Failure as Self-Protection

February 11, 2013

Contributor’s Marginalia: Renee Emerson on “Instar and Eclose” by Rosalie Moffett

Growing up in Hickory Withe, Tennessee, tent caterpillars shrouded the black-barked pecan trees lining the back half acre of our land. Once we got a good harvest there, until the worms did their work. I remember my father on a ladder with the handsaw, the branches falling webbed-white. I never thought of it as beautiful.

In Rosalie Moffett’s “Instar and Eclose,” there’s beauty in that destruction, destruction of the caterpillar becoming the gypsy moth, of the tree covered in web. Moffett takes what you would think would be a tired idea—the metaphor of growth and coming-of-age through the metamorphosis of the caterpillar to butterfly—and transforms it into thoughts on creation from destruction, failure as self-protection. Her lines and stanzas are concise, and the turns are quick, each couplet working as a poem on its own. “I know metamorphosis turns” the poem begins.

I read The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle to my eighteen-month-old daughter and think of this poem. In the book, if you’ve never read it, the caterpillar is ravenous—he eats, and he eats. Moffet captures that ravenousness. In this poem, “Everything / I’ve ever kissed / was a tree / in boy’s clothing” as the speaker moves beyond explaining what she knows of the cycles of the caterpillar (each an “instar”) and its emergence (“eclose”)—“I know metamorphosis turns / a kaleidoscope / into a caterpillar,” she writes—and into how she too is like the caterpillar.

Failure is transformed into something beneficial, a protection. It is so un-American to fail, and to see failure and destruction as beauty. We tend to be ashamed and afraid of failure. Here the failure is used as a “lure”, an “enticement” from what is “smaller, more / vulnerable.” What is that fragile thing worth protecting? Her soul, herself, perhaps.

She fully inhabits the role of caterpillar in the seventh stanza to the end; the focus shifts to her mouth, all that it has touched “ a tree” and each yawn “tasted like apples.” Yet she takes a step back from the poem in the last stanza—she “climbs / into the white silk gown . . . made by tent caterpillars.” She dons this persona to explain how a “ruin” can end “shimmering.” And this poem, never a ruin, does end shimmering.

Renee Emerson

Renee Emerson’s poetry has been published in Indiana Review, Christianity and Literature, and Boxcar Poetry Review. She teaches at Shorter University and is the author of three chapbooks, most recently Where Nothing Can Grow (Batcat Press). She lives in Georgia with her husband and daughter. Her poem, “What to Wear,” appears with Rosalie Moffett’s “Instar and Eclose” in 32 Poems 10.2.

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