Bishop, "But what the Man-Moth fears most he must do, although / he fails, of course, and falls back scared, but quite unhurt" (14). "The Man-Moth" represents the absurd quest for the harmony and totality and the concomitant fall back down in a cartoon version of the modern city-scape. It ends with a tear which becomes a "pearl" of wisdom or exchange with the reader; a tear which reminds us that terror and se1f-pity are also linked in the romantic landscape of the self.

from "Bishop and the Negative Sublime." In Kelly Lionel (ed.) Poetry and the Sense of Panic: Critical Essays on Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000. 

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