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Michael Davidson on "Mantis"

Perhaps the most graphic example of formalism in dialogue with modern materialism is Zukofsky's sestina "Mantis," which not only addresses the alienation of life under modern capitalism but does so by debating the "implications of a too regular form."

What is most interesting about Zukofsky's response to social crisis is that it is often conducted in formal terms that seem at odds with the material under consideration. This disparity has prompted Eric Mottram to speak of "A"-9's canzone structure as a kind of "dandyism" whose "strained versifying operates a trite statement of art taking its place as labour in 1938-40" (98). Mottram's essay is one the best accounts of the difficulties of forging a materialist poetics, but it fails to historicize the oppositional meaning of Zukofsky's formalism with respect to competing theories of committed art during this period. Zukofsky used formalism not to aestheticize social tensions but to return a degree of use-value to an increasingly instrumentalized poetry. Rather than solve the problem as Oppen did--by giving up poetry altogether--Zukofsky sought to provide an immanent critique within the terms of modernism itself.

One way of understanding Zukofsky's formalism is to see it as a response to the larger issue of social reification. In Lukács's canonical description, reification refers to the transformation of labor power into a commodity, the objectification of "sensuous human activity" into a "second nature." Building upon Marx's notion of commodity fetishism in Capital, Lukács describes the process by which relations between individuals "take on the character of a thing and thus [acquire] a 'phantom objectivity"' (83). As Marx dramatizes (in a passage quoted in "A"-9), commodities seem to speak to each other, saying "our use-value may interest men, but it does not belong to us as objects. What does belong to us as objects, however is our value. Our own intercourse as commodities proves it. We relate to each other merely as exchange-values" (176-77). As both Marx and Lukács argue, when commodities acquire independent agency, the worker's role in creating them is occluded, leading to a sense of passivity and helplessness in the face of an autonomous, self-regulating market--"autotelic" in every sense.

Lukács is less interested in the specific economic factors contributing to reification than he is in the epistemological forces that maintain it. He describes the bourgeois philosophical tradition inherited from Kant as constructing a reflective consciousness that, while claiming power over its material surroundings, is unable to assess its own historical circumstance. The bourgeoisie, since it is implicated in this contemplative attitude, cannot rupture it; but the proletariat potentially can understand its own historical moment--and its alienation. What the proletariat "owns" is not labor power but a certain vantage by which the congealed version of that power in commodities can be seen for what it is. It is this vantage that preoccupies Zukofsky in his early poems and that becomes the focus of "Mantis."

"Mantis" concerns the perspective from which material conditions become detached from an observer. Rather than being about commodities or labor per se, the poem uses its own status as an aesthetic object as a lens for viewing social alienation. And since the observer in this poem is also a poet, the work explores the degree to which "looking" and "writing" are implicated in a single mode of production. It is not that social reality is reproduced through the poem but that, through describing the inability of poetry to remove barriers between individuals, the poem generates a second vantage "produced" in the interstices between formal accomplishment (the poem as made thing) and social inadequacies (the absence of a unified proletarian consciousness). The poem consists of two parts--a sestina and an interpretation--each of which augments and redefines the other. The sestina invokes the poet's sudden encounter with a praying mantis in a subway station; the interpretation accounts for the sestina itself, situating the encounter with the mantis within a larger meditation on writing. It may seem odd that Zukofsky chooses such a complex literary vehicle to deal with "the growing oppression of the poor," but the poem's recycling of terminal words according to a numerical formula provides a felicitous frame for rendering "The actual twisting / Of many and diverse thoughts" invoked by the mantis.

The sestina's invention is associated with Arnaut Daniel, who invented the form, but most important for Zukofsky is its use by Pound who, in The Spirit of Romance, described it as "a thin sheet of flame folding and infolding upon itself" (27). Pound wrote several sestinas in his early career and regarded the form as a paragon of virtuosic difficulty, a touchstone for poetic apprenticeship. Zukofsky, no longer an apprentice, uses it to address Pound at a moment (1934) when the older poet's increasing interest in Mussolini and Social Credit threatens their relationship. By subjecting the sestina to "ungainly" issues of poverty and urban alienation, Zukofsky confronts the dangers of poetic mastery divorced from the cultural and social institutions such mastery serves. Virtuosic control, as an end in itself, quickly becomes

Stuffing like upholstery
For parlor polish,
And our time takes count against them
For their blindness and their (unintended?) cruel smugness.

(All 76-77 [emphasis added])

Although Pound is not the antecedent here, a certain Victorian "smugness" associated with Pound's early personae is.

Although the title of the poem focuses on the mantis, clearly the subject is less the insect than the speaker's ambivalent response to it:

Mantis! praying mantis! since your wings' leaves
And your terrified eyes, pins, bright, black and poor
Beg--"look, take it up" (thoughts' torsion)! "save it!"
I who can't bear to look, cannot touch,--You--
You can--but no one sees you steadying lost
In the cars' drafts on the lit subway stone.

