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Michael Davidson On "Mantis" Essay, Research Paper

Perhaps the most graphic example of formalism in dialogue with modern materialism is

Zukofsky’s sestina "Mantis," which not only addresses the alienation of life

under modern capitalism but does so by debating the "implications of a too regular


What is most interesting about Zukofsky’s response to social crisis is that it is often

conducted in formal terms that seem at odds with the material under consideration. This

disparity has prompted Eric Mottram to speak of "A"-9’s canzone structure

as a kind of "dandyism" whose "strained versifying operates a trite

statement of art taking its place as labour in 1938-40" (98). Mottram’s essay is one

the best accounts of the difficulties of forging a materialist poetics, but it fails to

historicize the oppositional meaning of Zukofsky’s formalism with respect to competing

theories of committed art during this period. Zukofsky used formalism not to aestheticize

social tensions but to return a degree of use-value to an increasingly instrumentalized

poetry. Rather than solve the problem as Oppen did–by giving up poetry

altogether–Zukofsky sought to provide an immanent critique within the terms of modernism


One way of understanding Zukofsky’s formalism is to see it as a response to the larger

issue of social reification. In Luk?cs’s canonical description, reification refers to the

transformation of labor power into a commodity, the objectification of "sensuous

human activity" into a "second nature." Building upon Marx’s notion of

commodity fetishism in Capital, Luk?cs describes the process by which relations

between individuals "take on the character of a thing and thus [acquire] a ‘phantom

objectivity"’ (83). As Marx dramatizes (in a passage quoted in "A"-9),

commodities seem to speak to each other, saying "our use-value may interest men, but

it does not belong to us as objects. What does belong to us as objects, however is our

value. Our own intercourse as commodities proves it. We relate to each other merely as

exchange-values" (176-77). As both Marx and Luk?cs argue, when commodities acquire

independent agency, the worker’s role in creating them is occluded, leading to a sense of

passivity and helplessness in the face of an autonomous, self-regulating

market–"autotelic" in every sense.

Luk?cs is less interested in the specific economic factors contributing to reification

than he is in the epistemological forces that maintain it. He describes the bourgeois

philosophical tradition inherited from Kant as constructing a reflective consciousness

that, while claiming power over its material surroundings, is unable to assess its own

historical circumstance. The bourgeoisie, since it is implicated in this contemplative

attitude, cannot rupture it; but the proletariat potentially can understand its own

historical moment–and its alienation. What the proletariat "owns" is not labor

power but a certain vantage by which the congealed version of that power in commodities

can be seen for what it is. It is this vantage that preoccupies Zukofsky in his early

poems and that becomes the focus of "Mantis."

"Mantis" concerns the perspective from which material conditions become

detached from an observer. Rather than being about commodities or labor per se, the

poem uses its own status as an aesthetic object as a lens for viewing social alienation.

And since the observer in this poem is also a poet, the work explores the degree to which

"looking" and "writing" are implicated in a single mode of production.

It is not that social reality is reproduced through the poem but that, through describing

the inability of poetry to remove barriers between individuals, the poem generates a

second vantage "produced" in the interstices between formal accomplishment (the

poem as made thing) and social inadequacies (the absence of a unified proletarian

consciousness). The poem consists of two parts–a sestina and an interpretation–each of

which augments and redefines the other. The sestina invokes the poet’s sudden encounter

with a praying mantis in a subway station; the interpretation accounts for the sestina

itself, situating the encounter with the mantis within a larger meditation on writing. It

may seem odd that Zukofsky chooses such a complex literary vehicle to deal with "the

growing oppression of the poor," but the poem’s recycling of terminal words according

to a numerical formula provides a felicitous frame for rendering "The actual twisting

/ Of many and diverse thoughts" invoked by the mantis.

The sestina’s invention is associated with Arnaut Daniel, who invented the form, but

most important for Zukofsky is its use by Pound who, in The Spirit of Romance, described

it as "a thin sheet of flame folding and infolding upon itself" (27). Pound

wrote several sestinas in his early career and regarded the form as a paragon of virtuosic

difficulty, a touchstone for poetic apprenticeship. Zukofsky, no longer an apprentice,

uses it to address Pound at a moment (1934) when the older poet’s increasing interest in

Mussolini and Social Credit threatens their relationship. By subjecting the sestina to

"ungainly" issues of poverty and urban alienation, Zukofsky confronts the

dangers of poetic mastery divorced from the cultural and social institutions such mastery

serves. Virtuosic control, as an end in itself, quickly becomes

Stuffing like upholstery

For parlor polish,

And our time takes count against them

For their blindness and their (unintended?) cruel smugness.

(All 76-77 [emphasis added])

Although Pound is not the antecedent here, a certain Victorian "smugness"

associated with Pound’s early personae is.

Although the title of the poem focuses on the mantis, clearly the subject is

less the insect than the speaker’s ambivalent response to it:

Mantis! praying mantis! since your wings’ leaves

And your terrified eyes, pins, bright, black and poor

Beg–"look, take it up" (thoughts’ torsion)! "save it!"

I who can’t bear to look, cannot touch,–You–

You can–but no one sees you steadying lost

In the cars’ drafts on the lit subway stone.

