August 19, 2014

The Man-Moth

        Today I present the first two verses of a poem by Elizabeth Bishop (US, 1911-1979).  Although those who like to divide literature into genres would never consider Bishop a fantasy poet, she definitely has a wonderfully wandering imagination that pulls magical flights of speculation out of ordinary settings.  In this case, the poem was actually inspired by a typo Bishop saw in a newspaper.  The article meant to mention a mammoth, but wrote “manmoth” instead, which led to the following odd but beautiful fantasy.

                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.

        (You can read the rest of the poem at the Poetry Foundation.)

Poem from North & South, 1946.
[Picture:  The Death’s Head Moth gives the Signal for the Silkworm’s funeral procession to begin, engraving by J.J. Grandville, first half 19th c (Image from Imagekind);
Detail from Essay de papilloneries humaines, etching by Charles Germain de Saint-Aubin, 1756-60 (Image from the British Museum).]

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