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Susan Vanderborg on "Mantis"


From Eye to Ear: The Flight of "'Mantis'"

The sestina "'Mantis'" and the "Interpretation" that accompanies it illustrate a critical stage in the transition beyond Imagism. The poem superficially echoes the style of an early Pound or Williams lyric whose central image captures--and sublimates--a vignette of urban squalor. Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" is a concise example:

The apparition of these faces in a crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

The slightly frightening swirl of passengers refocuses in the single image of the flower. Pound explained the poem's origin in his glimpse of a beautiful child in a subway (Gaudier-Brzeska 88): the underground passage lighted by the flowerlike face recalls the myth of Persephone, the amazed moment when the young girl "gathering flow’rs / Herself a fairer flow’r by gloomy Dis / Was gathered," in Milton's imagery (85). The language of "bottomness" and heights is present not only in the contrast between the meadow and the subway-Hades but also in the very type of figurative language. Metaphor rests on hierarchical levels of meaning--here the factual base and its transformation through the classical allusion to spring imprisoned in winter. "The ‘one image poem,'" Pound makes explicit, "is a form of super-position, that is to say, it is one idea set on top of another" (Gaudier-Brzeska 89). The priority of ideas is clear in "A Station of the Metro," where the actual faces of the crowd paradoxically become the apparition, and historical context drops out in the recognition of a literary trope recurring across time.

Zukofsky's " 'Mantis' " also describes an underground subway scene, juxtaposing a fragile, flowerlike insect with beggars asleep on stone benches, a newsboy selling papers, and a crowd of self-absorbed passengers. Here too the narrator feels visually and empathically isolated from the scene, although he regrets that distance more openly: "I who can't bear to look, cannot touch" (Complete Short Poetry 65). As a result, the mantis's "flights" become increasingly imaginative, the "Interpretation" tracing the circulation of currency and material that creates an underclass: " 'Rags make paper / paper makes money, money makes / banks, banks make loans, loans make / poverty, poverty makes rags' " (Complete Short Poetry 71). The analysis might be better suited to the Cantos' sense of history than to an Imagist lyric; the poem is also more hortatory, with its concluding call to action: "Fly, mantis, on the poor, arise like leaves," anticipating the "armies of the poor" (Complete Short Poetry 66). Nevertheless, the call still seems to depend on the insect's symbolic links to the poor and a vocabulary of elevating base material conditions through interpretive vision. " 'Look, take it up,' " the narrator imagines the mantis begging him, in order to "save it!"--as if the author might, through his own "(thoughts' torsion)!" (Complete Short Poetry 65), find a redeeming meaning in a scene that would otherwise be lost.

A closer analysis confuses the hierarchy of factual base and symbol. The speaker insists, in the "Interpretation" immediately following the poem, that these "facts are not a symbol" for the poor: "No human being wishes to become / An insect for the sake of a symbol" (Complete Short Poetry 70). Readers determined to read the mantis as an emblem, or those who desire only a delicate "grace" in "the visual sense," do so at the cost of isolating the insect from its past and present contexts (Complete Short Poetry 68). The significance of the mantis changes as it hops--often arbitrarily within the same line--between the startled speaker and those he watches, between Old World and New World poor, between myth and history. In quick succession the insect is hailed as a spectre from European folktales and a faked flower, hardly reassuring images for its role of guide or prophetess. The noted artificiality in "faked flower" introduces its modern, urban incarnation as machined wheels and android at the same time it is also an emotional supplicant, loving beggar. Neither vision nor symbolism can provide a fully adequate transition for all these transformations. The constantly reimagined mantis, Michael Davidson argues, works to "dereify" the object status of the poor (525).

