“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.

Michael Golston has identified (330) the source of many of the curious details of stanzas 4-6 as an essay by Roger Caillois, “La Mante religieuse,” published in the French surrealist journal Minotaure, no. 5 (May 1934). This essay was reworked and republished a number of times, but a scan of the original journal publication can be found here and in the annotations below the English translation of the Minotaure version is from The Edge of Surrealism: A Roger Caillois Reader, ed. and trans. by Claudie Frank & Camille Naish (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2003), 69-81. A transcription of LZ’s notes for “‘Mantis,'” primarily from Caillois, can be found here

 

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…: from Roger Caillois (see headnote), “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. “Spectre” here also evokes the opening of the Communist Manifesto: “A spectre is haunting Europe”: 
Speaking of various folk designations for the mantis is different areas of Europe: “At times, the mantis is termed ‘Italian woman’ or a ‘specter’ and at times, less explicably, ‘strawberry’ or ‘madeleine’” (71).
“This is most likely the same Thomas Mouffet who, in a passage quoted by J.H. Fabre (Souvenirs entomologiques, vol. 5, ch. 20), notes that when a mantis is asked for directions by children who are lost, it shows them the way by pointing its finger—and rarely, if ever, does it mislead them” (70).
“[A. de Chesnel] also quotes the case of a man whom this same animal supposedly warned, most opportunely, to return whence he came from” (70).

66.21    Killed by thorns (once men)…: from Roger Caillois, “La Mante religieuse”: 
“[among the Hottentots and Bushmen:] So what clearly seems to be most emphasized is the digestive dimension; this should not surprise anyone familiar wit the incredible voracity of this insect, prototype of the god. Among the latter’s other avatars, let us note that he came back to life, with bones entirely reassembled, after having been killed by thorns (that were formerly men) and eaten by ants. This is an adventure in which digestion still plays a certain part, linking it to the rich mythical cycle of the dispersed and then resurrected god of the Osiris variety” (72).
“Naturalists find in the praying mantis the most extreme form of the close bond that often seems to exist between the sensual pleasures of sexuality and those of nutrition. Dali outlined this connection in an utterly direct and intuitive way. On this topic, though, should at least be noted, following Léon Binet, the studies by Bristowe and Locket on the Pisaura mirabilis cl.: during coitus the female eats a fly offered by the male” (77). 
“Finally, let us not forget the mimicry of mantises, which illustrates, sometimes hauntingly, the human desire to recover its original insensate condition, a desire comparable to the pantheistic idea of becoming one with nature, which is itself the common literary and philosophical translation of returning to prenatal unconsciousness. There are numerous examples: […] the Blepharis mendica, speckled white on green like the leaves of the Thymelia microphylla upon which it lives; […] the Empusa egena of Algeria, which not content merely to look like a green anemone, gently stirs, imitating the wind’s effect upon a flower; […]” (79).

66.23    prophetess: Caillois points out that etymologically “mantis” means prophetess. The entire paragraph is of interest and summarizes many of Caillois’ key points:
“Such floral transformations, whereby the insect loses its identity and returns to the plant kingdom, complements its astonishing capacity for automatism as well as its seemingly insouciant attitude toward death. These properties themselves complement other attributes that can jeopardize an individual’s immediate sensitivity: such as the insect’s name of mantis of empusa, that is, prophetess or vampire-specter; its shape, which, among all the rest, man can recognize as his own; its pose, either absorbed in prayer or engaged in the sexual act; and finally, its nuptial habits” (80).

66.27    Android […] / Graze like machined wheels…: from Roger Caillois, “La Mante religieuse” (see headnote):
“[quoting Binet:] ‘This insect really seems to be a machine with highly advanced parts [une machine aux rouages perfectionnés], which can operate automatically.’ Indeed, it strikes me that likening the mantis to an automaton (to a female android, given the latter’s anthropomorphism) reflects the same emotional theme, if (as I have every reason to believe) the notion of an artificial, mechanical, inanimate, and unconscious machine-woman—incommensurate with man and all other living creatures—does stem in some way from a specific view of the relations between love and death and, in particular, from an ambivalent premonition of encountering one within the other” (78-79).
[Caillois details descriptions of the female mantis’ well-known habit of decapitating and eating the male immediately after or even during coupling.]

66.31    I am old as the globe, the moon, it / Is my old shoe…: from Roger Caillois, “La Mante religieuse”:
“The mantidae were probably the first insects on earth” (70).
“According to [the Hottentots and Bushmen], the mantis (Cagn) is actually the supreme deity and creator of the world. Its amorous life is apparently ‘pleasurable,’ and the moon, which is fabricated out of an old shoe, it its own special possession. We should note, in particular, that its primary function seems to be that of obtaining food for those who beseech it” (72).

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, Circe in E’s Cantos: Salvador Dali (1904-1989) did a number of painting that “translate” Jean-François Millet’s L’Angeluss—relevant here are the first two he did in 1933, L’Angélus arquitectonic de Millet and Gala et l’Angélus de Millet précédent immédiatement la venue des “anamorphoses coniques.” Millet’s famous work depicts two poor peasants praying out in a field to the ringing bells of a church (L’angelus) in the distance. Roger Callois (see headnote) mentions that Dali discusses the mantis in the critical work that compliments his Angelus paintings, and particularly in L’Angélus arquitectonic de Millet the left figure is readily identifiable as mantis-like as well as overtly sexual in its connotations. 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).
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. So clearly EP’s Circe is here taken as a recurrence of the prototype of a femme fatale or devouring female figure that Caillois argues the female mantis is the instinctual archetype. See Golston 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 headnote) mentions various French folklore about the insect, much but not necessarily all from the southern or Languedoc region. Caillois remarks: “It seems that we must generally abide by the views of De Bomare, who writes that the mantis is deemed sacred everywhere in Provence and that people are careful not to cause it the slightest harm” (71). 

72.2      Melanesian self-extinction myth: again LZ is not recalling or replicating exactly; as the quotations at 66.21 indicate, the details here are from African mythology, although Caillois does mention that the mantis is a totem for a Melanesian tribe. LZ may be being deliberately mischievous, the point being he is supposedly drawing on anthropological materials in a manner made famous by T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

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), residue of / it in our emotions…: see notes at 72.2 and 66.31. LZ may also be evoking Caillois’ larger argument that the multiple mythological and ethnographic versions of the mantis he details evidence humans’ instinctive identity with and reaction to this insect that is prior to any social coding, what he refers to as the praying mantis’ “objective lyrical value” (79): “[…] I am not claiming that men, after having carefully observed mantises, were deeply affected by their habits. I am merely stating that as both these insects and mankind are part of one and the same nature, I do not exclude the possibility of invoking the insects to explain, if need be, people’s behavior in certain situations. For we must realize that man is a unique case only in his own eyes, and that this study is actually nothing but comparative biology” (69).

72.29    “—we have been left with nothing…: although LZ appears to ascribe this quotation to the British Admiralty, in fact it is from a newspaper report dated June 1920 on the demise of Hamburg as a major port in the wake of World War I and the terms of the Versailles Treaty. The speaker quoted is the Director of the Hamburg-American Line, among the world’s largest ship companies. Despite its name it was entirely German owned. 

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.