Nathan Mader is the author of the poem “The Saturn and Sphinx Moths of the Upper Midwest,” which appeared in The Puritan Issue 36. In this author note, he expands on the making of the poem.
It’s fitting that my reading of other poets has radiated “The Saturn and Sphinx Moths of the Upper Midwest.” Over the week or so I was composing it, I began to see that the metaphors I was making were iterative of the light-directed nature, or “transverse orientation,” of language itself. Perhaps Jung is onto something in The Red Book when he says that words “attract meanings like daemonic shadows.” Maybe words start to intensify their glow in the charged atmosphere of composing a poem that attracts more daemons to them, and for me it just so happens that some of the strongest daemons are born of poetry.
In any case, the names of the moths that I found in the titular laminated pamphlet quickly began to draw literary associations to them. Given the mythological overtones suggested by both Saturn and the Sphinx, it felt natural to begin the poem with a muted Homeric invocation. Of course, after opening the poem up to the Classics, it was impossible to keep a reference to the Odyssey at bay when I got to the “Cyclops moth.” I was pretty surprised, however, when Odysseus in the guise of “Nobody” proceeded to bring in Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” (#260), even though her poem contains one of my favorite opening lines ever! Similarly, the “Io moth” attracted Ovid and his Io, who was turned into a heifer to escape Zeus; “The Cow Jumps Over the Moon” nursery rhyme came to mind and, when combined with the “O” of Ovid, emitted enough moonlight to draw Li Po into it.
Reading and reacting to other poets is a fundamental part of my writing process, although how these transactions figure in a poem isn’t always explicit. Around the time that the moths began to appear on my radar, I’d once again been getting tingles from Anthony Madrid’s “Like a Cloud Above a Ravine” on the Poetry Foundation’s website. For me, it’s one of the great poems that exists out there in the un-booked ether (to my surprise, it isn’t in Madrid’s recent, exuberant second collection, Try Never).
If there is something moth-like about writing a poem in the flitter from image to image, thought to thought, and vehicle to tenor, it’s reading other poets that helps me find the flight patterns.
I can now see that Dante’s presence in Madrid’s poem set the stage for me to bring other poets into my own. What’s more, “Like a Cloud” is concerned with “systems” of symbolism: “And the looking-up eyes of the fox, and the sarcophagus, and the campsite/ Are irreducible to a system, are each of them floating over a void.” My poem has inverted (I hesitate to say “argued against”) Madrid’s position that things are “irreducible to a system” and instead suggests that such systems, whether linguistic, mythological, or taxonomical, continually “accrue” things in the world and inflect them with meanings.
Robyn Schiff is also one of my favourite contemporary poets, and her 2016 book A Woman of Property has continued to be on repeat in my playlist. What fascinates me about her work is its incantatory quality. Her poems are comprised of lyrically charged sentences that expand way beyond the breath unit or contract to a laser sight dot while sustaining the vitality of the poem’s original impulse. “Nursery Furniture,” for example, begins with the line “Today I am expecting a new chair.” In Schiff’s hands, this deadpan image becomes magnetized and collects thrillingly idiosyncratic meditations on dreams versus materiality, motherhood, and more over the course of seven pages. Near the end of the poem, Schiff offers what could be a précis of her poetics: “… you aren’t / thinking if you / don’t think it all the way down with every worm.” For someone like me who begins to feel that they are floundering in long poem territory after 20 lines, the fact that even Schiff’s longest poems don’t lag but continually reinvigorate themselves is inspiring.
When I read the end of “The Saturn and Sphinx Moths of the Upper Midwest” now, I realize that the speaker’s shift from the moths to the image of “an empty parking lot outside Fargo” might suggest how we are often guided by sudden conscious and unconscious trips to the distant lights of memories, dreams, and spiritual dimensions—and this includes other poems! I think that every poem I’ve ever read influences every poem I write in some way. If there is something moth-like about writing a poem in the flitter from image to image, thought to thought, and vehicle to tenor, it’s reading other poets that helps me find the flight patterns.
Nathan Mader was born and lives in Regina, Saskatchewan. His work has appeared in Grain, The Fiddlehead, and Vallum. He has been a finalist for the Walrus Poetry Prize and has an essay forthcoming in The Literary History of Saskatchewan Vol. 3 (Coteau, 2017).