On Charles Rafferty’s “Futility”

My glances keep hitting her like arrows tipped with moths, marking her with dust she has merely to brush away.

from Charles Rafferty, The Smoke of Horses

In two prose lines, Rafferty presents an entire poem, image, and possibly a romantic tragedy. How not to pity this poor speaker? The speaker’s glances attach to avatars of self-destructive obsession: moths, the pitiable lepidotera who beat themselves into frenzies or burn themselves to death over lit candles, electric streetlamps, and backlit window panes. We believe moths are attracted to light, though recent science suggests that moths listen to the light. And when damaged, a moth’s wings produce a powdery dust, actually the microscopic scales of modified hairs.

But yet, the speaker’s glances are not pointed with chipped flint or shaped steel. The speaker’s glances (figurative arrows) suggest violence and turn the “her” into a target; even so, these glances cannot wound, or pierce, or even threaten. Yet the speaker keeps looking, or rather glancing. Obsessed, the speaker seems not brave enough to actually gaze, but repeatedly tries to leave a visible impression, a claim, or perhaps simply to touch the desired object. But these feeble efforts make nothing of worth, or weight, or potency. The speaker’s glances are nothing more than dust (the result of damaged wings—flight, possibility, escape) and merely brushed away. The speaker receives neither attention nor recognition: futility, indeed.

“Futility,” from Charles Rafferty, The Smoke of Horses. BOA Editions, 2017.

JNH