Skip to main content

Moore, on the other hand, separates the spheres of marriage and motherhood. While in "Marriage" Eve's maternal role is of slight relevance, Moore in return celebrates maternity in poems that move away from "familiar scenes" (Irigaray 206). Among these texts, her "Paper Nautilus" is a central statement (121-22), a text that offers the maternal as a kind of reproduction different from mimicry, as a version of both creation and procreation with reference not to woman's body but to diverse forms of spatial representation. "The Paper Nautilus" is a poem that closely joins motherhood and poetic power, but a poem also that has repeatedly been considered a non-representative exception in Moore's work and whose treatment of birth, body and maternal love—in fact the very use of this word—has made many a reader extremely uncomfortable. The critique of the poem's "depend[ence] on intuition more than observation" (Stapleton 121), its "hauntingly emotional" quality (Taffy Martin 99), and its "sentimental treatment of maternity" (Slatin 256), however, testifies less to the text's deficiency than to its disruptive force.

The poem begins with a distinction of economies.

For authorities whose hopes

are shaped by mercenaries?

    Writers entrapped by

    teatime fame and by

commuters'comforts? (121)

"Not for these," we read on, but for a "perishable souvenir of hope" the animal's/poet's efforts are invested here. The maternal affection depicted in the following lines is far from the suffocating introjection and imprisoning overprotection which Irigaray's and Rich's texts reject as just another instance of a "universal" desire for the same. Moore's kind of care instead condenses power, restraint, and detachment into a genuine liking, into a love that is "not a trap," as Schulman points out, "but a process of reciprocal protection and freedom" (67).

Buried eightfold in her eight

    arms, for she is in

    a sense a devil-

fish, her glass ram'shorn-cradled freight

    is hid but is not crushed;

    as Hercules, bitten


    by the crab loyal to the hydra,

was hindered to succeed,

    the intensively

    watched eggs coming from

the shell free it when they are freed,—

    leaving its wasp-nest flaws

    of white on white, and close-


    laid Ionic chiton-folds

like the lines in the mane of

    a Parthenon horse,

    round which the arms had

wound themselves as if they knew love

    is the only fortress

    strong enough to trust to.

The word love—like the loaded metaphor that accompanies it—Is indeed peculiar but "important," and especially "Useful" here not for its meaning but for its previous loss, thus lack of meaning (Poems 266-67). Recontextualized, this affection contrasts both Adam's and Eve's narcissistic attraction to an "other self" and the self-centeredness of "entrapped" writers. At the same time and by means of images, such love also modifies the economy of voice that goes along with narcissism—the complicity of silence and echo. "Marriage," as we remember, portrays Eve as "lov[ing] herself so much, / she cannot see herself enough—/ a statuette of ivory on ivory," caught and immobilized in the process of mirroring, desire and loss of the self. In "The Paper Nautilus," the marks left by the nautilus' eggs, those "wasp-nest flaws / of white on white," instead become signs of difference within sameness, signs of a simultaneity of separation and connection that inscribe a slight but significant difference into the economy of gain for loss.

Although "The Paper Nautilus" lacks citation and thus a marked acceptance of unoriginality, the poem's dismissal of narcissism does not displace Narcissus' mate Echo completely. "We cannot ever be wholly original," Moore claims in "Archaically New" (1935), a comment on three of Elizabeth Bishop's poems. "Nevertheless," she adds, "an indebted thing does not interest us unless there is originality underneath it" (Prose 328). And while her poem's reference to Greek mythology and architecture, its comparison of maternal nurturance (and "devil[f]ishness") to Hercules' labors reflect the difficulties of imagining an "original" link between motherhood and the power of discourse, the text also (re-)creates this link from within conventional representation and reference.

Such linkage, which strives to signify an "other" economy of desire, discourse, and voice, enfolds near the end of the poem. In the last two stanzas, reference becomes unstable and syntactic linearity is disrupted by spatial images; image and simile, the "close- / laid Ionic chiton- folds / like the lines in the mane / of a Parthenon horse," give prominence to visual and tactile over temporal allusion; and the term "chiton," denoting both an ancient Greek garment and an order of marine mollusks like and unlike the nautilus, repeats the "redundancy" of the preceding "white on white" by semantically embodying a "difference within." Since the nautilus is "in / a sense a devil- / fish"—devilfish being both a term for a group of rays and for the octopus or any other large eight-armed cephalopod like and unlike the nautilus—we have already been prepared for this redundant, yet remarkable doubleness, this indifferent difference of meaning. Like the remetaphorization of maternity, the destabilization of referentiality advances the poem's attempt to represent difference within indifference or, if you like, indifference within difference. In this way, "The Paper Nautilus" indeed leaves its "flaws of white on white"; it carves "original" birthmarks onto the ordinary economy of discourse and voice, an economy that tends to know white because it knows black and that accounts for separation as difference, not as indifference to connection.


From "Snapshots of Marriage, Snares of Mimicry, Snarls of Motherhood: Marianne Moore and Adrienne Rich." SAGETRIEB 6.3