By Debra Kang Dean
Spalding MFA Faculty Poetry
Crossing the bridge to the path I follow to go the long way home from the park after a night of rain a few weeks ago, I noticed a small branch, shaped like an inverted cross, suspended in air.
In the year since I’ve been practicing taiji at a nearby park, someone has occasionally left little sculptures in the area, and at first I thought this might be one. Looking more closely, though, I saw that it had been snagged by a large spider web. I was surprised as much by the fact that I had been walking past that web without noticing it—could it have gone up in a day or two?—as seeing a floating branch. Framing a common experience, Buson draws out the obvious:
Spider webs Are hot things! The summer grove.
The web was invisible to me until it caught something that caught my attention; I did not see the web’s maker. Had I walked face first into such a web, I might have reacted as if touched by a flame.
When I think of spiders, what comes to mind are images of my son’s hand gestures to “Eensy Weensy Spider,” which my late husband changed, for no reason I understood, to “Inky Dinky Spider”; or from my childhood an illustration accompanying “Little Miss Muffet” in a book from the Childcraft series of books; or a paraphrase of the only line I know from “The Spider and the Fly”: “Come into my parlour . . . .” In a literature class in college, I would encounter for the first time Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider”:
A noiseless patient spider, I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated, Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding, It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself, Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand, Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space, Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them, Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold, Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
In the description of the spider’s filaments, we can see Whitman’s own lines “[e]ver unreeling . . . ever tirelessly speeding” in an effort to draw new connections. The second stanza both makes Whitman’s metaphor explicit and clarifies the image—this is the spider laying the warp for the web it will weave—which leads the speaker to a recognition of what he lacks: an “anchor hold,” a point where his “gossamer thread” can catch.
Emily Dickinson has also written poems about spiders. Here’s one, numbered 1275, that I found via a search on the web ……..The Spider as an Artist ……..Has never been employed— ……..Though his surpassing Merit ……..Is freely certified
……..By every Broom and Bridget ……..Throughout a Christian Land. ……..Neglected Son of Genius ……..I take thee by the Hand.
We can see in this poem an imprint of the poet in the way her line and stanza breaks—as well as her use of slant rhymes and unconventional capitalization—disrupt the smooth flow of meter, and in the depiction of the spider as an artist beyond use. Unlike Whitman’s poem, Dickinson’s poem unfolds not in the act of creating, but with the sign the spider’s work leaves. With wry humor, I think, the poem turns toward swept-off cobwebs and an invitation for connection. And yet Dickinson also weaves into her poem reverberations of Protestant New England and Irish domestic workers through the simple act of naming.
A lazy housekeeper, I’ve found spiders as well as crickets and ants in my house. It is probably the reason I love this little poem by Issa:
………Don’t worry, spiders! ………I keep house ………casually.
After nearly a month of getting estimates and trying to be an informed consumer, I finally signed a contract to have the roofs on my house and garage replaced. Shingles had been crumbling, some blowing off during storms, and I knew I should not wait another season to have the work done. And so, finally, late last week I watched a crew, under the supervision of a man named Carlos, methodically and seemingly seamlessly complete the work.
They arrived around 7:00 am and left before 1:30 pm, first stripping off the old material, replacing deck boards on the house and deck sheets on the garage to create a level surface, and putting down the underlayment and an ice-and-water barrier, and then the shingles. I could not for the life of me resist watching the skill and ease with which the crew worked together though I knew I should have been working on this piece.
I’d had to do a lot of research simply to learn the vocabulary of roofing, and at one point, talking to Carlos, I’d said, “I’m sure, because you do this every day, it’s very ordinary for you, but for me it is extraordinary.” His smile suggested he understood it as a compliment. In him I cannot help but see my family. My grandfather, whose father opened the first Okinawan Music School in Hawai’i, performed during the Bon-Odori festivals, but was employed as a carpenter—though not a very good carpenter, according to my father. One of my uncles, gone now, was a mechanic; another, also gone, an electrician; another, recently passed, a house painter. My late father drove trucks between the docks and warehouses at Pearl Harbor.