In spite of the fractured imagery, however, the sestina does not seem formally unstructured or fragmented. On the contrary, the reader is impressed by the dense presence of sound patterns in the stanzas as they repeat, and vary the sequence of, the six end words. It was that very musicality that attracted Pound to the sestina and canzone forms, the tangibility of a poem that "can be well judged only when heard spoken, or sung to its own measure" (Spirit of Romance 26). For Zukofsky, John Taggart asserts, an Objectivist "sincerity," or attention to poetry’s measure and sound, becomes the test of the poet's connection with his subject: "If the poet's personal love or compassionate emotion for the poor cannot be finally determined, it nonetheless can be inferred from his love of language, his consciousness of word combinations and the construction to the extent that, in Eric Mottram's phrase, "technique is mythicized" (66). " 'Mantis' " does give the impression of a myth sestina, multiplying and interweaving the rules of an already difficult form with exaggerated virtuosity as it traces the transformations of both perceiver and perceived. Instead of limiting the repetition to six end words, the poem plays with internal variations of at least seven others, not including homonyms, puns, and near rhymes. In order to have any thematic progression in this intense recycling of material, the words must be continually recontextualized; the poem's ingeniousness lies in its finding so many possible contexts within the space of its lines.

The six end words of the first stanza, for example, are arranged as leaves / poor / it / you / lost / stone. Thus placed, they might be minimalist notes for an elegy, with fallen leaves suggesting the plight of the poor, an explanation given of "its" significance for the messenger’s or poet's "you," and finally a promise to commemorate loss with inscriptions on a monument "stone." But the rearranged endings of the next stanza immediately satirize that reading with the announcement that the memorial stone / leaves are themselves lost, with poor / you left to confront a final, ambiguous it that has not been adequately summarized. "Poor you" might suggest the poem's own descriptive poverty, yet it is precisely because these nouns and pronouns are so imagistically reductive that their potential range of referents and narratives is so vast. The recycling of other words adds new combinations to the sequences; the two most frequent additions, "save!" and "new" or "news," pointedly call the speaker to creative action rather than rote repetition.

The individual words and their homonyms create subnarratives as they are transformed from one line context to the next. The subway drafts or artificial winds in the first stanza seem to mechanize the mantis into the windup toy of the second. But they also anticipate the freeing wind that gives wing to apes--and, perhaps, to ape-descended men as well--in a conclusion where old constructions are undone. Cold stone threatens to crush the mantis and offers little shelter to the beggars; that external environment is assimilated as internal strength when the poor reveal themselves in the closing tercet as "stone on stone" The fallen leaves of the first stanza and the fear of being left behind without guidance are reassembled as the leaves of the narrator's page. Leave thus parallels another core word, lost, which fulfills its name by dropping out in the tercet as the mantis finds its direction, abandoning fear to rouse the poor from their lethargy.

This process of recontextualizing the word comes close to what Zukofsky imagined in "An Objective" as an alternative to the visual metaphor: "the single word which is in itself a relation, an implied metaphor" (Prepositions 14). "Obviously I can't make [a table] eat grass," Zukofsky explained in a later interview, attempting to define his use of "objectification." "I have delimited this thing, in a sense. I call it a table and I want to keep the word for its denotative sense--as solid as possible" (Interview 266). The technique of preserving the word and its concrete referent, and at the same time allowing it to display its own internal possibilities, is the answer to the narrator's ambivalent plea for the poor: "Save it!"--rescue the oppressed from an endangering situation, but also preserve their force and integrity. Zukofsky projects a revolution within the poor; the viewer returns to them as an agent that is always already multiple, requiring only the impetus of fresh associations, rather than an outsider's imagination, in order to display itself. Where Pound's credo was "make it new," Zukofsky watches his subject make itself "Anew," the talismanic word opening one poem about a "people cheated" (Complete Short Poetry 79).