(All 73)

The shifting deixis of these lines dramatizes the speaker's ambivalence, both to the mantis and to the poor. The ambiguity of "it" in the third line suggests that he addresses himself as much as the mantis. For Zukofsky is asking whether or how to "take up" the event, how to give it form and stabilize "thoughts' torsion," much as the insect strives to steady itself in the drafty subway. The confusion of first and second persons ("I who can't bear to look, cannot touch,--You-- / You can--but no one sees you") points to the speaker's conflict about addressing those who challenge his autonomy. Deixis fails to differentiate the subject from the eyes around him, and by the end of the stanza the question of whose eyes are seeing whom is thoroughly vexed, although understandable for a poet who consistently pronounced I's as "eyes."

The only witness to the poet's discomfiture is the newsboy, but he is, in Lukács's terms, wrapped in the endless circulation of commodities, an extension of the reified history represented in his papers:

Even the newsboy who now sees knows it
No use, papers make money, makes stone, stone,
Banks, "it is harmless," he says moving on--You?

(All 73)

In the interpretation, the market logic introduced here is shown to be circular.

Rags make paper,
paper makes money, money makes
banks, banks make loans, loans make
poverty, poverty makes rags.


It is precisely this vicious circularity to which Zukofsky's poetic form refers, even as it offers its own alternative semiotic economy for six recycled words. Likewise, the problems of deixis and perspective illustrate the difficulties of looking at another outside of market relationships. The mantis, by breaking through the speaker's contemplative gaze, reminds him of cultural traditions that he has forgotten but nonetheless summons to explain the insect's mythic meaning:

Don't light on my chest, mantis! do--you're lost,
Let the poor laugh at my fright, then see it:
My shame and theirs, you whom old Europe's poor
Call spectre, strawberry, by turns; a stone--
You point--they say--you lead lost children--


The speaker's attraction to and repulsion from the mantis replicate his response to the poor, and by acknowledging "shame" he transforms self-closed revery into vulnerability and even empathy. By referring to "old Europe's poor," Zukofsky acknowledges his own ethnic origins, sustained by the affirmative nature of shared narratives. Just as the mantis is able to "lead lost children" in an old story, so it saves one modern subject from isolation.

At the end of the sestina, the poet realizes that, until he identifies his alienation with those around him, he cannot translate his subway experience for future generations. He urges the mantis to "Fly ... on the poor," as it has alighted on him, "arise like leaves / The armies of the poor, strength; stone on stone / And build the new world in your eyes, Save it!" The paraphrase of the socialist motto ("Build the new world in the shell of the old") is varied here to include the acts of looking and identifying that have dominated the poem so far. But the final tercet presents a too-tidy conclusion to a poem that has opened up more problems than it has solved.

If "Mantis" ended here, with the ringing injunction to "build the new world in your eyes," we would have been left with the very aestheticized politics deplored by Mottram. It is for "'Mantis,’ an Interpretation" to return to the poem and dismantle the totalizing gesture implied by the form and manifested in its utopian apostrophe. Zukofsky's mandate to append an interpretation is granted by Dante, whose Vita Nuova offers an earlier example of poetry plus commentary (albeit in prose). And as with Dante, Zukofsky wishes to render a transformative experience by interpreting the condition surrounding words brought to bear on it:

Mantis! Praying mantis! since your wings' leaves
            Incipit Vita Nova
            le parole ...
            almeno la loro sentenzia
the words ...
at least their substance
at first were
"The mantis opened its body
It had been lost in the subway
It steadied against the drafts
It looked up--
Begging eyes--
It flew at my chest"

--The ungainliness
of the creature needs stating.

(All 74-75)

Zukofsky includes a first-draft opening to the poem ("The mantis opened its body") to indicate his difficulty in finding words for an awkward moment. However "ungainly" these first twenty-seven words, they become the "pulse's witness" to the event, just as Dante’s "new life" begins with Beatrice's look. Zukofsky's equivalent look combines the "Begging eyes" of the mantis with those of the poor.

Zukofsky refuses to treat the mantis as a symbol, but he realizes that it "can start / History" by calling up disparate areas of knowledge and subjecting them to experience. Like Melville's whale, the mantis can become a curriculum:

line 1--entomology
line 9--biology
lines 10 and 11- the even rhythm of riding under-
        ground, and the sudden jolt are also
        of these nerves, glandular facilities,
        brain’s charges

(All 78-79)

This catalog, like the whimsical index at the end of "A" or the footnotes to "Poem Beginning 'The,’" presumes to account for topics invoked by the mantis, but the more Zukofsky includes, the less he verifies. For the listing of facts alone cannot account for the "original shock" provoked by the insect. When facts remain ends in themselves, they signal their distance from any actual exchange. What "Mantis" offers as a corrective is to provide "a use function of the material: / The original emotion remaining, / like the collective, / Unprompted" (79). For it is this "invoked collective" of disarranged and recombined facts that reestablishes contact, not to stop history with a verbal icon but to keep it alive and tangible in the present.

"Mantis" and its interpretation are one poem seeing modern history through two pairs of eyes. We could speak of the sestina as embodying the modernist attempt to secure sight through the imposition of formal constraints, the humanist achievement of mastery over the quotidian, the mantis turned into a symbol of the poor. But in the interpretation we discern a postmodern (and we might say post-Marxist) attempt to dereify the discourse of mastery in favor of internal critique. Neither poem exists without the other, just as the eyes of the mantis trade places with the eyes of its beholder.

From Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word. Copyright © 1997 by the Regents of the University of California.

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