Marilyn May Lombardi

Marilyn May Lombardi: On "The Man-Moth"

Bishop’s fascination with the "third rail" stems from a set of private associations the poet refuses to develop within the poem. These associations are preserved, instead, in her working notebooks, where a direct relationship is forged between the fatal third rail and the dangers of alcoholism. In the journal she kept following her graduation from Vassar, Bishop plays with certain ideas that would eventually find their way into "the Man-Moth," including the observation that "the third rail is almost worth some sort of prose poem. Running along silently, as insincere as poison" ("Recorded Observations," 1934-1976, p. 6). As we have already seen, she would come to think of alochol as a poison with "flattering" effects, thus establishing a connection between ingratiating liquor and the "insincere" third rail that runs beside the subway track like an "unbroken draught of poison." Alternating between a tone of elevation and deflation (to match the ascending and descending fortunes of her protagonist), Bishop creates in her hyphenated creature a veiled portrait of the artist as addict.

Underscoring this theme of consumption and addiction is the man-moth’s resemblance to the Baudelarian vampire, imbiber of forbidden fluids. … Like the vampire the man-moth seeks to penetrate the physical boundaries of this universe and be born into a new existence, one that escapes the laws of mortality and gravity that weigh down the natural man. Thinking of the moon "as a small hole at the top of the sky," his aim is to "push his small head through that round clean opening." But instead of escaping those laws he is trapped in an existence ruled by bodily drives and marked by reiteration (he "must be carried through artificial tunnels and dream recurrent dreams").

Along with the inference of sexual deviance or unnaturalness that vampirism inevitably suggests, Bishop’s allusions to the undead reinforce the impression that she is grappling in this poem with the compulsive artist, a slave to the body’s mechanisms and to the machinery of art.

 

from Marilyn May Lombardi, "Abnormal Thirst: Addiction and the Poéte Maudit," Chapter 5 in The Body and the Song: Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992) 

Marilyn May Lombardi: On "Questions of Travel"

… Quae negata, grata – "what is denied is desired." And what is desired may be wrongfully "pocketed." This awareness spills over into most of the Brazilian poems, particularly "Questions of Travel," in which she asks, in the name of all displaced persons:

Should we have stayed at home and thought of here? Where should we be today? Is it right to be watching strangers in a play in this strangest of theaters? … Oh, must we dream our dreams and have them, too? And have we room for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?

The last query rebounds on both poet and reader, compelling the communal "we" to examine our urge to collect relics, "folded" moments pocketed in an effort to overcome our nagging sense of dispossession. Savoring this souvenir we call a poem, we as readers share the poet’s misgivings about the genuineness of human sympathy. Staring at her words resting on the page like "some inexplicable old stonework, / inexplicable and impenetrable, / at any view, / instantly seen and always, always delightful" the reader (a tourist in the alien topography of the poet’s mind" must ask herself whether she has room for one more image, for one more demand on her sympathy. Will our careful observation help any of us – help the poet or her reader, or the world we ponder "blurr’dly and inconclusively"?

Unlike the flaneur, a traditional masculine figure, the poet of "Questions of Travel" cannot remain comfortably aloof from the madding crowd. As Lois Cucullu observes, the woman who dares to travel alone is in a far different position than the male adventurer. The female flaneuse, or pedestrian, Cucullu reminds us/ may be mistaken for a common streetwalker/ Even though Bishop’s sexual preference alienated her from the marriage market, she nevertheless knew as a woman what it felt like to be on exhibition. For this reason, she might be expected to question the ethics of tourism with a greater urgency than her male counterparts.

 

From Marilyn May Lombardi, "‘Travelling Through the Flesh’: A Poetics of Translation," Chapter 5 in The Body and the Song: Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995), 154-155.