Compare the two poets' use of repetition and transformation even on the microlevels of form, their alliterative play with the letters that begin the words "poor" and "beggar." Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" contrasts p and b sounds to emphasize the softness of the petals and the apparitional faces against the harder, mundane background that threatens to overwhelm them: "petals ... black, bough." Zukofsky combines both p and b sounds to describe a single visual focus, the mantis, in its own multiple aspects, calling our attention to the fact that the two sounds are only voiced and unvoiced variants of the same phoneme. The description of the insect's eyes in line two as "pins, bright, black, and poor" creates an aural chiasmus where the mantis's softer, unthreatening aspects (its slenderness and lack of resources) surround the more boldly distinctive traits ("bright, black"). The mantis is a "spectre," a nearly effaced presence, but it is also the harder sounding, more noticeable "beggar." As the poem progresses, the "softer" sounds themselves betray more menacing qualities. The central homonyms behind the mantis, "praying" and "preying," capture the apparent desperation of an insect whose clasped legs are actually raised to devour others. The interpreter who ignores either the vulnerability or the hidden power of the insect will misunderstand its true potential, just as one might overlook the complex nature of the human poor among whom it travels. the phonetic play allows Zukofsky to make his point explicit: the victimized need only to "voice" the strength they already possess.

The focus on self-transformation within given resources is crucial because it offers a way out of the seemingly closed economic cycles delineated earlier in the poem. The cycles perpetuate themselves by assigning different fixed values to products (paper, rags, money) made from the same material and to agents (banker, pauper) who might be forced to reverse positions, as the depression had already demonstrated. Recognizing the interchangeability of the stages alerts one to the system's artificiality. The final transition to voiced sounds in the tercet of " 'Mantis' " does coincide with a vision of vocalized crowds rising against their oppression:

Fly, mantis, on the poor, arise like leaves
The armies of the poor, strength: stone on stone
And build the new world in your eyes, Save it!

The organized "poor" now triumphantly "build," a word whose closing sounds also anticipate a new "world." The tentative injunction "fly" moves to the harder v in the command "Save!" while the soft s of strength and mantis becomes "arise" and a focus upon the mantis's "eyes," as the power to see and change passes from the watcher to the watched.

Such gestures of exchange seem to offer even the most disempowered a chance to rewrite their situation. The question, however, is whether Zukofsky's particular word games are the most appropriate language in which to invoke a new "collective" of readers (Complete Short Poetry 72). If one takes literally the dictum that poetry is "[l]ower limit speech / Upper limit music" ("A"-12, 138), then to work with the phonetics of language should theoretically flatten all communications to equivalent surfaces, a kind of musical ur-language whose accents and rhythms anyone could appreciate. The awkwardness of the insect's "terrified eyes, pins, bright, black, and poor" (Complete Short Poetry 65), for instance, might be inferred from the line's harsh, jerky diction. Much of the language in "`Mantis' " takes the form of simple monosyllables: "Let the poor laugh at my fright, then see it" (Complete Short Poetry 66), and its vocabulary is deliberately ordinary: "leaves," "seat," "stomach," "chest."

Yet to depend solely upon sounds or isolated words ignores the question of the poem's semantics. The crowded language, ambiguous syntax, and lack of transitions in " 'Mantis' " make it all but inaccessible at points. "An Interpretation" is less helpful than its title implies, offering not a paraphrase or explanation but a catalogue of abstruse sources in a playful dialogue with the sestina. The most "collective" aspect of the poem still seems to be in the range of what it includes--legends from Provençal, West Pacific, and East European immigrant cultures, combined with quotations from Marx, the British Admiralty, and a Wisconsin newspaper--rather than the easy communicability of its language. Indeed, the prospect of "[w]ords ranging forms" ("A"-5, 20) in other lyrics includes contrasting dialects mixed together, instead of one uniform address to the reader. Zukofsky blends street colloquialisms ("Dem Rooshans ain't rational, why!" "A"-6, 34) with fragments of foreign poetry; "Shimaunu-San," the melodic creation of a Yiddish poet, rubs elbows with "Ricky, bro'," itself the transformed name of a college boy who committed suicide ("A"-7, 42).

