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  • November 2011
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POW: The Man-Moth by Elizabeth Bishop

I just discovered Elizabeth Bishop this year. I don’t know why I hadn’t read her before – her poem “One Art” is pretty famous, she hung out with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell, and she won a Pulitzer Prize in 1956 for her collection North & South, among other awards.  That’s the copy that I checked out from the library, after reading this essay on the Millions about Bishop and seeing the photo of her gravestone with its epitaph from one of her own poems:

“All the untidy activity continues, awful but cheerful.”

The library's copy is in much better condition.

With an epitaph like that one, I knew that Bishop must be a little bit of a hopeful cynic, and I had a hunch that I would enjoy her poems.  And I did – it took me weeks to read the book because I kept re-reading poems before I’d go on to the next one.

Since it was just Halloween and is now el Día de los Muertos, I thought I’d highlight one of the creepiest poems in the collection, “The Man-Moth“.  The premise is built on one misspelling in newspaper — “man moth” for “mammoth”.  From this, Bishop imagines what a man-moth might actually be, where he would live, and what he would do.

There’s nothing overtly monstrous about the man moth, (besides having a similar name to the urban legend of the Mothman) but descriptions like

“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.

 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. “

give a mental picture of a twitchy, buggy, humanoid who creeps around the city, coming up through cracks in the sidewalk to climb up the sides of buildings.  The adjectives in the poem lead the brain back to forming eerie images of everyday things: “battered moonlight”, “a temperature impossible to record in thermometers”, and further into the poem it is clear that we are seeing the world through the Man-Moth’s eyes (or through the eyes of someone who knows what the Man-Moth is thinking).  He’s afraid of the city but returns every night and is connected to it.  He’s sort of like a shy Batman.

Think about him the next time you’re walking around at night.

The Vapourer by Johnson Cameraface

– Tessa, CLP – East Liberty

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