The poetry of Elizabeth Bishop is very often haunted by place. Nova Scotia, Brazil, and New York City are among the sometimes explicit, often unspoken subjects in much of her work, always looming large in the consciousness of the poetic speaker. The New York poems offer a glimpse into the darker side of Bishop’s psyche. There are significantly fewer of these poems in her oeuvre, particularly compared to Brazil or Nova Scotia, but the city was in its own way no less significant in shaping both her emotional and poetic output. In 1948, while still living in New York, Bishop wrote in a letter to her friend and fellow poet Robert Lowell: “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.”1 This is the prevailing tone of the New York poems: an almost crippling sense of isolation, even in one of the busiest cities in the world. Two poems in particular embody this tone: “The Man-Moth” and “Varick Street.” Both are urban nightscapes, depicting a dark double of the world perceived in the light.
“The Man-Moth” is not explicitly a New York poem, insofar as there are no direct references to the landscape or features of the city. But it was written in 1935, during Bishop’s first time living in the city long term. The title comes from a mistake in a headline from The New York Times: intended to read “mammoth,” it was instead published as the incorrect (and nonexistent) “Man-Moth.”2 The poem spirals out from this initial image, spinning an entire world for this Man-Moth to exist within. He is a kind of exiled creature, traversing the city only after dark. The poem is made up of six stanzas, each with eight lines. This structure is tightly conformed to, but there is no discernible rhythm or meter. It is as if within the strict constraints—just like the claustrophobic skyscrapers of the city—chaos swirls, with no applicable reason.
The poem is set under cover of night: The moon plays a major role, but she is no comforting figure. Instead, she is “battered,” filling the “cracks in the buildings”—the landscape has been used and abused and now stands abandoned.3
Already, there is an uneasy silence, an absence of living bodies in what should be a crowded city. But then, “rare, although occasional,” the Man-Moth emerges into the night.4 Rather than seeing the moon as an incomprehensible, untouchable pin in the sky, he instead fears what it may belie: “He thinks the moon is a small hole at the top of the sky, / proving the sky quite useless for protection.”5 He forces himself into the air, crawling up the buildings, in the hopes of reaching that opening and pushing himself through. There is an idea of hope, of belief in something outside the trembling facade of the city; humankind, however, “has no such illusions.”6 But the Man-Moth, existing in a realm not quite human, yet not quite animal, is a creature in-between. He therefore can momentarily have faith, though he must inevitably fall short.
After his failure to climb through the hole in the sky, the Man-Moth “returns / to the pale subways . . . he calls his home.”7 Not even in this ostensible home can he find peace or comfort; the rushing of the train, “at its full, terrible speed,” is disorienting, a mirror the overwhelming thoughts swirling through his mind.8 There is no respite:
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.9
Though this is a sly reference to the fact that moths are drawn to light, there is also an implication of a dark compulsion towards self-destruction. The Man-Moth is profoundly alone, so much so that he is driven to that “unbroken draught of poison,” both a terrifying reminder and a kind of perverse comfort. Furthermore, the artificial light is harmful, a sick reminder of the counterfeit nature of the city. Illuminating the darkness is, in a way, the ultimate form of treachery against the natural world—a direct betrayal of the organic order of things.
In the final stanza, something startling occurs. Another figure is brought into the poem, alongside the Man-Moth. A direct address to “you” is invoked; the reader is now made complicit in this puzzling scene. Until this point, the city has been a place of isolation and exile, tear-inducing—yet suddenly, there is opportunity for one-on-one connection, a hand reaching across the wide chasm to clasp another. This exchange occurs over the Man-Moth’s tear, “his only possession.”10 This figure, the second-person “You,” breaks in, coming face-to-face with the Man-Moth. The reader “catches” him, but it is not necessarily an act of violence. If, as the fourth and fifth stanzas suggest, the Man-Moth is so lonely that he is dangerously fixated on the “unbroken draught of poison,” then the act of offering up his single tear had a double meaning. There is still a tinge of sadness, the same urge towards self-harm: his tear is “like the bee’s sting,”11 and he may perish when it is relinquished. In this sense, it is a wholly sacrificial act. If the figure who enters in the final stanza refuses to pay attention, the Man-Moth will simply swallow the tear, keeping it to and for himself, perpetuating his lonely, solitary struggle. But when we as readers watch this tear fall, bearing witness to his pain, the Man-Moth will “hand it over.” It is not stolen by us, not wrest from his hands, but offered up by choice, as a gesture of acknowledgement. The almost imperceptible sense of community between us and the Man-Moth is recognized through this intimacy—the concession of hidden lonliness to the terrifying, yet healing, disclosure of public vulnerability.