These linguistic strands are intended as more than a modernist collage. Zukofsky believed that sound patterns, if not a semantic code in themselves, could be used as tools to translate between different dialects and different historical contexts. "I think there's a close relationship between families of languages, in this physiological sense," he proposed. "Something must have led the Greeks to say hudor and for us to say water" (Interview 267). Over a period of eleven years, Zukofsky and his wife translated Catullus through sound cognates and latinate syntax in order "to breathe the 'literal' meaning" of the poetry rather than merely paraphrase (Complete Short Poetry 243). As a result, the line "Vale, puella, iam Catullus obdurat," for instance, becomes "Vale! puling girl. I'm Catullus, obdurate" (Complete Short Poetry 248). If such structural equivalence best preserves the meaning of the poem, then the formal patterns of "'Mantis'" should be widely communicable to auditors rather than forcing them back upon the exegesis of its "thoughts' torsion" (Complete Short Poetry 68).

If the argument seems tortuous, it is because these translations between sound patterns or language families are not always resolvable at the literal level of communication in Zukofsky's poetry. Nor do they offer a clear political praxis for reaching the poor. Zukofsky's lyrics, I have argued, are most political in their insistence that "objective" vision is a fallacy and in their unwillingness to elide referential contexts. Zukofsky's poetry of the twenties and thirties may be among his most rhetorically Marxist, adapting a vocabulary of alienation and exchange-value to the use of language as a material commodity. But Zukofsky's verbal exchanges are ultimately inspired by a spiritual perception of language and history rather than the implications of one political ideology. His translations invoke a discourse of originary presence and value, using an almost mystical projection of broken language as a prelude to forming a new community of readers.

Breaking the Word

Zukofsky appended the following note to a selection of love poetry in his aptly named anthology, A Test of Poetry, in order to justify the English translations of Ovid: "Good verse is determined by the 'core of the matter,’ which is, after all, the poet's awareness of the differences, changes, and possibilities of existence. If poetry does not always translate literally from one language to another, from one time to another, certain lasting emotions find an equivalent or paraphrase in all times" (60). The "good" translator acknowledges that different linguistic materials are only types of the same principle. Whether the "lasting" emotion is called sincerity, eros, or the Spinozan ethic of love that responds to the alienation of labor in "A"-9, Zukofsky chooses to paraphrase its value in his own poetry by addressing both matter and spirit in an incarnational language of communion.

The early sections of "A" and many other lyrics are structured around the myth of Christ's crucifixion and Easter rising. That act is commemorated in the ritual of communion, where the body broken on the cross is reintegrated into a congregation with the breaking and eating of the sacramental bread. Zukofsky was not committed to a specifically Christian theology per se, but seemed intrigued by the motif of transforming visual absence into another type of presence that could unite a community. The god's absence from the tomb that the mourners open proves his divinity as a Word that will redeem all men universally. "See Him! Whom?" the speaker queries in "A"-7, about "The Son / of Man" ("A" 40). This is not only a quotation from the first chorus of Bach's St. Matthew Passion but also the form of the medieval quem quaeritis, the question asked in the procession of Corpus Christi that celebrated the Eucharist: "Whom do you seek? Him who is risen"--and who is manifest even before the search for his image. When Zukofsky's construction-workers in "A"-7 demand "a meal, new techniques" from the poet to enable their own ascension as "Saviours" ("A"- 42), they conflate the Eucharist with the materiality of poetic form, as if the writer on his stoop might become a version of the dispensing priest at the altar.

