The action of this poem centers on Zukofsky’s discovery of a praying mantis in a New York subway stop. The insect begs to be acknowledged and to be "taken up," to be "saved" from an indifferent urban, capitalistic society. The speaker overcomes his initial. repulsion and permits the mantis to light on his chest. The insect is then envisioned as an emblem of the poor and alienated individual who is either ignored or crushed by society. Even the poor reject the mantis out of shame, fright, or despair. But if the mantis can transform the speaker, it can also bring light to the oppressed, rekindle the spark of revolution, and create the energy to build a new world. Realizing this, the speaker tells the mantis:
Android, loving beggar, dive to the poor
Say, I am old as the globe, the moon, it
Is my old shoe, yours, be free as the leaves.
Fly mantis, on the poor, arise like leaves
The armies of the poor, strength: stone on stone
And build the new world in your eyes, Save it!
If the mantis's task is to save the world, the poet's task is to save this moment, this experience through language and music. The question of process and form become central; what form or structure will save this experience? Surprisingly, Zukofsky has chosen the sestina--a thirty-nine line poem consisting of six six-line stanzas and a three-line envoy; the initial six end words are repeated in differing order throughout the poem. Thus a highly traditional and formal structure is selected to capture a revolutionary experience. Zukofsky, who realizes this paradox and the fact that "Our world will not stand it, / the implications of a too regular form," provides an examination and rationale for his selection of the sestina in " 'Mantis,' An Interpretation," which immediately follows the poem itself. Here he writes that the poem is not merely an experiment in form, what he calls "wicker work," but rather the result of a natural, creative force that drew him to the sestina form. Key to this is the nature of the experience with its diverse, conflicting feelings and thought occurring in a simultaneous fashion: "Thoughts'--two or three or five or / Six thoughts' reflection (pulse's witness) of what was happening / All immediate, not moved by any transition." To Zukofsky, this was "the battle of diverse thoughts--/ The actual twisting / Of many and diverse thoughts." Six twisting thoughts naturally attract the poet to the sestina form, which is marked by its six twisting end words.