The Wo-Man-Moth, for Eric

“Love should be put into action!”
screamed the old hermit.
Across the pond an echo
tried and tried to confirm it.

—Elizabeth Bishop, “Chemin de Fer”

I have a near relation in the hospital with COVID-19, someone dear but also estranged. However, this is not about him. It’s about what this person’s being in the hospital stirs up from the depths of me. It’s about another loved one in another extremity. It’s about my friend Eric.

Eric had a laugh that would fill up every corner of a room, rolling out of him to echo off walls and ear drums. He had a scar on his chin, oftentimes mostly hidden by a goatee, but visible even through five-o’clock-shadow when keeping his face shaved. Eric loved sex with men and food and drink and hugs. Eric wore his heartbreaks and hurts openly, like charms clanking from a belt. He had a Radiohead tattoo.

We were part of a friend group so tight-knit, for a time, that it was as if we were orphans thrust into a forest to survive or die together. We were big on grand theories. Childhood had given us one set of explanations and expectations but now we experimented with what we could fashion and understand together. We decided that people fell into either attractive, average, or unattractive, and I said, “I think we’re all on the high end of medium,” to which Eric indignantly responded, “Excuse me, but we are on the low of end of attractive.” We were serious and foolish in equal measure—fireworks, butterflies. They were my roaring ’20s.

Photo by John from Pexels

Over time, we grew apart, grew away, for reasons that are both entirely normal and partly the result of my and others’ youthful baggage. And then Eric became ill. He was in the hospital. He was 26. I was sure he would be fine. I would go see him on Thursday. Eric died.

I didn’t go see him for understandable reasons, including the belief of youth that it cannot possibly be extinguished. I regret it but understand it, that decision like a tree in a field that you drive past speeding down the freeway, vibrant and then completely gone.

But I also didn’t go to his celebration of life. I had plans to go to a conference with three new grad school colleague-friends. I felt, somehow, that it was more important to not in inconvenience those three men than mourn my friend. And so I bottled up all my grief for Eric and put it on a shelf, buried under food and drink and jokes and professionalism and being nice and trying not to be a bother to anybody. It has lain there for years, until this week, when someone else being in the hospital popped its cork and it all came bubbling out like prohibited champagne. I failed to mourn my friend, failed to mourn with my friends, and failed myself. This decision haunts me. I’d rather be haunted by my friend.

Eric and I both loved to browse bookstores. An afternoon together often involved strolling through stacks, perhaps making a purchase or two, and then going to a coffee shop to look over our loot and our lives. He had a lovely ritual of immediately writing a brief note in the front of a newly acquired book, explaining the circumstances by which it came into his hand. Two weeks after Eric died, our friend Frank reached out to me. He’d been tasked with cleaning out Eric’s apartment and came across a book with my name in the front, a copy of the collected poems of Elizabeth Bishop. It is one of my cherished objects.

Flipping through it today, I revisit one of Bishop’s most famous poems, “The Man-Moth.” I did not get this poem when I first read it. Back then I wanted all my poetry to be full of epigrams and epiphanies. Bishop’s poems, full of stories or descriptions, confounded me. But now I am struck by the central figure’s pointless striving, both terrified of but also compelled to try to fall through the moon. Just as he is compelled to strive, the Man-Moth is compelled to retread the same route over and over again: “Each night he must / be carried through artificial tunnels and dream recurrent dreams. / Just as the ties recur beneath his train, these underlie / his rushing brain.” I feel the resonance here, a figure recycling through the same mistakes and then going over them again and again and again. Like the Man-Moth, I “cannot tell the rate at which [I] travel backwards.”

In the poem, the Man-Moth has one possession, a single tear: “if you’re not paying attention / he’ll swallow it. However, if you watch, he’ll hand it over, / cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink.” This is where I and the Man-Moth differ. Historically, I’ll swallow that tear whether you’re looking at me or whether I’m alone, like a shameful, secret thing. For this I can blame so many things, from family to patriarchy to capitalism to me. But at least for today I make a different choice, holding out this one tear, for Eric.