A Noiseless Patient Spider

There is a spiderweb between the back porch and the chain link fence. That space is probably three feet across, and the spiderweb must be three or four feet tall. If you look at it slantwise, you can just see it shining in the light: a tight, intricate structure like the lace doilies my grandmother used to crochet. It’s so elaborate, and yet so delicate at the same time — elegant and architectural.

I am naturally afraid of spiders, and yet all I feel for this particular spider is admiration. She has made something so beautiful.

The night before last, it rained all night. It had been raining all day, it rained all night, and then it rained again all the next day — yesterday. Two days and one night of constant rain. I went out into the garden yesterday, and the web was hanging in tatters. But I went out again this morning, after a rainless night, and there is was — even more perfect than it had been. What a persistent creature she is, I thought. It reminded me of a poem by Walt Whitman:

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.

Anyone who has taken a class in English literature will know this is a metaphor. The spider is the poet, creating airy structures out of his own substance.

I think about this poem a lot, because it’s about writing, and I feel as though it describes my own writing. I’m the spider, first taking everything into myself: everything I hear and see, all the sensory details of living on this planet at this particular time. All the things I read. Taking it all into myself, and then breaking it down into some sort of liquid — what is spider silk made of? I have no idea. Mostly proteins, I think. Anyway, from that liquid I spin some sort of thread, thin and fragile, almost intangible. After all, words are really no stronger than spider silk. If you pass your hand through them, they break apart.

But I spin it and arrange it into a web, into the sort of lace my grandmother used to make. She had so many patterns! Some for whole tablecloths, some for just a coaster. I create the pattern, and there it is — a structure made of words. Whitman writes about that first thread going out, the one that will anchor the rest of the web, but of course there is more to writing — you have to spin the whole web, create the whole pattern.

And then it rains, and then you have to do it over again. You have to sit quietly and patiently, and work and work and work. Like my grandmother making lace, sitting in her chair, with the crochet hook flashing as she worked, her hands building an order and a pattern that would not exist if she did not create it. She did not simply follow pattern books — she had been trained as an artist, and she created her own patterns. I still have some of her embroidery patterns, drawn in pencil or pen on translucent paper, in Budapest.

So I felt a kinship with my backyard spider. I have not disturbed her web since she first created it. Who knows what will happen to her over the winter — spiders do not live long. I saw her once, about a inch long, brown. Maybe spotted with lighter brown? I did not look too closely — as I mentioned, I am afraid of spiders, which is the silliest thing you can imagine, since she has no power to hurt me. Probably I am so large from her perspective that I do not even exist, like the house itself, or the clouds above. I am a force of nature, like rain.

I don’t feel much like a force of nature — there are forces so much larger than me, and most of the time I feel like that spider, working in a narrow space between the back porch and the chain link fence, trying to create something, hoping it will hold.

(The image is Mount Fuji Behind a Spiderweb by Hokusai.)

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3 Responses to A Noiseless Patient Spider

  1. What a beautiful post and just exactly what I needed this morning! Sometimes spinning those threads feels like utter drudgery, especially when my procrastinating self is on a tight deadline! Thank you for the encouragement! 💗

  2. Your posts often give me a feeling of peace–uch needed these days–and I think it comes from your ability to dwell on beauty, no matter what’s happening in the larger world. This post reminds me of another poem. You might know it, and I hope it’s ok if I post it here for anyone who doesn’t.

    “No Things” – Billy Collins

    This love for the petty things,
    part natural from the slow eye of childhood,
    part a literary affectation,

    this attention to the morning flower
    and later in the day to a fly
    strolling along the rim of a wineglass –

    are we just avoiding the one true destiny,
    when we do that? averting our eyes from
    Philip Larkin who waits for us in an undertaker’s coat?

    The leafless branches against the sky
    will not save anyone from the infinity of death,
    nor will the sugar bowl or the sugar spoon on the table.

    So why bother with the checkerboard lighthouse?
    Why waste time on the sparrow,
    or the wildflowers along the roadside

    when we should all be alone in our rooms
    throwing ourselves against the wall of life
    and the opposite wall of death,

    the door locked behind us
    as we hurl ourselves at the question of meaning,
    and the enigma of our origins?

    What good is the firefly,
    the droplet running along the green leaf,
    or even the bar of soap spinning around the bathtub

    when ultimately we are meant to be
    banging away on the mystery
    as hard as we can and to hell with the neighbors?

    banging away on nothingness itself,
    some with our foreheads,
    others with the maul of sense, the raised jawbone of
    poetry.

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