Anne Colwell: On "The Man-Moth"

[Colwell quotes the last stanza in "the Man-Moth."]

The image of the flashlight relates to the central image pattern of the moon, the third rail and the eye; like these, iy represents and conducts energy. Holding up the flashlight to the Man-Moth’s eye, a kind of anti-moon, reveals both complete isolation, "all dark pupil, / an entire night itself," and the presence of a permeable membrane, a portal or hole that proves protection useless and connection possible.

The connection between Man and Man-Moth in the final stanza differs from the Man-Moth’s earlier attempts at connection because it involves a kind of strict attention that does not investigate outward but drinks in. By comparing the tear that may be drunk to the bee’s sting, Bishop makes explicit the implicit threat of each opportunity for connection and transcendence. The tear resembles a bee’s sting, which poisons the receiver and kills the giver; the vulnerability in any moment of connection – sexual, natal, or even intellectual – is equally dangerous. … The Man-Moth’s desire to palm his tear manifests this desire for displacement, the desire to hide and protect the internal self, like a coin he’d rather not pay. It also connects the Man-Moth with strange legendary creatures like genies and leprechauns, who must surrender their treasure when caught or summoned. In each case, attention can reveal the openings in the external facade and make connection with the internal or other world possible. The suggestion that the tear be drunk, that the other be internalized, relates to the image of the moon as birth canal; the mortal risk and the possibility for true connection through internalization seems to me a profoundly feminine image.

The Man-Moth’s tear belongs to a pattern of images in Bishop’s poems that concerns abolishing the self in order to preserve it, or in [Karl] Malkoff’s terms, escaping the self in order to realize it. earned by painful attention, the moment of connection concerns giving over control and enlarging perspective, rather than making reality small, manageable and egocentric. The tear is, as Lloyd Schwartz says, "a clarifying vision for whoever asks for it." To the criticism of readers who, like [Jerome] Mazzaro, complain about Bishop’s restraint, who lament "if only she had given up her ‘one tear,’" the poem answers, "You’re not paying attention." The price of attention is pain and vulnerability to pain, and the gift of attention is sensuous perception. "Cool as from underground springs" recalls both the subway home and the "entire night" of the Man-Moth’s self. "Pure enough to drink" suggests that the tear is not otherworldly, perfectly pure, but human, sufficient. In the act of imbibing the tear, man risks, the danger of self-annihilation, transcendence and understanding.


From Anne Colwell,"North & South: Finding a Language for How We Know," Chapter 1 in Inscrutable Houses: Metaphors of the Body in the Poems of Elizabeth Bishop (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997), 62-63


Title Anne Colwell: On "The Man-Moth" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Anne Colwell Criticism Target Elizabeth Bishop
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 03 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Inscrutable Houses: Metaphors of the Body in the Poems of Elizabeth Bishop
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