“Mantis”

27 Oct. 1934 / Poetry (March 1935) and New Directions (1936)

 

Commentary

Brown, Norman O. “Revisioning Historical Identities.” Tikkun 5.6 (1990): 36-40, 107-110. Rpt. Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis (1991): 163-168.

Charters, Samuel. “Essay Beginning ‘All’.” Modern Poetry Studies 3.6 (1973): 241-250.

Conte, Joseph. Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry (1991): 185-191.

Davidson, Michael. “Dismantling ‘Mantis’: Reification and Objectivist Poetics.” American Literary History 3.3 (1991): 521-541. Rpt. Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word (1997): 116-134.

Dembo, L.S. “Louis Zukofsky: Objectivist Poetics and the Quest for Form.” American Literature 44.1 (1972): 74-96. Rpt. Terrell (1979): 295-298.

Golston, Michael. “Petalbent Devils: Louis Zukofsky, Lorine Niedecker, and the Surrealist Praying Mantis.” Modernism/Modernity 13.2 (2006): 325-347. Rpt. in Poetic Machinations: Allegory, Surrealism, Postmodern Poetic Form (2015).

Heller, Michael. “Objectivists in the Thirties: Utopocalyptic Moments.”  In DuPlessis and Quartermain, The Objectivist Nexus (1999): 144-159. Rpt. Speaking the Estranged (2008): 13-28.

Hickman, Ben. “‘Longing for perfection’: History and Utopia in Louis Zukofsky.” Crisis and the US Avant-Garde: Poetry and Real Politics (2015): 28-32.

Jennison, Ruth. The Zukofsky Era: Modernity, Margins and the Avant-garde (2012): 196-202.

Scroggins, Mark. Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge (1998): 311-321.

Taggart, John. Zukofsky’s ‘Mantis.’” Songs of Degrees: Essays on Contemporary Poetry and Poetics (1994): 51-66.

Twitchell-Waas, Jeffrey. “new books of poetry”: “A”-17. Z-Notes.

Vanderborg, Susan. “‘Words Ranging Forms’: Patterns of Exchange in Zukofsky’s Early Lyrics.” In Scroggins (1997): 192-213.

 

Using the sestina form, LZ particularly has in mind the example of Dante’s “Al poco giorno e al gran cerchio d’ombra,” translated as “To the short day and the great sweep of shadow” at 69.6, which also provides him with the terminal words “stone” (pietra) and “leaves” (erba). LZ comments on his use of the sestina form in his interview with L.S. Dembo in 1968 (Prep+ 240-241), and Taggart analyses the poem’s form in detail.

 

Title      Mantis: from Gk. meaning seer or prophet (see 66.23); the insect has long been credited in many cultures with spiritual associations due to the seemingly praying posture of its front legs, but is also notorious because the females eat their male partners after mating. See Golston for a discussion of the Surrealist obsession with the praying mantis, to which LZ is responding. It is probably not irrelevant that all his life LZ had a very thin and angular physique.

66.10    papers make money: see note at 71.32.

66.17    old Europe’s poor / Call spectre, strawberry…: Golston (330) has identified the source of these more colloquial designations for the praying mantis, as well as the folklore belief that it points the way home to lost children, as an essay by Roger Caillois (1913-1978), “La Mante religieuse. De la biologie à la psychanalyse” (The Praying Mantis, from biology to psychoanalysis), published in the French Surrealist journal Minotaure 5 (May 1934). This essay summarizes a wide range of research on the biological, cultural and psychological significance of the mantis and became the fifth chapter of CailloisThe Necessity of the Mind, which although written in the early 1930s was only published complete after his death. “Spectre” here also evokes the opening of the Communist Manifesto: “A spectre is haunting Europe.” The following passages from Caillois here and below are from The Necessity of the Mind: An Analytic Study of the Mechanisms of Overdetermination in Automatic and Lyrical Thinking and of the Development of Affective Themes in the Individual Consciousness, trans. Michael Syrotinski. Venice, CA: The Lapis P, 1990:
“[…] in a passage quoted by J.H. Fabre (Souvenir entomologiques [Entomological Memories], vol. 5, ch. 20), recounts that the mantis, when questioned by children who are lost, shows them the right way by extending its finger, only rarely, if ever, misleading […]” (70).
“[…] sometimes the mantis is called an ‘Italian girl’ or a ‘phantom,’ and less explicably a ‘strawberry’ or a ‘madeleine’” (71).

