Robert Wood Lynn's "(The Mothman Gets High)"
Thoughts on distance and closeness.
(The Mothman Gets High)
Yes. There is a point at which any person gets tired of knowledge. You could call this a threshold or you could call this the point at which a person gets tired of knowledge. I'll tell you this: I've never felt further from another than when standing beside them trying to point out a star.
from Mothman Apologia (Yale University Press, 2022)
(here’s a link to a photo of the poem to see the original formatting with the original spacing, which this sometimes-tricky Substack formatting might’ve messed with)
I’ve thought about the last two lines of this poem for months. They rattle around my brain. They make me feel lonely, less lonely. They make me feel. And it’s funny, because the other day I watched the 1997 movie Contact for what I thought was the second time, but was definitely — upon beginning it — the first (isn’t it wild how that happens?), and I thought of this poem again. I thought of what it means to believe someone, and what it means to be idealistic, and what it means to be human, and how sometimes being human means something about belief and something about the failure to believe, or the refusal to. Something about the frustration of longing, and the longing to long, still.
This is the first poem in Robert Wood Lynn’s first book. I think it’s my favorite first poem of any book. I think it does so much, from the title to the ending. All the way through. The title of the poem — and the book — references the Mothman, a character out of West Virginian folklore (but also someone you should believe in) who appears as a warning before disaster, and whose existence was stylized for the wider public in a 2002 film staring Richard Gere — a film I’ve seen, I think, maybe half a dozen times. In this poem, and throughout the book, the Mothman is a kind of persona — an earnest, I think lovable, at times serious and deeply sincere character who realizes that many people don’t believe in him. Not at all. And so there’s a huge sorrow I feel while reading Lynn’s poems, and a wellspring of tenderness. A sorrow not just for the rural and often purposely overlooked land that the Mothman comes from, but also for each other, for the fact that, as Lynn writes in one poem:
we teach each other how we want
to be held.
And for the fact that sometimes we forget what we’ve learned about this holding. And sometimes we do so purposefully. Sometimes all the time.
And so, when I read today’s poem, I think about all of that above. But I also think of the playfulness of the title. The daring. The way that such a title — “(The Mothman Gets High)” — alludes to so much: youthful naivety, drug-induced pontification, waywardness, escape. To begin a book with a poem that announces itself in such a way feels like a true joy to read. It says something about not taking itself so seriously. And it also — because of escape, because of sadness, because of loneliness (no one else, it seems, is getting high with the Mothman) — says something about seriousness, too.
And then there’s the poem itself, which I break into two parts in my head. The first part includes the opening few lines:
Yes. There is a point at which any person gets tired of knowledge. You could call this a threshold or you could call this the point at which a person gets tired of knowledge.
I love this. It enacts this funny meta-analysis that is definitely a play on the title. It embodies a tone that is at once smart and at once trying-to-sound-smart, something dry and glib and the result, perhaps, of getting high by yourself, lonely and youthful, wanting and longing and wistful and full of whatever promise of life is ahead. It does this through that self-referential repetition, that point where the Mothman repeats himself, maybe to sound smart, maybe to sound serious, or maybe, too, because he’s run out of things to say.
And maybe you as a reader are saying okay, okay. Maybe you’re saying I’ve heard this kind of thing before. Maybe you’re losing patience. Maybe you don’t like this guy! Maybe you’ve already decided that. That you don’t like this self-serious guy smoking weed and repeating himself as a way to sound smart to himself. I don’t know why you’ve already formed that judgment, but maybe you’ve formed that judgment. And maybe you’re sitting with that judgment when you read the lines that follow:
I'll tell you this: I've never felt further from another than when standing beside them trying to point out a star.