A communional vocabulary helps to explain sequences of " 'Mantis' " that elude a straightforwardly political reading. The narrator's first impression of the insect is the exposure of its vulnerability: "the mantis opened its body" (Complete Short Poetry 68). That offering may also be a kind of predation, since the mantis opens itself in lovemaking to devour its partner: "Is it love's food your raised stomach prays?" (Complete Short Poetry 66). The violence seems misplaced in a political context unless it is read as the poor's ignorant destruction of their own kind rather than of the masters who threaten them. The sacrifice/predation of a figure linked to the poor becomes more complex through the mantis's association with Christ. This "prophetess," the narrator predicts, will be "[k]illed by thorns (once men)," coming to rest against stone and then rising once more (Complete Short Poetry 66). The prayed-for vision of a body consumed in the act of love does lead the poet to find unexpected resurrections around him: "dead, bones, it / Was assembled, apes wing in wind" (Complete Short Poetry 66), while the fallen leaves, a conventional trope for human mortality, are suddenly lifted with the insect at the end of the poem. I do not propose " 'Mantis' " as a Christian allegory any more than a Marxist one. What the metaphor of broken love offers the poet is a linguistic strategy, the "Vita Nova" that begins as "le parole" (Complete Short Poetry 67). As the narrator tries to reconcile "the simultaneous" and the "diaphanous, historical / In one head"--the apparently self-enclosed present and the larger context that produces it--the leaves of his own text adopt the communional technique of breaking and recombining the word (Complete Short Poetry 73).

There are stylistic precedents for the technique in a seventeenth-century religious writer such as George Herbert, whose "Crown" Zukofsky quotes in A Test of Poetry as an example of devotional verse. Herbert was also distrustful of imagery, which came from the carnal human imagination and too often glorified the things of this world. Instead of imagistic embellishments, he tried to find remnants of the divine Word by violently breaking apart the sound patterns of human communication through anagrams, puns, alliteration, and call-and-response formats--all familiar techniques in Zukofsky's early lyrics. Breaking the word was partly an act of humility, thwarting the craftsman's pride in his work--and an impartially leveling gesture since all human communication, high and low, was equally fallen. But what he searched for in these reduced pieces of language was the perception that all fragments are united in an originary whole. As Heather Asals observes, Herbert openly adopted the persona of the priest who "breaks the word and letter to expose the many which is one" (12). To indulge in the sensual sounds of language for its own sake would be sinful nonsense, but the melody might be used, in the Augustinian sense of use as opposed to enjoyment, to guide readers toward an unearthly beauty (Asals 61). The dialogue between a human questioner and a supernatural "Echo" in Herbert's poem "Heaven" dramatizes that use of broken language:

O who will show me those delights on high?
    Echo.                 I.
Thou Echo, thou art mortall, all men know.
    Echo.             No.
.….................
Then tell me, what is that supreme delight?
    Echo.             Light.
Light to the minde: what shall the will enjoy?
    Echo.              Joy.

The substance of the holy instruction is repeated from the letters and the sound of the human speaker's own question. "Light" can come from the "delight" of this wordplay, and even the negation of mortality depends upon the expression of mortal knowledge: know/No. Like Zukofsky, Herbert suggests that the problem with our communication is not the corruptness of "what all men know" but the fact that each speaker expresses a partial knowledge, favoring one narrow reading or set of readers. The poet's act of fragmenting and recontextualizing information paradoxically provides more opportunities of glimpsing an immanent structure within it.

Zukofsky uses the same play on delight/light and other equivocations in the word games of "29 Songs," a series of poems that question whether language can restore a community that has lost contact with its labor, its environment, and ultimately the ability to express love. The messenger insect in "Crickets' thickets" anticipates "'Mantis.'"

[. . . .]

The words [of "Crickets' thickets] are so elliptically broken that they seem almost swallowed by the white space of the page. As in Herbert's poem, however, where multiple leaves are subsumed into something unitary and deathless, the low "crickets' thickets" combine into one "delight"; the different "eyes" or perspectives become a single "air," evoking music. What is found, perhaps, by the "keeper" is a faith in the interconnectedness of the fragmented language and its users that tempers the lightning (suggestive both of divine anger and of human weaponry in this pre-World War II poem), promising "doom/nowhere" for those who are not too preoccupied to hear the crickets' quieter melody. In a series of lyrics about possession--that necessarily partial act of appropriation--and the destruction it causes, Zukofsky deliberately makes this plea for a more open type of exchange with the sparsest possible materials. Celia Zukofsky adds an interesting coda to the crickets' song that reinforces its message of connection: the poet would send out this seemingly hermetic poem ten years later as a Christmas greeting to his friends (Terrell 47).

