by Elizabeth Bishop
Stanza 1 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
cracks in the buildings are filled with battered moonlight.
- The poem starts out pretty straightforward, telling us that we're above the city, looking down.
- The cracks in the buildings indicate that we're probably looking at an older part of the city, not a sparkly new section full of shiny skyscrapers.
- The battered moonlight also lets us know that this is likely in one of the shadier parts of town, since the buildings are in bad enough shape to batter even the moonlight.
- We are also made aware that this poem has a third-person narrator, a.k.a our speaker.
- We should also note the indentation and short length of the very first line in the stanza. Bishop is borrowing formatting from regular prose to show the reader that the stanza stands as a single part of the Man-Moth's life—just as a paragraph focuses on a single topic, so does each stanza focus on a single stage of what the speaker has to say about the Man-Moth. Each first line is like a little title, giving us a hint about what to expect in that stanza.
The whole shadow of Man is only as big as his hat.
It lies at his feet like a circle for a doll to stand on,
and he makes an inverted pin, the point magnetized to the moon.
- The third line lets us know that the moon is most likely full and directly overhead since it casts a shadow straight down at Man's feet.
- Notice the capital "M" that Bishop uses for the word Man? That tells us that the speaker isn't just talking about a single ole Joe Shmoop on the street, she's talking about all of mankind.
- The circle for a doll to stand on is just that—the base of a doll stand. Bishop is known for her rich visual descriptions, and this is a great example. From up here, everyone on the street looks like a toy on display. Is this just about what they look like, or is it a comment on how they behave as well? We have to keep reading to find out…
- Know what else that bit about the doll stand looks like? A simile. Not to be confused, of course, with the next line about the pin, which is a straight metaphor. Bishop uses a lot of this kind of figurative language, so look for more of it as the poem moves on.
- The speaker gives us another strong image of a map pin, little plastic ball on the ground, and the sharp end pointed at the moon. The shadow is the little ball, and the man's body is the pin.
- Wait a sec... if his body is the pin, then wouldn't that mean that the man's head is the pointy bit? Is the speaker calling the man, and by extension all of mankind, a pointy-head?
He does not see the moon; he observes only her vast properties,
feeling the queer light on his hands, neither warm nor cold,
of a temperature impossible to record in thermometers.
- The man only sees the light from the moon, not the moon itself because he doesn't bother to look up, taking the source of the light for granted.
- If the light is neither warm nor cold, can the man really feel it? Even if he could feel it, it seems from this line that it doesn't really matter to him, or at least he doesn't really think about it much.
- The use of the word "queer" and the assignment of female gender to the moon may also be important in lines 6 and 7. Bishop was only 24 when she wrote this poem, and it's very likely that she was struggling with her identity and acceptance as a gay woman in the mid-1930s, a time when homosexuality was still taboo. Certainly the touch of a queer woman would be quite neutral—"neither warm nor cold"—for a man.
- Of course, this is a pretty obvious statement for Bishop since she likes to wrap up her words in cozy blankets of ambiguity. However, it may not be quite so obvious when we consider that the word "queer" was still being used in a derogatory way until the 1980s, so it would have been a bit of a shocker to use it in polite society in any other way than the traditional definition.
- Bishop may be banking her on reputation as a straight-laced and refined woman who would never rock the boat with such crude language. If her audience buys into her reputation, then she can hide her meaning in plain sight, so to speak.
- The last line in the stanza furthers our speculation that she may be speaking about a lesbian moon (no, not that kind of moon) because the passionate heat or chills of sexual attraction can't be measured by scientific instruments.
- There are also some great examples of assonance and consonance in this first stanza, so you'll want to check out our "Sound Check" section for more on that.