LYRIC COMPANIONS Adam Zagajewski “Moths”

From A Book of Luminous Things, Ed. Milosz

CONTEXT There is something extraordinary about the sweep of human desire. It is not like animal desire, which is univocalized to a determinate objective. . . . The unfolding, in its phases, takes place within the intimate universal, which is no “within,” but is outside of itself. It is an outside and an inside at once—the fixed spatialialization of determinate boundaries makes no sense.

William Desmond, The Intimate Universal, 318.

Lyric frames its imagery in temporal settings—lines, stanzas, sentences, fragments of sentences: the framing goes on even as the imagery seems to hover, hitting pause. Zagajewski focuses on this elusive theme in “Moths.” This is his way to fulfill the potential of the lyric narrative to become about itself, mindfully as it were, thus confirming its integrity in the face of the nothing which haunts modern poetry. Small poem, big subject.

The situation is a common one, an August night, a couple, a window where moths collect, being drawn from darkness toward the source of light. The allegorical possibilities are endless.

But as the lyric unfolds it resists retelling those stories and cuts to the chase. This moth hour barely contains the violence of its moment. “Seated at the table” we are “skewered”! Suddenly transfixed, nailed to the spot. The ambiguity of the moment increases as the syntax completes itself.

Our sudden awareness of the moths makes US subject to their gaze. Tables turned. Zagajewski overcomes the hyperbole of the moment with a paradox: the gaze of the moths, which is all eyes for the light, is “lambent.” The word conveys a tactile sense, lambent connotes licking. The gaze hardly objectifies us in this moment of seeming “self-consciousness.” But we experience an invasion of privacy, our vulnerability, even our humanity, is at stake. Just a gentle licking from the Other!

The dialectical contrast is stunning. What shatters is the fragile flesh of their wings as they impulsively charge the transparent boundary. If our peace at some remote place in the back of our mind is vaguely aware of this violation of our private space, it’s nothing compared to the suicide mission of the moths. In the process of trying to reach the source of light they are destroying their wings.

The tension of the moment grows, perhaps subconsciously as the couple enjoy their evening. The turn of the poem, which has completed its mission to communicate the lived quality of the moment, leaps away into the abyss. It addresses the moths—resentfully, arrogantly at first. The difference between you and us is a void, us here, you there. We are secure in our space. Space which we had momentarily and only subconsciously feared had been compromised.

And yet, the lyric narrative can’t leave things there. It has turned itself inside out. The pronouns had staked out the territory to no avail. “And we’ll be more within,/more and more in.” An abyss opens in us: “we” have been breached! The sense of our innerness is endless, the poem’s frames have collapsed around it. We’ve broken through by being broken into by the intimate universal, like the moths we have been discovered in our nothingness by the very light we go by.

When I read this poem “mindfully” —as a “spiritual exercise”—I always hesitate in the middle of the closing sentence. It feels dead, formulaic. After such drama why just reassert the basic situation?

If I’m lucky, I feel my own awareness double itself, not as irony but the indwelling of my own finitude, which in its innerness now however briefly feels like outerness, and my self quite the same as those poor moths. For all the drama the moment will be repeated. Lyric “moments” are traces of eternity. The intimate universal indeed.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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