Robert Lowell wrote that in “The Man-Moth,” “a whole new world is gotten out and you don’t know what will come after any one line. It’s exploring. And it’s as original as Kafka. She’s gotten a world, not just a way of writing. She seldom writes a poem that doesn’t have the exploring quality.”12 And the poem is indeed Kafkaesque—the dark, oppressive buildings stretching up to the sky, the “artificial tunnels” flying by, dizzying.13 The Man-Moth himself is up against an impenetrable obstacle; the city itself would like to disavow his presence, up until that final grasping at connection only possible between two living beings. “Varick Street,” another New York City night scene, even more so paints a disturbing picture of industrial dominance. In this poem, Bishop depicts the struggle against an uncaring, unfeeling monolith, much like Kafka’s Josef K., up against the incomprehensible court in The Trial, or his unnamed protagonist in the short story “Before the Law.” “Varick Street” is strictly structured in six stanzas, with a pattern of a nine-line stanza followed by an italicized couplet. There is no consistent rhyme scheme or meter, though the repeated refrain provides a musicality of sorts, a dissonant orchestra of factory clangs and steam whistles.
In 1944, Bishop moved into an apartment at 43 King Street, on the corner of Varick and King Streets. It was not a pleasant experience: She expressed her dislike of the city, particularly the isolation and loneliness expressed in letters to Lowell.14 Clearly, the location featured prominently and negatively in her mind, and found itself the title of an almost grotesque, leering poem concerned with the industrial world. The figure of the moon recurs in “Varick Street,” and her state seems to only have deteriorated since “The Man-Moth.” Emanating “pale dirty light” over the city, the poem paints nightmare scenes in which we find “the mechanical moons, / sick, being made / to wax and wane / at somebody’s instigation.”15 The “wretched uneasy” factory buildings as well are grim and cruel figures, polluting the air and the minds of the city.16 Industry has corrupted every inch of the city, from the inhabitants to the faint glimmers of natural world. The moon in particular has been co-opted: Not only is it “mechanical” but it is “sick,” an object for someone to play with as they wish.17 It does not rise and fall with the natural currents, but rather at the beck and call of some shadowy figure, evoking the rhythms of factory lines and their strict call times. The moon has become a cog in the machine of capitalism, forced to work for a living, making “medicine / or confectionery.”18 Sickness and disease feature too in “The Man-Moth,” in which the titular figure perceives the dangerous third rail as “a disease / he has inherited the susceptibility to.”19 The infringing of the industrial world into the natural world is a shared concern of many of Bishop’s poems. In the New York poems in particular she explores the drastic implications that result from this unhappy collision of the organic and inorganic.
The penultimate stanza of “Varick Street” reads, strikingly, “Lights music of love / work on.”20 This echoes the famous first line of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “If music be the food of love, play on.” Joy, love, and playfulness has been replaced by the compulsion to produce and an obsession with industrial output. Instead of the exchanging of love between two people, romance has become an exchange between a factory and its workers, each selling the other for individual profit. As the refrain reads: “And I shall sell you sell you / sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me.” “Varick Street,” just like “The Man-Moth,” seems to be wholly devoid of people, until the moment when a “you” is invoked. In “The Man-Moth,” this leads to a key moment of connection, the only recognition of such a possibility throughout. In “Varick Street,” however, the opposite is true. Here, the utmost expression of care and connection is consumerism. The refrain does provide shape and, again, a kind of melodiousness—particularly resonant with the allusion to the “music of love.” But it is also mocking, an insult to the kind of emotional connection dreamt of by the Man-Moth.
These two works are emblematic of Bishop’s New York City poems, if perhaps the darkest of the bunch. They are deeply concerned with feelings of isolation and exile, as well as the ways in which urban solitude constructs prisons for the self. Always there is an undercurrent of the possibility (or futility) of human connection within the framework of the oppressive city. For Bishop, the urban environment was a tangled web of natural elements and artificiality, thrown together perilously. Though produced at her own expense, these poems are a testament to Bishop’s marvelous facility at depicting vast surreal and imagined landscapes, communicating the paradoxical claustrophobia of being alone.
- Laura C. Mallonee, “Some Realms I Owned: Elizabeth Bishop in Manhattan,” The Paris Review. June 18, 2013. www.theparisreview.org/blog/2013/06/18/some-realms-i-owned/.
- Elizabeth Bishop, “The Man-Moth,” Poems, Prose, and Letters, (New York, The Library of America, 2008) 10-12: epigraph.
- Bishop, “The Man-Moth,” 2.
- Bishop, “The Man-Moth,” 10.
- Bishop, “The Man-Moth,” 14-15.
- Bishop, “The Man-Moth,” 22.
- Bishop, “The Man-Moth,” 25-26.
- Bishop, “The Man-Moth,”
- Bishop, “The Man-Moth,” 35-39.
- Bishop, “The Man-Moth,” 44.
- Bishop, “The Man-Moth,” 44.
- Robert Lowell quoted in C.K. Doreski, Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993,) 128.
- Doreski, Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language, 33.
- Mallonee, “Some Realms I Owned.”
- Elizabeth Bishop, “Varick Street.” Poems, Prose, and Letters, (New York, The Library of America, 2008), 57-58: 14; 17-20
- Bishop, “Varick Street,” 3.
- Bishop, Varick Street,” 17; 18
- Bishop, “Varick Street,26-28.
- Bishop, “The Man-Moth,” 37-38.
- Bishop, “Varick Street,” 23-24.