Friday, September 12, 2014

The Mammoth

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.
One is offered such oracular statements all the time, but often misses them, gets lazy about writing them out in detail, or the meaning refuses to stay put. This poem seems to have stayed put fairly well – but as [Thomas] "Fats" Waller used to say, "One never knows, do one?"
                from Elizabeth Bishop, "On ‘The Man-Moth,’" in Poet’s Choice

I was confused by the footnote in our book so I looked up more information on the typo.  Bishop saw an ironic typo and created something entirely new.  As a writer I'm even more intrigued by her ability to immediately find inspiration in such a small thing, something as readers we've been trained to overlook and fix in our own mind.

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.

I was really struck by her describing what I read to be running from place to place, but getting nowhere.  Running to the subway, only to then have to sit or stand, waiting on the pace of the train.  Waiting for stragglers who hold up the train.  We rush across the street before the light has changed in our favor only to then get caught in impassable foot traffic on the next block.  Those who drive quickly still have to (or at least should) adhere to traffic lights.  Are we simply too anxious due to the cities we've found ourselves in?  Have we been spoiled by the speeds we know we can reach and the average pace is now now enough?  Or are we so enclosed by skyscrapers, fences, walls, and the claustrophobic amount of other people that even the briefest moment of running, that moment of feeling like we're catching something or outrunning something else is that little thrill we need to get through the day?  Only to be reminded of course of how trapped we are.  After all, moths fly towards light and flame, and without fail, it gets them in the end.  

1 comment:

  1. Eleanor,
    Your post and the lines you have focused in on here reminded me of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis. Have you read it? It seems to explore in a more concentrated form some of the same themes and tensions Kafka examines through the character of Gregor. Might make an interesting comparison for an essay...