Isolationism

C.K. Doreski: On "The Man-Moth"

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          light.

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

Heather Zadra: On "I Forgot for a Moment"

One of the striking features of Millay's "I Forgot For a Moment" is its seemingly uncompromised willingness to idealize, perhaps even gloss over, the reality of the highly charged situation at hand: the defeat of France by and retreat of Britain from German forces in June 1940, Mussolini's declaration of war on both nations, also in June, and Britain's refusal to accept or negotiate Hitler's demands, resulting in the initiation of full-scale naval warfare between England and Germany (Overy). Millay's poem seems ready to forget the political volatility of the time in favor of a fantasy of peace and harmony, of "striped fields of tulips" and "straight roads / Lined with slender poplars," even as that fantasy is so utterly unrealizable as to seem only "as if I slept and dreamt." Compared to her antiromantic sonnets, this piece appears to do just the opposite of the former's intention: rather than debunk an idealized myth of love or war, "I Forgot For a Moment" allows the speaker to indulge in a pretty dream-world in which political action can be surrendered in favor of watching the nice peasants plow the verdant land.

Of course, I'm setting this analysis up to refute my own intentionally overstated claims thus far, for I think that the poem, while genuinely striking *for* its vision of a world devoid of corruption, also performs a very specific political task in the images that underlie the words themselves. These representations are significant not for their articulation but for their very absence in the piece. In Gale's depiction of Millay's life, he describes her as a "once-pacifist" poet who became enamoured with the cause of the Allies and began "to call for preparedness and then...dash off pro-British and pro-French propaganda verse." Though Gale somewhat trivializes Millay's investment in her "war work," he does point to the specifically political nature of these poems, and certainly we can see the strength of this commitment in Millay's justifiably accusatory "Say that We Saw Spain Die" of 1938.

From a purely aesthetic perspective, "I Forgot For a Moment" is quite lovely to read; we can almost see the images rise before us, Millay's emphasis on color and order, "straight[ness]" and "bright[ness]," having the effect of a precisely planned, carefully constructed painting. The verses are sing-songey, even nursery rhyme-like, and give the poem a sense of innocence appropriate to the speaker's reaction to her surroundings, and to "a world...inept / At twisted words and crooked deeds." The speaker's emphasis on the blending of human creations and natural elements further lends to the sense of balance evident throughout the poem. "The peasants on the skyline ploughing," like the "straight canals" that provide water for the "fields of tulips," demonstrate the symbiotic relationship between nature and those who care for it.  And yet, in looking closer, in searching beyond the artistic, even quality of the poem, we can see shadows of a more serious call to action, hints of the bloodshed that will not *allow* Millay's readers to "forg[e]t" the countries that so desperately need American popular and military support in this historical moment. The terms that the speaker uses to describe her slip into reverie, for instance, never enable her to submit to complete oblivion; even as she may have "forgot[ten]" France and England's present states of horror, it is only "for a moment," a brief instant in time. After this she, like the readers to whom she speaks in the poem, must rise and awake, work toward some version of the dream in the context of a relatively bleak reality. Similarly, the very invocation of words such as "tank"--even as the word is negated in the phrase "not a tank"--forces readers out of the dream-moment and into the realization that, somewhere, right now, tanks *are* "crushing the tulips" so carefully planted in a village, a plot, somebody's garden. 

Millay uses other, less specific terms to suggest the atrocities of war, even as she places them in the context of untainted beauty and peace. The speaker's concern to discern individual shades of red in the tulips (previously she describes only "yellow" and "white"), "Scarlet strip[s] and mauve strip[s]," invokes shades of blood, soaking through, perhaps, onto "strips" of gauze, and the "level lowlands" that bloom for "Mile after mile" simultaneously suggest the aforementioned tank's "levelling" of acres upon acres of land. The image of "Broad ships" allows us only to see the sails, for the hulls--the places where the weaponry and machinery of war are kept--are "by tulip-beds concealed." The poem's pointed covering-up of the articles of war necessarily reveals them to readers, makes them more significant than the images that actually concretely appear. Millay's intention becomes clear in her use of such a linguistic approach; absences become conspicuous and noticable, and emerge as reasons for the impossibility of forgetting--much less ignoring--which is the right side to take in the war. Millay crafted a speaker who mimics and then undercuts the widespread isolationism of American readers.

The most explicit indicator of the speaker's position, of course, is in her description of the "wrong side's" false oaths as it breaks into the dream-world and is silenced: 

...the harsh foreign voice  hysterically vowing,  Once more, to keep its word, at length was disbelieved, and hushed.

In this closing image, the imagined world allows concrete reality to enter its space more tangibly than the poem has done thus far. The power of the poem lies in its ability to not only suggest the grief and horror enacted in the days preceding July 1940, but also to provide a more substantial vision of the desired end to the conflict. In other words, even as the speaker envisions the defeat of fascism and Nazism in her mind, she burdens her readers with their own "heavy care," their responsibility to make such an articulation a reality.

copyright © 2001 by Heather Zadra