Winter evenings, in defiance of the cold and only while lights burn in the kitchen, moths bounce against the sliding glass doors. Most are buff-colored, some gray, and all are small and shaped like triangles on the glass. They recall the final sentences of Bend Sinister: “Twang. A good night for mothing,” which Nabokov claimed a printer mistakenly typeset as “A good night for nothing,” quite another thing.
As a boy I tried collecting only butterflies but the big gaudy moths of Northern Ohio – cecropia, luna, Polyphemus -- proved seductive. Now my tastes have narrowed and matured, and I’m strictly a butterfly man. They are emblems of gratuitous beauty, reliably lifting me on the drabbest day. On Thursday, after three days of sunshine, I spied my first of the season, flitting from a flowering cherry in the neighbor’s yard, over his dormant vegetable garden, across the wooden fence that separates our properties, across the flowerless lawn and over another, taller fence, and gone. I never saw him light and he remained in my sight for less than a minute. He was a skipper, I’m certain, possibly a dreamy duskywing (lovely name), gray and tweedy-looking, conservative like an old-fashioned banker.
I read Charles Tomlinson’s “The Butterflies,” which taught me something obvious about them and their bittersweet beauty: It’s all in the wings. Picture a wingless butterfly and what do you see? A worm with legs, an anorexic lizard, a maggot with a three-segment body. Tomlinson notes “It is beauty of wings that reconciles us / To these spindles, angles, these inhuman heads.” A giant butterfly, despite its wings, would be monstrous, though none is carnivorous. Here’s the poem (from Annunciations, 1989, and Selected Poems, 1997):
“They cover the tree and twitch their coloured capes,
On thin legs, stalking delicately across
The blossoms breathing nectar at them;
Hang upside-down like bats,
Like wobbling fans, stepping, tipping,
Tipsily absorbed in what they seek and suck.
There is a bark-like darkness
Of patterned wrinkling as though of wood
As wings shut against each other.
Folded upon itself, a black
Cut-out has quit the dance;
One opens, closes from splendour into drab,
Intent antennae preceding its advance
Over a floor of flowers. Their skeletons
Are all outside – fine nervures
Tracing the fourfold wings like leaves;
Their mouths are for biting with – they breathe
Through stigmata that only a lens can reach:
The faceted eyes, a multiplying glass
Whose intricacies only a glass can teach,
See us as shadows if they see at all.
It is beauty of wings that reconciles us
To these spindles, angles, these inhuman heads
Dipping and dipping as they sip.
The dancer’s tread, the turn, the pirouette
Come of a choreography not ours,
Velvets shaken out over flowers and flowers
That under a thousand (can they be felt as) feet
Dreamlessly nod in a vegetative sleep.”
Tomlinson is exacting in his description of the unnamed species. He specifies no colors, size or habitat, yet clearly he pays attention to butterflies. “Nervures” are “stiff chitinous rods that form the supporting framework of an insect's wing.” Such precision is rooted in close observation, a gift shared by the best artists and scientists. In his essay “Louis Agassiz” (in The Geography of the Imagination), Guy Davenport writes:
“Scientific language (which, like poetry, is cared for word by word) is as interesting to the artist as the language of fine prose and poetry to the scientist.”