In her monthly column The Moon in Full, Nina MacLaughlin illuminates humanity’s long-standing lunar fascination. Each installment is published in advance of the full moon.
Gustav Klimt, Bauerngarten, 1907, oil on canvas, 43 1/4 x 43 1/4″. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
An afternoon at the end of May, I stood on a porch in another state, and the day went staticky and dark. The sky purpled and every blade of grass on the hill was pricked by the electricity in the air, a field of green antennae buzzing with the signal. The purple that took hold: not a soporific lavender but the threatening plum of storm, a night come sudden and gone wrong. Said someone on the porch whose third language was English, “It is an eclipse?” It was not, but it felt like one, or how I imagine one to feel, time getting bent by light, the boundary breaking between day and night, one bleeding into the other, destabilizing in the way that certain incomprehensibilities can be, when the messages the senses bring to the brain outpace the brain’s ability to make sense of them.
Sound went weird as well. In the pond at the bottom of the hill, the peeper frogs, which otherwise started their song at nightfall, were tricked by the sudden dark and began a berserk and feverish peepage. Each night these mud-colored squishers ballooned their throats in seductive celebration, engaged in the springtime pursuit of keeping their creaturehood around. Fertile vernal peeping fever. You could hear messages, words, rhythms in their high-pitched love songs. Peak peak peak. Complete complete complete. Seek seek seek. That afternoon, a thunderstorm moved through, the sun reappeared, and, like that, the frogs returned to their daytime silence.
They saw night where there was none, and made what meaning they could from it. We heard words where there were none, the same way we make a face on the full moon’s surface: a perceptual inclination called pareidolia, in which our minds impose patterns or meaning where they might not exist. You’ve glimpsed a turtle riding a motorcycle in a cloud? Seen a demon in the nubbled texture of your ceiling? Heard syllables sloshing from the dishwasher? Pareidolia. It used to be considered a symptom of psychosis. Now it’s known as just another route to making meaning. “Look at walls splashed with a number of stains,” advised Leonardo da Vinci. “You can see the resemblance to a number of landscapes … vicious battles … lively postures of strange figures.” We can see “monstrous things” and we’re better for it: “by indistinct things the mind is stimulated to new inventions.” We make sense where there is no sense, out of the half-seen and overheard, out of all the indistinct; the big truths don’t reveal themselves when we look at them directly. Tonight, the full moon is the closest it will be to earth all year, a big fat full supermoon. What will you see on its round white wall?
“On a white wall, you draw allegories of rest,” writes the night poet Alejandra Pizarnik:
And they’re always of a mad queen who lies beneath the moon on the sad lawns of an ancestral garden. But don’t speak of gardens. Don’t speak of the moon. Don’t speak of roses or of the sea. Speak of what you know. Speak of the thing that rings in the marrow, that plays in your eyes with shadow and light … Just speak of the silence.
On the silent white wall of the moon, some draw a man. I had assumed, and wrongly so, that the Man in the Moon was a vision shared worldwide. “For us, it is a rabbit,” a poet from Mexico told me, explaining an Aztec myth of the creation of the sun. The legend involves two gods; rituals of self-sacrifice using feathers, gold, pus, and blood; and an entrance into fire—one god humble and willing, the other holding back, such that when he did enter the fire, the rest of the gods realized they couldn’t have two bright shining suns, and threw a rabbit into the reluctant one’s face, dimming its shine and leaving a bruiseshadow of the rabbit on its surface.
The moon rabbit exists for Japan, China, and Korea, too. In Chinese myth, it toils over a mortar and pestle, pounding out the elixir of life. An Angolan myth tells of the frog on the moon, one who traveled in a bucket to deliver a marriage proposal to the daughter of Lord Sun and Lady Moon. Some cultures see a toad; others, a crone. What’s there? What message does your mind bring back to you when you look? What news? In another state of mind, you might see monsters in the cloud or hellscapes on the ceiling, hear creep creep creep from the frogs. Same shapes, shadows, sounds; different messages entirely. Where’s the line between imaginative leaps and hallucinatory skewing, actual madness? Are we anytime so far away from a deeper fever?
