Human Desire

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

George F. Bagby: On "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things"

"The Need of Being Versed in Country Things," serves a function roughly analogous to that of "Design"; it reads a natural lesson the point of which is the potential uncertainty of natural lessons. The poem presents an interesting contrast to Promethean pieces like "Wild Grapes" and "There Are Roughly Zones." In each of those poems, an apparent natural lesson suggesting the limitations on human desire is cast aside in favor of a transcendent lesson reasserting the primacy of aspiration. "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things," on the contrary, deduces first an apparent lesson which implies the centrality of human concerns, and then a corrective lesson which insists that the heart's desires are not so central after all.

The first descriptive portion of the poem (lines 1-14) paints a somber natural emblem: a burned-out house, no longer occupied by humans, and a deserted barn now inhabited only by birds, which "At broken windows flew out and in." The preliminary, mistaken lesson of this scene, implicitly drawn in the next two lines, sees natural melancholy at the passing of human presence: the birds' "murmur" seems "more like the sigh we sigh / From too much dwelling on what has been." Such excessive "dwelling on" or living in the burned-out shell of the past would obviously be an un- Thoreauvian lesson, however; indeed, as the first poem of "The Hill Wife" group reminds us, it represents an essentially neurotic view of natural solicitude.

The poem, consequently, traces a second movement in its last two stanzas. There, as the poem's perspective broadens, the scene, though emptied of human activity, is perceived as no less hospitable to the phoebes, to life in the broad sense, than it has always been. In these lines personification, ironically, not only assures us that the birds do not weep for the loss of human companions ("they rejoiced in the nest they kept"—always a double-edged verb in Frost). It also suggests that the nonhuman world—not only the "aged" elm, but even the inanimate pump which "flung up an awkward arm" and fence post which "carried a strand of wire" to provide convenient perches—manifests just the sort of solicitude for the phoebes which the phoebes do not manifest for the departed humans. Thus even a scene of human desolation, perceived in a sufficiently broad natural context, is an emblem of continuing vitality (and nonhuman community). That true lesson has been hinted at as early as the poem's opening quatrain, where the submerged metaphor suggests a Thoreauvian kind of springtime renewal out of apparent autumnal death. "The house had, gone to bring" a glow to the sky, but the chimney is left standing "Like a pistil after the petals go"—like the reproductive center of the faded flower, bearing the seed of another generation.

As its structure and title imply, however, "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things" is not primarily about natural resilience and regeneration; it uses that lesson chiefly to illustrate a larger concern: the dangers of a too narrowly human perspective-not unlike that parodied in "The Most of It." The poem does not suggest that natural wisdom is inaccessible to the human observer (the true lesson, after all, waits to be read in the scene); but it does chasten what might be called the Blakean tendencies of the imagination and warn us of the dangers (not to mention the emptiness) of finding only our immediate selves in the natural text. The legitimate use of personification here is to represent something like solicitude in the natural world, not for us, but for itself.


From Frost and the Book of Nature. Copyright © 1993 by The University of Tennessee Press.