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Flying Blind: How Moths and Artists Navigate Darkness

by Sarah Mason

A few nights back, my girls and I googled “why do moths fly towards the light?” We live
in the country, and this evening, with our house aglow in computer and lamplight,
the thump of wings tap, tap, tapping against the window is the soundtrack of our search.

In our brightly lit front room, we discover that moths don’t see well; they’re programmed
to fly towards the moon and stars because, at night, before the age of electricity, this was
the only way moths knew which way was up. This built-in homing device obviously
doesn’t serve them as well as it did hundreds of years ago, what with so many light bulbs
masquerading as moons.

The next morning, I wake up to a phone call from a friend who’s a painter. He’s thinking
about collaboration. “What’s the show going to be about?” I ask, and he pauses, laughs,
starts, “Well…I’ve been painting blindfolded.” He tells me about the logistics, how his
neighbor is helping out by coming in and taking photographs of the paintings at each
stage before taking the paintings away until it’s time to work on them again. If all goes as
planned, my friend won’t see his paintings until they’re hanging in the gallery on the
night of the opening.

I ask why, and part of the reason is the artist’s own fear. He says he can imagine every
loss; he can imagine life in a wheelchair; he can imagine life without sound. But when it
comes to his eyes, the loss is unimaginable, unthinkable. He’s trying to get in front of the
fear.

At some point the conversation becomes about our own desire to be, as my friend puts it,
“released of the terrible burden of creativity,” and I think about the series of epistolary,
persona poems I’m working on now. How, after winning a book award for my first full-
length collection, I had to get as far away from my own voice as I could in order to
continue writing. But also, when I consider my friend’s fear of losing his sight, I realize
that writing in a voice that isn’t my own, in form that doesn’t have to follow the same
rules as a straight narrative or lyrical poem, has been the only way I can give myself
permission to write about the things that scare me. At this point I should mention that I,
the mother of two daughters, am writing a series of epistolary poems written in the voices
of Demeter and Persephone after Persephone’s abduction and during her subsequent rape
in captivity.

When I write these poems, the persona and epistolary form allow me to maintain a certain
intimacy with my subject matter, while still keeping some distance from it. This helps my
heart and mind go to some very, very difficult places. And, on a more practical note, the
epistolary form helps me ignore the fact that I am crafting poems. These aren’t poems, I
tell myself, just letters with attention to imagery and metaphor and line breaks. I disguise
my poems as letters, and I write them in voices that don’t belong to me so that I might
write each piece the way my blindfolded friend paints his canvas. I am closing my eyes to
my own world, trying to move deeper into the one unseen.

These days the world is aglow with artificial light, and perhaps what I’m coming to, as I
tap, tap away at these keys with the same rhythm of a moth flying again and again into an
illuminated window, is that the call to fly blind is the one we answered as soon as we
decided to create something out of nothing. And if we want to keep seeing, we have to be
willing to plunge ourselves into darkness and lose our footing. It’s the only way to gain
any real ground.

This morning the sky is dark and grey. I have a few lights on in the house. The girls are
watching television while I type, working to understand where I’m going with all this.
And somewhere, in this same city, my friend is blindfolded, paintbrush in hand, feeling
his way across the canvas, both of us working to find some relief, some release from the
beautiful, terrible burden of creativity.

My new knowledge about moths is a welcome, if not heartbreaking lesson in humility. I
think of all the years I scoffed, thought, “Stupid moths” as I watched them circle flame or
a lamp light, diving again and again towards the thing that would eventually consume
them, when all along they were just trying to find their way up.

About Sarah Mason:

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Sarah McKinstry-Brown’s debut full-length collection, Cradling Monsoons, was recently
awarded the 2011 Nebraska Book Award for Poetry. When she’s not reading, writing, or
teaching, you can find Sarah in Omaha with her husband, the poet Matt Mason, and their
two beautiful, feisty daughters. Learn more at sarah.midverse.com.