Friday, August 22, 2008

Up the Facades

Someday (and I mean way in the future) I'd like to put together an anthology of poems--just one copy, though, nicely bound. Poems would be selected because they meant something to me, and not for any other reason. I don't care if the poem won any prizes in its lifetime, I don't care if anyone else on the planet ever even heard of them. I'd just like it because I'm tired of having to look in a million other anthologies and collections to get to the one or two poems I like in there.

Case in point, I'm not an Elizabeth Bishop fan. Her poetry is okay, but only one of her pieces strikes me to the fucking core. It's this one:


The Man-moth

Elizabeth Bishop

Here, above,
cracks in the buldings 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 records 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 fa├žades,
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 poem was first published in her first book of poems, North and South, though some sources say it was written as much as a decade earlier than that. I can see that, in many ways: it seems to me that, often, when a poet is unafraid to have that level of what I've referred to as purposeful-indeterminacy, it is early in their career. And this poem has that, which is why I love it. Like most of the poems I love, we're not completely in the "real world," here. Instead, we're in a semi-magical world; part fantasy, part reality.

That last stanza is a knockout. It's so good, it makes me forget how clunky the first stanza is. I love, too, how the fearful man, trapped in the cogs of the everyday becomes a mythological creature, here. He is sought for the purity of his tears. He is watched for the beauty of his tragic attempt to crawl through the hole in the sky. The light is coincidental.

The rest of her poems are good, I'm not denying that, but I don't think they approach the level on which this one exists.

If you are that kind of reader, though (and I confess, sometimes I am, too), then here is an online collection of critiques that have been made of the poem over time.


Lee Dub said...

ok, honestly, i would totally collect your anthology, but you would have to put that one poem you wrote waaaaayyyy back that had the line, "a googleplex, if you will." that poem always cracked me up :)

J. Campbell said...

Didn't we turn that into a song?

Karma said...

Ok, I'm too tech illiterate to figure out how to hook this up to my Google reader, but I'm trying :-)

J. Campbell said...

I hope it works out; it's great to have you as a reader!

Shai Frog Llama Grapefruit said...

i know how you feel
i have this collection of poems in my head
but i couldnt say that i was
a Maxine Kumin fan
or that loved Cocteau's poetry so mush (as compared with his fiction which i do)
but they both have poems that live in the anthology in my head
but still what a feat
to even have created 1 poem
that lives in people's imaginations that way

your friend should know
snakes are not poisonous
but they may be venomous
venomous meaning
that a creature
injects its poison

how's the novel moving along?

have you ever seen that
LOOOOONG version
that used to play on tv
years ago
not the Director's Cut
the longer one?



J. Campbell said...


Actually, I have--and it's currently out on DVD. It's the David Lynch (though he removed his name from the film and used the "I don't want anyone to know I made this film" cop-out psuedonym director's have used for like centuries, Alan Smithee) Extended Version. Pop me an email if you're interested and I can shoot you a link or the UPC for it.

The novel is coming along well; we've ordered proofs and I'll be looking at them shortly. We're probably shooting for October. I'll certainly keep you guys updated!