“The Man-Moth” (written 1935, published 1936)
Man-Moth: Newspaper misprint for “mammoth.”
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.
Up the façades,
his shadow dragging like a photographer’s cloth behind him
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.
(Man, standing below him, has no such illusions.)
But what the Man-Moth fears most he must do, although
he fails, of course, and falls back scared but quite unhurt.
Then he returns
to the pale subways of cement he calls his home. He flits,
he flutters, and cannot get aboard the silent trains
fast enough to suit him. The doors close swiftly.
The Man-Moth always seats himself facing the wrong way
and the train starts at once at its full, terrible speed,
without a shift in gears or a gradation of any sort.
He cannot tell the rate at which he travels backwards.
Each night he must
be carried through artificial tunnels and dream recurrent dreams.
Just as the ties recur beneath his train, these underlie
his rushing brain. He does not dare look out the window,
for the third rail, the unbroken draught of poison,
runs there beside him. He regards it as a disease
he has inherited the susceptibility to. He has to keep
his hands in his pockets, as others must wear mufflers.
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” was one of Bishop’s earliest New York poems. She described the composition of the poem:
The poem was written in 1935 when I first lived in New York City. I’ve forgotten what it was that was supposed to be “mammoth.” But the misprint seemed meant for me. An oracle spoke from the page of the New York Times, kindly explaining New York City to me, at least for a moment. (quoted in Harrison 58)
It is as much a poem about the city as it is a poem about Bishop sense of alienation in the city. In Five Looks at Elizabeth Bishop, critic Anne Stevenson claims that the poem is “about how New York creates its own type of ‘hopeful monster’” (69). Above ground, man is unimpressive: “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.” Stevenson goes on to describe the Man-Moth as man’s “alter-ego…an alien, insect-like creature of whose existence Man is almost always unaware” (69). Although the Man-Moth is fruitless in his Sisyphean attempts to reach the moon, “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,” he is heroic in his tragic attempts. The hopeful Man-Moth is drawn to the moon’s pin-prick of light as he tries to escape the confining, industrial city, but he is nevertheless drawn back into the bowels of the mechanized city with its “artificial tunnels.” Bishop reveals the Man-Moth’s sense of estrangement that he still feels when he returns to the “pale subways of cement he calls his home”: “The Man-Moth always seats himself facing the wrong way/and the train starts at once at its full, terrible speed,/without a shift in gears or a gradation of any sort./He cannot tell the rate at which he travels backwards.” The Man-Moth is the heroic romantic in the dirty, deadening streets, at odds with the “terrible” movement of the city.
Victoria Harrison compares the backward-facing Man-Moth to Bishop, who felt estranged and “different” in the city. She quotes a notebook entry of Bishop’s from the summer Bishop wrote the poem:
My friendly circumstances, my ‘good fortune,’ surround me so well & safely, & only I am wrong, inadequate. It is a situation like one of those solid crystal balls with little silvery objects inside: thick, clear, appropriate glass—only the little object, me, is sadly flawed and shown off as inferior to the setting. (quoted in Harrison 59)
Critic, Brett Millier, also reads the alienated Man-Moth as a representation of Bishop’s own anxieties living as a young poet in the city. She suggests that the poem exposes: “the terrible fear living in the city involves for the extrasensitive, who must nonetheless seek out and experience what she fears” (99). Coming from the sheltered environment of Vassar, Bishop at times saw New York as an urban nightmare. In Becoming a Poet, David Kalstone claims that Bishop associated a “seductive adult persona” with city life (32). The dark adulthood of the city is portrayed as a threat in “The Man-Moth” but any attempts to escape it through the small opening of the moon are futile. Bishop’s assimilation to the city and acknowledgement of her own independent life as an adult and poet were just as inevitable.
The final stanza of the poem urges the reader to sympathize with the cast-off Man-Moth. From his “dark pupil,/an entire night itself,” we are encouraged to reach out for his one gift, a tear that symbolizes his heroic suffering. Ignored, the Man-Moth will just subsist on his own cool tears, but if we identify with him, we will be given his only possession, “cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink.” Bishop suggests that in the face of the city’s rawness and meanness, the one thing that can nourish us is sympathetic identification with others. The Man-Moth can be seen as a suffering artist (or poet) figure who produces the rejuvenating tear (art) for us if we are willing to see him and reach out a hand.