I hope that these lines made your breath catch in the same way they made mine. To read them the first time was to encounter language that got straight to the heart of the very difficulty of humanness, which is another way of saying the very difficulty of feeling loneliness when longing for so much else. That image, of two bodies looking upward, is one for all time. Frame it. Put it on your wall. It’s happening right now, somewhere in the world. And now. And now again. It’s happening always. Two people are looking up into the sky and maybe one person’s finger is reaching toward the stars, their arm wobbling a little, almost shivering. Maybe they are saying something about a constellation. Maybe they are pointing out a planet. Maybe they are trying to say something about distance, or death, or love. But they are pointing, and they are trying to share. And there, in that sharing, I’m sure, is something else. A kind of uncertainty. A wavering. The knowledge that maybe the person next to them can’t see exactly what they are seeing. And that — all of that, the uncertainty and the desire to commune and the love involved and the wonder inherent — is part of humanness. And it’s what’s contained, so succinctly, in these final lines. And it’s beautiful, really. It’s really beautiful.
All of that makes me think of how, in a later poem, “Peepers in February,” Lynn writes:
It helps to think of longing as a fever the body uses to rid itself of lonely. Sounds nice and like most nice things is wrong.
It does sound nice to dwell in that construct. But it is probably wrong. Longing doesn’t feel, always, like a salve for loneliness. It sometimes amplifies it. Lynn’s work is so beautiful in this way. It is at once tender and critical. It longs at the same time it questions longing itself, all of this based so wholly and wildly in the real — the lived experience, even when adopting a persona. This brings me back to the image above — how, even in a moment of deep, attempted communion, there can be the greatest distance of all. There’s sorrow there, right? But there’s still the desire to keep pointing. To try. Do you see it? Can you see it? It’s right there. Just follow my finger. Put your face next to my face. Do you see it now? Can you see it?
John Berger, in And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, writes:
The visible brings the world to us. But at the same time it reminds us ceaselessly that it is a world in which we risk to be lost.
I think of that in relation to the loneliness and separateness of trying — and perhaps failing — to point out a star to someone else. It is a beautiful, miraculous image, a star is. It’s an image that contains each of our lives and reminds us, too, of death. It is almost in and of itself a summation of human experience. Our brightness and our temporality. Our closeness — think of each star, how intimately connected they seem to one another in the sky. And our distance — think of all the miles that exist in the thumbnail you place between one star and the next.
And so to witness a star is beautiful, and to attempt to share in that witness is something else entirely. But then to fail in that attempt — well, that is a sorrow that perhaps only we can feel. It’s a sorrow that comes from first being able to see that visible and intimate world that Berger mentions. And a sorrow that comes from wanting to share in such a world. And the final sorrow, then — that ultimate, painful, straight-through-the-heart shit — comes from not being able to share, or failing to, or being reminded of how difficult it is. That final sorrow comes from wanting someone else to see and feel the same beauty you feel, and then having it seem as if that is not the case. All of us, I think, dwell always in that dissonance — where there is so much of the world that moves us, and so much of our experience of the world we want to share with others, and so much that we can’t. Because language fails us. And senses do. And we fail sometimes as guides, just as others fail us. And I hate that word — failure. Not because I hate failing, but because such a word seems to pass a judgment on the person who has failed. And so I don’t mean to pass that judgment when I use that word. I just mean to say that I know how human it is, to long to share something so deeply and personally beautiful, and to feel distance in the attempt, rather than closeness.
And — oh no — I’m thinking of the movie Contact again. (I should say, as an aside, that I watched Contact the other night because sometimes I scroll through Roger Ebert’s old reviews when I don’t know what movie to watch on a night I’d like to watch a movie. I do this mostly because I’ve realized, far too late, that Ebert was a remarkable writer. Witty and smart and tender. In his second review of Contact — he deemed it one of his “Great Movies”) — he called it “bold” and “brave.” I think other critics might’ve lambasted what Ebert found bold. They might’ve called Contact’s approach to thematic concepts preachy or sentimental or soft. But I love that Ebert called such things bold. There are big ideas in the movie, and though they aren’t always tackled with clarity or specificity, they are wrestled with, and it’s powerful at times to witness that wrestling on the big screen.)