66.21    Killed by thorns (once men)…: this and other imagery in this stanza and the following are from Roger Caillois’ essay (see preceding note): “According to [the Hottentots and the Bushman] the supreme deity and creator of the world is precisely the mantis (Cagn), whose loves are, it seems, ‘pleasing,’ and it is especially attached to the moon, having made it out of one of its old shoes. Note that its main function seems to be to obtain food for those who beg for it, and that in addition it was devoured and vomited alive by Kwaï-Hemm, the devouring god. […] Among its other avatars, it is worthwhile to point out that when killed by thorns that once were men, and eaten by ants, it was resuscitated, its bones having been put back together again; in this adventure digestion still plays a certain part and links it to the very rich mythical cycle of the dispersed and resuscitated god of the Osiris type” (72-73; qtd. Golston 331).

66.27    Android…: cf. Roger Caillois, “The Praying Mantis” (see 66.17): “‘The insect seems to us very much like a machine with a perfect mechanism [or, “wheelwork”], capable of functioning automatically’ [quoting Léon Binet]. Indeed, the assimilation of the mantis to an automaton—that is, in view of its anthropomorphism, to a female android—seems to me to be a consequence of the same affective theme: the conception of an artificial, mechanical, inanimate, and unconscious machine-woman incommensurable with man and other living creatures derives from a particular way of envisioning the relationship between love and death and, more precisely, from an ambivalent premonition of finding the one within the other, which is, in fact, something I have every reason to believe” (82). 

66.31    the moon, it / Is my old shoe…: see quotation at 66.21.

66.33    Fly, mantis, on the poor, arise like leaves / The armies of the poor…: Brown notes (165) that the coda to “‘Mantis’” echoes “L’International,” which is also evoked in the title and elsewhere in Arise, Arise (see esp. 33):
Arise, ye prisoners of starvation!
Arise, ye wretched of the earth!
For justice thunders condemnation,
A better world’s in birth.

 

“Mantis,” An Interpretation

4 Nov. 1934/ New Directions (1936)

 

LZ acknowledges in a 22 Oct. 1941 letter that this “Interpretation” of “‘Mantis’” was provoked by WCW’s “comment of the time” (WCW/LZ 295); see 70.5 below. LZ owned a set of the Temple Classics editions of Dante’s works with original Italian text and translations on facing page; the volume he refers to and quotes from below is: The Vita Nuova and Canzoniere of Dante Alighieri, translated by Thomas Okey (La vita nuova) and P.H. Wicksteed (1911).

 

67.1      Nomina sunt consequential rerum…: from Dante, La Vita Nuova, Chap. XIII with translation by Thomas Okey. Dante is quoting Thomas Aquinas, but LZ may also have in mind a key passage of EP’s “Vorticism” (1914): “The image is not an idea. It is a radiant node or cluster; it is what I can, and must perforce, call a VORTEX, from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing. In decency one can only call it a VORTEX. And from this necessity came the name ‘vorticism.’ Nomina sunt consequentia rerum, and never was that statement of Aquinas more true than in the case of the vorticist movement” (Gaudier-Brzeska 92).

67.4      Incipit Vita Nova…: It. “here begins the new life,” from the introductory paragraph of Dante, La Vita Nuova. The following two lines are immediately translated from Okey: “In that part of the book of my memory before which little could be read is found a rubric which saith: Incipit Vita Nova. Beneath which rubric I find written the words which it is my purpose to copy in this little book, and if not all, at least their substance.”

68.13    la battaglia delli diversi pensieri . . .: from Dante, La Vita Nuova, the opening sentence of Chap. XIV; LZ immediately translates (Okey has: “the battle of the divers thoughts”).