It’s Labor Day. This morning I watched a video of Michael Rowe testifying before the House Committee on Natural Resources. When I return home after a late lunch, a hang tag on my back door instructs me to call the gas company. I do and am told that someone had called (I hadn’t) to report a gas leak, which had been repaired, and access to my house was needed for service to be restored. The technician comes back to turn the gas on.
“You wanna hear a funny story?” he says, before he steps inside to check my stove and light the pilot light on my water heater. I have no idea where he’s going with this. “I got a call for a house with the same street number, and my GPS said turn, so I did.” (My shared driveway has been mistaken for an unmarked street before.) “No one was home, but I found a leak and went ahead and fixed it,” he says, “and I thought that was it. But when I got back in my truck, my GPS was still going. So I call in to check the address, and when I get there a woman is waiting outside.”
This repair was as unexpected as the temperature rising the week my roofs were replaced. The weather had already begun turning cool, and I thought that perhaps I had gotten too late a start on getting the roof work done. But it’s been hot and dry.
This morning I went to the park early enough to see fog still in the low places. I completed the form I practice, Wudangshan 108 Taijiquan, at a good pace: forty minutes. I’ve been working on what is described as reeling silk, trying to find and maintain the spiraling lines of connection inside my body as I move through the form; of course the operative word is “trying.”
Whatever actually happens when I enter the form, every practice is a good practice if I’ve discovered something new. This is what I tell myself. And after being around so many dog walkers, I’ve begun to think of taiji as my dog. It’s what gets me away from my laptop and out of doors. It affords escape from the confines of conditioned air and reminds me I have a body. (So does poison ivy, which I got myself into while preparing for the roofers.) In a way that intersects with my work as a poet, it opens the field of my attention, something both literally and figuratively good for the eyes. It doesn’t matter that my North is actually South when I set my compass points; that what I think of as the eye of nature is a patch of lichen that marks one axis of my starting point, catches the sun’s movement, and sets the level of my gaze before I begin to move.
Since Poetry Daily ran as its weekly prose feature last month Dana Gioia’s “Poetry as Enchantment” followed the next week by Kevin Clark’s “To Make It New,” I’ve been thinking about the poetry wars, so called, that were going on when I was being formally educated as a poet in the mid-eighties. Though in a slightly different key, it seems that the same arguments are coming around again about whether we have or have not outgrown writing in meter and in received forms. I see how the underlying differences were already apparent in the differences between Dickinson’s and Whitman’s styles in their poems about spiders. Personally, I like being engaged by the work of making poems, and though I’ve found myself gravitating back toward closed forms—“my Business is Circumference,” Dickinson wrote—I believe in keeping open as many options as possible. If a poem in lines is like a house—or like a body, for that matter—it will possess and be possessed by form. In ways not always evident, it will be engaged with the body and the body politic because the poet is a person who moves in the world.
Of the inverted cross I saw, one might ask: Was it a symbol of Peter, the Pope, or Satan? I guess it depends. But because I hadn’t known what it could stand for, I saw an inverted cross and the web that held it; I would learn what it has meant to others afterwards. Having marked the spider’s presence by what it made, I will, as I move forward into autumn, also know its absence. Having already quoted Buson and Issa, it seems fitting to end with Bashō:
With what kind of voice would the spider cry in the autumn wind?
Debra Kang Dean is the author of News of Home and Precipitates, both from BOA Editions; two prize-winning chapbooks, Back to Back and Fugitive Blues; and Morning’s Spell, a chapbook of renku written with Russ Kesler. Her poems have been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer’s Almanac, and her essays have appeared in the expanded edition of The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World and in Until Everything Is Continuous Again: American Poets on the Recent Work of W. S. Merwin. A member of the faculty of Spalding University’s low-residency MFA in Writing Program since 2003, she is a regular contributor to the program’s blog.