“Moths” and Me

March 2, 2015

Contributor’s Marginalia: A.E. Stallings on “Moths” by Brian Barker

Many things appeal to me about this poem, some on a purely idiosyncratic level.  First, I love the word “moths.”  I once mistranslated a Latin passage in college because I had written down “moth” instead of “month” as I was methodically looking up words in the dictionary.  (I was puzzled—intrigued?—to be reading about the different “moths” of the year.)  There is also the Elizabeth Bishop poem “Man-moth” inspired by a newspaper typo for “mammoth.”  Moth, month, mouth, math, myth, meth—not a dull word among them.

But back to the poem at hand.  I’m not always a fan of prose poems; often the problem seems to be the prose itself, little variety in sentence structure or length, etc.  This runs that risk, the first five sentences being five future indicative assertions.  Just when you think the syntax of the whole poem will chug along in this way, we get the modulation “And yet,” and the deliciously prosaic “Meanwhile.”  (Adverbs get a bad rap in writing classes, but I am a sucker for conjunctive adverbs.)

I feel that Brian Barker has been considering moths for their own sake, not just as soft, drab, fluttering symbols.  Take their serious faces (true!), or the fact that adults (as of, say, the Luna mouth) in reality do not have mouths.  The adult does not eat.  In the phrase “dusted with ash,” we feel the powdery scales of their wings on our fingers.

Of course, the moths are also symbols—we seem to be in some apocalyptic end time (seem to be–we are!), what with the burnt matches, and the lights flickering, and the last scribbled reports of complete annihilation, the sadly un-hyperbolic “ruined estuaries.”  (A contemporary “ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang”?)  But the poem itself is full of gorgeous life, in its awake-ness to word sounds and rich images, the “flock of white noise,” death pooling inside their thoraces like “a puddle of black rain in the hull of a rotting canoe.”   Being me, I am reminded here of book six of the Aeneid, in the underworld, in the ruined estuaries (as it were) about the river Styx, when the pious hero steps into the boat, and, because he is solid rather than a shade, makes the bilge-water seep in with his unexpected weight—such a strange, exact, tangible moment.

The very last image, also, given the water crossing, a tangentially classical one, is poignant and whimsical—ghosts of oysters! (I think of the sad fate of the trusting oysters in the “Walrus and the Carpenter” when “answer came there none”), and full of low, sorrowing “o” sounds—O-mega—the long last moan of the alphabet:  “the ghosts of oysters rowing to the opposite shore.”

This melancholy elegy, which could have been one of bleak despair, or sanctimonious didacticism, instead fills my heart with gladness, the way I am stirred by certain Christmas carols in a Medieval mode or minor key.  That’s the paradox of art—to write even about annihilation—let’s say it, extinction—with life-affirming music.

A.E. Stallings has lived in Athens, Greece since 1999.  Her most recent collection is Olives. A new hardback edition of her translation of Lucretius, The Nature of Things, is forthcoming from Penguin Classics.

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