69.1      Dante’s rubric / Incipit / Surrealiste / Re-collection: see 67.4. In the early 1930s both EP and LZ agreed that the dream vision poetry of Dante anticipated surrealism and that the latter was nothing new (see e.g. EP/LZ 162). The La Vita Nuova in particular describes a number of dreams of death. See Golston on “’Mantis’” as a response to Surrealism.

69.6      “To the short day and the great sweep of shadow”: see introductory note to “’Mantis’”; translation by P.H. Wicksteed in the Temple Classics edition. Dante’s sestina, designated as Canzone, is included in TP 143-144 as translated by D.G. Rossetti.

70.5      —Our world will not stand it, / the implications of a too regular form: quoting a 30 Oct. 1934 letter from WCW in response to “’Mantis’”: “I myself dread the implications of too regular form—our world will not stand it. The result of the implied comparison being unreality. This is usually interpreted as falsity” (WCW/LZ 202).

70.9      Millet in a Dali canvas: Salvador Dali (1904-1989) did a number of paintings—particularly L’Angelus arquitectonic de Millet (1933) and Reminescence Archeologique de L’Angelus de Millet (1935)—that “translate” Jean-François Millet’s L’Angelus, which depicts two poor peasants praying out in a field to the ringing bells of a church (L’angelus) in the distance. Roger Callois (see 66.17) mentions that Dali discusses the mantis in the critical work that compliments his Angelus paintings. On Dali’s interest in the mantis figure in relation to Millet’s and his own paintings, see Golston 332-334. Lorine Niedecker mentions seeing Dali’s first major exhibition in NYC in late 1933, which presumably LZ probably saw as well (Penberthy 22-23).

70.9      Circe in E’s Cantos: Circe appears scattered through the early Cantos of EP, but particularly in Canto I and in Canto XXXIX, which evokes Odysseus and his men dawdling in sensual inertia at Circe’s house. LZ appears concerned here with the idea of the recurrence of past figures in contemporary work. See Golston who draws a connection between Circe as a predatory female and the mantis figure in Dali’s reworking of Millet (346).

71.31    The Wisconsin Elkhorn Independent: a community paper; Elkhorn is not far from Madison and LZ must have heard of the paper during his year teaching at the University of Wisconsin in 1930-1931.

71.32    “Rags make paper, paper makes money…: this is a traditional jingle often identified as 18th century. “Rags” here refers to the common use of rags as the primary pulp material in early paper manufacture (Jane Kamensky & Lindsay Silver, personal communication).

72.1      Provence myth: deliberately or not, LZ is being somewhat loose here; Roger Caillois’ essay on the mantis (see 66.17) mentions various French folklore about the insect, much but not necessarily all from the southern or Languedoc region. Caillois remarks: “In more general terms, it seems that we must agree with the opinion of De Bomare, who writes that in all Provence, the mantis is regarded as sacred and that people avoid causing it the slightest harm” (trans. Michael Syrotinski).

72.2      Melanesian self-extinction myth: again LZ is not recalling or replicating exactly; as the quotation at 66.21 indicates, this is an African myth. It is possible LZ is working from confusing notes, since the preceding paragraph of Callois’ essay does mention mantis related facts from Melanesia.

72.3      airships: airships or zeppelins were much in the news in the early 1930s; one of the more famous disasters was the crash of the U.S.S. Akron in April 1933, although the most spectacular, the Hindenburg, would not happen until 1937.

72.4      creation myth (Melanesia)…: ditto note at 72.2.

72.32    jelly for the Pope: perhaps alludes to the Concordat signed in June 1933 between Pope Pius XI and Hitler’s government, as well as other acts perceived as appeasing the fascist powers.

72.33    la mia nemica, Madonna la pieta…: from Dante, La Vita Nuova, the sonnet in Chap. XIII, with translation by Okey immediately following. 

73.4      La calcina pietra…: from Dante’s sestina (see introductory note to “’Mantis’”), which is one of a number of poems addressed to a lady named Pietra (stone). The translation is that of Wicksteed.

73.9      com’huom pietra sotterba…: the final phrase from Dante’s sestina, with Wicksteed’s translation.