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Alice's Moth

Alice's Moth

Alice Pettway, author of   Moth   ( photo credit: Una Zhu )

Alice Pettway, author of Moth (photo credit: Una Zhu)

by Siena Oristaglio



I’m in a butterfly garden at night.

It’s early September. 

The air is cool.

Crickets chirp in harmony

with the drone of street lamps 

that line a concrete path. 

Moth  cover (click image to purchase link)

Moth cover (click image to purchase link)

I kneel in a patch of grass, 

holding a book called Moth.

I read it earlier tonight. 

In it, Alice Pettway delivers

short, searing poems that 

detail the illness and 

eventual death of her father. 

All kinds of insects flutter

and crawl through Moth’s

pages, appearing as symbols 

of fragility, persistence, pain,

and frenzied trails of mourning. 

In the book’s first poem, Pettway writes:

“Home / is a blue lure,/

a soft crackle at the edge of hearing. /

It is  / singed wings flashing / 

in a halo of lethal light.”

Absorbing these words earlier tonight 

as I unwound at home after 

my weekly grief group,

I grew rapidly entranced.

Each successive poem flickered

into a new corner of my chest 

shaded by my own loss.

As I watched small flitting creatures 

appear again and again in the poems,

I was struck with a sudden desire to witness

some such small creatures in person.

This is how I find myself, now, 

in Central Park after dark. 

I’ve come here to hunt moths.

My friend Casey has accompanied

me on my mission, which is based 

entirely on an unsubstantiated 

guess that butterfly gardens 

turn into moth gardens at night. 

Huddling on dewy grass, we whisper 

to one another though the thin air, 

our eyes darting to assess the occasional 

dark figure or unexpected noise. 

We’ve been searching for moths 

for twenty minutes to no avail.

Two small gardens along the 

concrete path proved fruitless.

Standing under a street lamp

for what felt like an hour but was 

probably three or four minutes, 

we did catch a flashing glimpse 

of a solitary moth. As quickly as it 

arrived, though, the insect darted 

away in the direction of a tall 

figure reclining against a tree.

We didn’t chase it, fearful of the figure,

but opted to climb a hill towards

the larger, more secluded garden patch. 

Crouching now near an array of flowers, 

I try to remain hopeful. 

Let’s check this one, I whisper, 

shuffling towards a swaying plant. 

Casey sweeps the flashlight across 

rows of petals until it reaches the bush

I’m next to, which glows a pinkish purple 

as it becomes drenched in light.

There! She exclaims.

A silver moth pierces the lilac curtain. 

Look! She says. 

“It looks like a ghost,” she mutters. “Check out its eyes.” ( photo credit: Siena Oristaglio )

“It looks like a ghost,” she mutters. “Check out its eyes.” (photo credit: Siena Oristaglio)

More moths flutter in the bush,

a few burrowing in blossoms, 

some remaining airborne. 

Oh my god, I gasp.

We found the moth palace!

Casey steadies the light on a 

moth that has settled upside down.

It looks like a ghost, she mutters.

Check out its eyes.

They glow, red and unblinking.

I recall a description of the insect

by entomologist Moses Harris: 

“The very shining of its eyes

is thought to represent the fiery 

element whence it is supposed to

have proceeded,” he wrote in 1840.

Its eyes do look evil, I whisper.

As silvery blurs weave through the lit column,

I clasp Pettway’s book tighter in my palm. 

I recall her own description of moths 

illuminated by beams of light:

In February

The white moths fell

towards asphalt

glowing in my headlights

pale and more constant 

than fireflies. Furred bodies

danced on the road,

clung to the curb.

The salt truck would come

in a few hours, melting

their wings into puddles,

but at that moment, I believed 

them capable of flight, of escape

from the path leading me

to a sick bed, and then

a death.

I shudder, staring at these insects,

imagining them as harbingers of death.

My friend Alejandro once told me

 that in the weeks prior to the deaths 

of four significant people in his life, 

his family home filled to the brim 

with moths. Not surprisingly, any sight 

of the creatures now fills him with dread.

This feeling is not an uncommon: 

the death’s-head hawkmoth has been 

believed for thousands of years and

across many cultures to symbolize an 

impending fatality, the skull-shaped imprint 

on its thorax an omen to those it visits. 

I open Moth to another of Pettway’s poems:

Lament

In your absence,

I wear bugle beads, pale

as the bones strung

down my spine,

a gown of pendulums

undulating against the black

background of my grief—

formality complete 

with heels and clutch

to keep the casual reality

of loss at bay.

Each step showers

my legs with sound

contorting parallel

to my thoughts— 

clicks, rain, insect 

wings catching outside 

locked panes. A song 

stammering 

for your return.

In this piece, every sonic detail,

including the tiny sound of wings 

against windows, transforms into 

a song about a loved one’s absence.

This experience is familiar to me:

in grief group this evening,

I described how in the early days 

after sudden loss, everything 

around me seemed to circle 

towards the gaping absence of

the person I loved.

One theory about why moths get

trapped by lamplights: 

the creatures evolved to navigate 

by positioning the light of the moon 

at a stable point in their vision. 

For millions of years, the fixed distance

of the moon enabled them to fly in 

straight lines. The relatively recent 

invention of artificial lights, however, 

has confused the insects’ visual apparatus. 

Due to how they evolved, when flying close 

to a source of light, they are doomed 

to careen in tight, flustered circles around it.

Studying the creatures now, 

I imagine a human vanished as a

lamplight around which grievers 

orbit, attempting to adjust to the 

bewildering coordinates created by the loss. 

The new absence looms close and bright,

a moon on fire, too large to escape.

With such an enormous aftermath, 

sometimes death itself comes more 

quietly than one would expect.

In Moth’s penultimate poem, Pettway writes:

A Death

I wanted violence, lids flung open,

clam shells pried from their rest,

a whirlpool of sheets drawing us in

to the great tide of your death.

But you retreated, a tide from a steep bank,

close lines of pain marking your exit.

While her father’s death itself may not have 

transpired as a rushing whirlpool,

the poems in Moth reveal themselves 

as a forceful vortex around his absence.

I close Pettway’s book.

Casey and I take a few photographs 

and sit, observing and chatting 

until the chill gets to us.

As we retrace our steps out of the park,

I tell her about the many species 

of moths known to feed on the tears of 

crocodiles, deer, and even sleeping birds. 

They do this to supplement their diet of 

sweet nectar with salt. I turn to her:

It’s strange to think that every night 

as we go about our lives in this city, 

thousands of moths also go about theirs, 

hunting for nectar and tears.

She laughs.

It is strange, she agrees.

I let my gaze settle on a red streetlight

that moves closer with each step.

Nearing the park exit, I bend to 

pick up a white honeysuckle.

Its petals are subtly scented and paper-thin.

I step onto the sidewalk and tuck

the honeysuckle into my hair.

It lifts almost instantly on the breeze.

A taxi races past, its headlights

sweeping the road. 

The tiny flower darts into the 

bright beams, flaps its wings, 

and disappears.

Siena Oristaglio (all pronouns) is an artist and educator. She co-runs The Void Academy, an organization that helps independent artists thrive. She lives in New York City.

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