The lightness of the crickets' song becomes the verbal density of language in "'Mantis,'" which breaks down a more worldly narrative into its lowest common denominator of sounds and syllables: the "use function of the material" (Complete Short Poetry 72). As in the averted lightning of "Crickets," however, the violence seems directed against the hubris of creating fixed meanings through language, meanings that divide because they are partial when taken alone. The readings of the poor, when they remain "separate" in "`Mantis’" are themselves "too poor," too narrow, to effect change. The newsboy continues to sell his papers within the system, unable to see the herald insect as anything but "harmless" (Complete Short Poetry 66). "An Interpretation," by contrast, refuses to limit the "thoughts' torsion" that the mantis provokes by choosing among religious, political, or poetic language for its defining meaning. It is not simply an engagement of multiplicity for its own sake, Zukofsky insists; what is more important is how one uses the material, the range of "simultaneous" disciplines, to reveal their common formulations of presence and loss, the collective and the discrete. The "Head remembering these words" (Complete Short Poetry 73) in all their contexts might trace a relation between the artificer's labored "drafts" of a sestina and the mechanical winds engineered in the subway, or it might reconsider the levels of myth and poetry within Marx's Manifesto and the reasons why he chose a "spectre" to represent the onset of communism. These connections do anticipate a possible alliance between the poet and the workers he watches without prioritizing the vision of either.

There are traces of a pattern even in the seeming disorder of "'Mantis,' An Interpretation," which echoes the sestina in its repetition of key words. Terms denoting mutability ("movement," "coincidence," "ungainliness") are recycled in counterpoint to ones of "origin" ("original shock," "original title," "original emotion"). It is no coincidence in the schema for " 'Mantis' " that the sestina's last myth is a myth of creation. If the search for revolution does seem to come full circle to a recollection of beginnings, history itself at the end of the "Interpretation" becomes "diaphanous," a laden neo-Platonic term from Pound's vocabulary (Complete Short Poetry 73). In Canto XXXVI, Pound imagined the "diafan" as a material through which light could be made visible; the process was associated with language, whose fragmentary notes might evoke the memory of a lost coherence (Cantos 177). Poetry may not be able to transcribe all "the implications of a too regular form" in Zukofsky's work (Complete Short Poetry 70), but neither can it ignore the drive toward "the original which is a permanence" (Complete Short Poetry 68) out of the scattered pieces.

For Pound, the forms seen through the diafan translated all material things into light. Zukofsky's focus is slightly different; he emphasizes a collective order within language that is grounded in a material community. In his myth of an incarnational word, there is a nostalgic sense that if we could go back far enough to an originary language, we might also return to a point before bodies were separated into artificial distinctions of class, religion, or nationality--a "Sum" constructed of "voice," where "All thinges is comune" (Complete Short Poetry 78). It would be the reversal of Babel, the fall into a false multiplicity where the one language and tribe are supplanted by isolated fragments. The apes of "'Mantis'" that wing in the wind are taken from a Melanesian legend but also suggest a shared point of evolutionary origin. The narrator in "A"-7 commands the messiah to "[c]hoose Jews' shoes or whose: anyway Choose!" (Complete Short Poetry 41), a reminder that the choice of one denomination to express the Word should not matter, just as the first Christian was himself Jewish. Zukofsky's anagrams and number games can in fact be traced further back to their roots in Hebrew kabbalistic traditions, whose vision of God as a broken Name was later incorporated into strands of Christian Mysticism.

From "'words Ranging Forms': Patterns of Exchange in Zukofsky’s Early Lyrics" in Mark Scroggins (Ed.) Upper Limit Music: The Writing of Louis Zukofsky. Copyright © 1997 by The University of Alabama Press.


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