(All 73)

The shifting deixis of these lines dramatizes the speaker’s ambivalence, both to the

mantis and to the poor. The ambiguity of "it" in the third line suggests that he

addresses himself as much as the mantis. For Zukofsky is asking whether or how to

"take up" the event, how to give it form and stabilize "thoughts’

torsion," much as the insect strives to steady itself in the drafty subway. The

confusion of first and second persons ("I who can’t bear to look, cannot

touch,–You– / You can–but no one sees you") points to the speaker’s conflict about

addressing those who challenge his autonomy. Deixis fails to differentiate the subject

from the eyes around him, and by the end of the stanza the question of whose eyes are

seeing whom is thoroughly vexed, although understandable for a poet who consistently

pronounced I’s as "eyes."

The only witness to the poet’s discomfiture is the newsboy, but he is, in Luk?cs’s

terms, wrapped in the endless circulation of commodities, an extension of the reified

history represented in his papers:

Even the newsboy who now sees knows it

No use, papers make money, makes stone, stone,

Banks, "it is harmless," he says moving on–You?

(All 73)

In the interpretation, the market logic introduced here is shown to be circular.

Rags make paper,

paper makes money, money makes

banks, banks make loans, loans make

poverty, poverty makes rags.


It is precisely this vicious circularity to which Zukofsky’s poetic form refers, even

as it offers its own alternative semiotic economy for six recycled words. Likewise, the

problems of deixis and perspective illustrate the difficulties of looking at another outside

of market relationships. The mantis, by breaking through the speaker’s contemplative

gaze, reminds him of cultural traditions that he has forgotten but nonetheless summons to

explain the insect’s mythic meaning:

Don’t light on my chest, mantis! do–you’re lost,

Let the poor laugh at my fright, then see it:

My shame and theirs, you whom old Europe’s poor

Call spectre, strawberry, by turns; a stone–

You point–they say–you lead lost children–


The speaker’s attraction to and repulsion from the mantis replicate his response to the

poor, and by acknowledging "shame" he transforms self-closed revery into

vulnerability and even empathy. By referring to "old Europe’s poor," Zukofsky

acknowledges his own ethnic origins, sustained by the affirmative nature of shared

narratives. Just as the mantis is able to "lead lost children" in an old story,

so it saves one modern subject from isolation.

At the end of the sestina, the poet realizes that, until he identifies his alienation

with those around him, he cannot translate his subway experience for future generations.

He urges the mantis to "Fly … on the poor," as it has alighted on him,

"arise like leaves / The armies of the poor, strength; stone on stone / And build the

new world in your eyes, Save it!" The paraphrase of the socialist motto ("Build

the new world in the shell of the old") is varied here to include the acts of looking

and identifying that have dominated the poem so far. But the final tercet presents a

too-tidy conclusion to a poem that has opened up more problems than it has solved.

If "Mantis" ended here, with the ringing injunction to "build the new

world in your eyes," we would have been left with the very aestheticized politics

deplored by Mottram. It is for "’Mantis,’ an Interpretation" to return to

the poem and dismantle the totalizing gesture implied by the form and manifested in its

utopian apostrophe. Zukofsky’s mandate to append an interpretation is granted by Dante,

whose Vita Nuova offers an earlier example of poetry plus commentary (albeit in

prose). And as with Dante, Zukofsky wishes to render a transformative experience by

interpreting the condition surrounding words brought to bear on it:

Mantis! Praying mantis! since your wings’ leaves

Incipit Vita Nova

le parole …

almeno la loro


the words …

at least their substance

at first were

"The mantis opened its body

It had been lost in the subway

It steadied against the drafts

It looked up–

Begging eyes–

It flew at my chest"

–The ungainliness

of the creature needs stating.

(All 74-75)

Zukofsky includes a first-draft opening to the poem ("The mantis opened its

body") to indicate his difficulty in finding words for an awkward moment. However

"ungainly" these first twenty-seven words, they become the "pulse’s

witness" to the event, just as Dante’s "new life" begins with

Beatrice’s look. Zukofsky’s equivalent look combines the "Begging eyes" of the

mantis with those of the poor.

Zukofsky refuses to treat the mantis as a symbol, but he realizes that it "can

start / History" by calling up disparate areas of knowledge and subjecting them

to experience. Like Melville’s whale, the mantis can become a curriculum:

line 1–entomology

line 9–biology

lines 10 and 11- the even rhythm of riding under-

ground, and the sudden jolt are also

of these nerves, glandular facilities,

brain’s charges

(All 78-79)

This catalog, like the whimsical index at the end of "A" or the

footnotes to "Poem Beginning ‘The,’" presumes to account for topics invoked

by the mantis, but the more Zukofsky includes, the less he verifies. For the listing of

facts alone cannot account for the "original shock" provoked by the insect. When

facts remain ends in themselves, they signal their distance from any actual exchange. What

"Mantis" offers as a corrective is to provide "a use function of the

material: / The original emotion remaining, / like the collective, / Unprompted"

(79). For it is this "invoked collective" of disarranged and recombined facts

that reestablishes contact, not to stop history with a verbal icon but to keep it alive

and tangible in the present.

"Mantis" and its interpretation are one poem seeing modern history through

two pairs of eyes. We could speak of the sestina as embodying the modernist attempt to

secure sight through the imposition of formal constraints, the humanist achievement of

mastery over the quotidian, the mantis turned into a symbol of the poor. But in the

interpretation we discern a postmodern (and we might say post-Marxist) attempt to dereify

the discourse of mastery in favor of internal critique. Neither poem exists without the

other, just as the eyes of the mantis trade places with the eyes of its beholder.

From Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word. Copyright ?

1997 by the Regents of the University of California.

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