Anyways, there’s a moment in the movie (spoiler alert, sorry) when Jodie Foster’s character — Dr. Arroway — says something like “they should’ve sent a poet.” She’s a lone astronaut hurtling through some time warp wormhole space thing, and entire galaxies are coalescing right before her eyes, and she looks out onto this majestic sight of spinning and twirling and speckled-with-light space stuff, and she says something like that. They should’ve sent a poet. I’m sure this moment is screenshot and meme’d by poets all the time, and it’s a bit too on-the-nose, but it also points out a feeling directly related to the one described by Lynn in today’s poem. Foster’s character is witnessing something beyond description, something she wants to share with others, and she knows intuitively that she will fail at the description, that language will fail. And I think she knows, as such, that she will feel lonely because of that failure. That she will always have this beautiful image in her head, and no one to share it with. And it’s true. It happens. The video camera attached to her body doesn’t work. The image does not come home to earth with her. She has to defend to others that she even saw what she saw. That she even journeyed. They think she lied. What could be a moment of community becomes a moment of isolation and distance.
Another sad truth: I don’t think a poet’s description of that faraway galaxy could have saved Foster’s character from the experience described above. I think the disbelief would still happen. The isolation. And this is why I love that Robert Wood Lynn begins his book with this poem. It reminds me of this deeply sorrowful truth at the heart of our existence. And I don’t quite know how to put it. That we could be closer than we are, maybe. That we are close, maybe, but we don’t know how to say it, or show it. That we know, deep down, that our words and actions will fail us time and time again, but that we still try to point at what we wonder towards and ask others to wonder with us. And, even more sorrowful, that these feelings — of isolation and loneliness and communion and even love, of the great depth of human experience — are commodified and exploited at all times, making us feel even lonelier and sadder than maybe we ever have been.
There’s another passage by Berger from the same book mentioned above:
As soon as space and therefore separateness is the condition of existence, love contests this separation. Love aims to close all distance. Death achieves the same end. Yet whereas love celebrates the unique, the unrepeatable: death destroys them.
Love aims to close all distance. What a beautiful way to phrase it. Today’s poem is not just about some wayward kid getting high and thinking about the universe. No, it’s about something, I think, embedded deep within each of us. A desire to commune and a loneliness that festers when the communion does not happen. And then: distance, separateness, isolation. But notice how, when Berger writes love aims to close all distance, he doesn’t say that love closes it entirely. It’s the aiming that matters. The attempt. That Zeno’s Paradox of life. To keep walking halfway toward one another, wavering as we walk, just to try to grow a little closer.
Some other things (since I’m no longer on Twitter):
If those two quotes from John Berger’s And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos don’t move you to read the book, I’d just like to say that I read it earlier this week and found it utterly remarkable. It’s a short book, composed of little, sometimes interlocking vignettes and essays and criticisms and poems. It’s impossible to say exactly what it is, but it is beautiful. Whenever I read a short book I love, I’m reminded of what Michael Ondaatje said about William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow (maybe my favorite short book): “It is the subtlest of miniatures that contains our deepest sorrows and truths and love.” The same, I’d say, applies to Berger’s book.
Unrelated to anything, but: Have you ever thought about the phrase worst enemy, and how it is often used in direct opposition to the phrase best friend? Isn’t this weird? If someone is your worst enemy, doesn’t that mean they are not very good at being your enemy? Don’t you think the opposite of best friend is actually best enemy? Isn’t your worst enemy literally your best friend?
I’m sure someone else has already thought of the thing I said above and put it in more eloquent terms.
Thank you to those who reached out last week to ask for a copy of my just recently out of print collection of poetry, In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen, which has at least one typo in it. (Also, if you sent an email, but I didn’t respond, feel free to send it again — sometimes I lose emails in my spam folder). Anyways, I have just a few more copies left, so if you’d like one, please just send an email. I’ll send one your way. Cool. That’s all.