Let’s speak of the moon. Let’s speak of gardens. Let’s speak of the fire of the fever, the ringing heat in the marrow. The Romantic poet and noted lunatic Gérard de Nerval—who’s said to have walked a lobster on a leash, among other eccentricities—lived now and then in a state of “what I shall call the overflow of dream life into real life. From this point on, everything at times took on a double aspect.” A double aspect: the twins real and unreal, siblings staring into the mirror of each other’s faces. A dam breaks and dream life overflows, like a sudden storm, like an eclipse, like a bleeding gash in time, every shaft of light and bend of grass sending signals to interpret. Nerval feverishly considers the “unbroken chain of men and women to whom I belonged and yet all of whom were myself.” He’s dizzied by permutations both “finite and unlimited.” How could anyone make sense of it? “You might as well query a flower about the number of its petals.”
We’ll ask the flowers. We’ll see what they have to say. May’s moon is the Flower Moon, and when I close my eyes I see a swirl of petal color. In the small city where I live, spring’s parade moves something like this: the witch hazel and the snowdrops, then crocuses, purple rockets in the mulch, daffodils, forsythia, then tulips—cupped, flirtatious tulips—azalea, lilacs, rhododendrons, and the peonies, now, the peonies, fistfuls of lingerie, and on as spring opens itself into summer. May, the most colorful month, exuberant twin to November’s gray austerity—it builds on April’s efforts and serves as the transition between glassy spring and summer lush. The trees toss “in what certainly looks like sexual arousal,” as Tony Hoagland puts it, “overflowing with blossomfoam.” As we are.
May resanguinates the world. Its very name asks a question, grants permission, holds possibility. So much potential energy. Warming days, increased light, petal smells, shoulders, sweat, and this year’s emergence out of quarantines—a collective spring fever spikes. It isn’t always pleasant. All the signals say, Here we are, awake, and heated to the touch. What do we do with it? Some answers come more readily than others. The animals are in a tizzy, too. At a cemetery pond earlier this month, I saw two ducks fuck. The mallard drake looked like he was having a seizure on the water; he then pecked the neck of his mate, mounted her, pumped for, what, ten seconds, and they web-footed it to shore for pillow talk as they preened. Opening, overflowing, all this thrashing and spilling.
What’s it got to do with the moon? We see a face, a rabbit, a frog, we’re wanting for meaning, for messages, for signals sent so we can understand. The future builds up behind us, but we can never turn all the way around to see it. Our minds clamber for something to grasp on to in all the indistinctness. The moon and the earth are in kissing distance, and tonight the earth will move between Lord Sun and Lady Moon for a total lunar eclipse. Earth’s shadow will give the moon a garnet glow, making it a blood moon.
Blood in the sky and blood on the street. I took a run on roads outside the city recently. Stone walls, wide barns, empty rolling fields. Near a vernal pond, a turtle had been crushed, freshly so, by a car. Flipped upside down, its amber undershell was smooth and cracked, red stripes around the rim. The red of the blood on the road was shocking in its aliveness. A small pile of the turtle’s guts, propelled from its body, lay shining a few inches away, coiled like a little heap of earthworms.
I am no haruspex, no seer, I cannot read the future in the splay of viscera across the cratered cement of a suburban back road. Guts on the street and there’s no telling what may happen next or what any of it means. Done examining the turtle, I continued on my run. Before my heart rate had a chance to rise again, another chance for prognostication, this time in the form of a frog who’d been flattened as well, the entirety of its insides squeezed out of its mouth. Poor small friends. Crushed and cracked open by the press of immediate need. The risk of wanting, the risk of seeking something new.
There were these two, the future spelled out in the angle of their intestines, and what I can see now, what those guts tell me now: there were others I couldn’t see, ones who’d made it safe across the street, to live and thrive in the face of all the risks, come what may. The future tugs on us, as the moon does, come what may. In a face, in a shadow, in the overflow of dream life into real life, in all the indistinct places, come what may, come what may, we wander the night gardens of our minds in search of something we can understand. Let’s speak of what we know, and then we’ll see what we hear in the silence.
Nina MacLaughlin is a writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her most recent book is Summer Solstice. Her previous columns for the Daily are Winter Solstice, Sky Gazing, Summer Solstice, Senses of Dawn, and Novemberance.
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