from "Enthusiasm: Fourteen poets on why they cherish, dote on, fancy, revere, treasure, and love the poems they love"
Poetry Northwest, Spring / Summer 2009
Thou sorrow, venom Elfe:
Is this thy play,
To spin a web out of thyselfe
To Catch a Fly?
I saw a pettish wasp
Fall foule therein:
Whom yet thy Whorle pins did not clasp
Lest he should fling
But as affraid, remote
Didst stand hereat,
And with thy little fingers stroke
And gently tap
Thus gently him didst treate
Lest he should pet,
And in a froppish, aspish heate
Should greatly fret
Whereas the silly Fly,
Caught by its leg
Thou by the throate tookst hastily
And ‘hinde the head
This goes to pot, that not
Nature doth call.
Strive not above what strength hath got,
Lest in the brawle
This Frey seems thus to us.
Hells Spider gets
His intrails spun to whip Cords thus
And wove to nets
To tangle Adams race
To their Destructions, spoil’d, made base
By venom things,
But mighty, Gracious Lord
Thy Grace to breake the Cord, afford
Us Glorys Gate
We’l Nightingaile sing like
When pearcht on high
In Glories Cage, thy glory, bright,
* * *
A poem is a means of capture. Then, it offers release. I love Edward Taylor's poem because it has captured me—or, perhaps, the opposite is more accurate; this poem has captured me because I love it. Love is an abandonment to confusion that doesn't merely seek clarity as a solution to its condition. Love loves bewilderment when bewilderment is rife with the possibility of meaning. I do not feel this poem is one I understand; it bewilders me; I feel there is something true in it. It captures me, yes—but that figure is reversed. For it has caught me not by my entering its trap, but by it entering the trap that is me: mind, and mind's maze. The poem, as with love, is a trap that traps itself within us; we don't step into it so much as it steps into us.
Here is a poem whose first act is to weave a web in which we might, like the wasp and like the fly, get caught. To read the poem is to let oneself be caught. Who wove the web? The author, yes. But also not the author. The poem demands to speak for itself. Here the web is woven by Sorrow, and the spider is a symbol of that Sorrow. This web is woven by Sorrow's agent, the spider, and what falls into it is brought into the poem's expression by virtue of sorrow.
The web is a conceit—that metaphysical extravagance of metaphor weaving together the boundaries it breaks—that bewilders me; it is a loving bewilderment. The web—attached always to the stuff of the world, a cornice and a tree, say, or the corner of a room, but never of the world itself—exists by linking together unlike things. The web isn't simply a metaphor but an illustration of how metaphor might work, to what use metaphor might come. Sorrow's web strings an almost invisible barrier between dissimilar things and in doing so creates this place of capture. What is captured is most often captured unnawares: the wasp, the fly, me.
My attention becomes stuck to the tension of the poem. I am wasp or I am fly, and suddenly the assumed rights of the reader—to ignore the poem, to put down the book, to say "no"—are removed, and the poem itself is in charge, approaching its quarry, its query, wondering what it is, and what to do with it. As I wonder about the poem, so this poem wonders about who has been caught in it.
What are we caught in? We are caught in sorrow.
For me, sorrow is an emotion that creates out of itself its own weaving. Sorrow is expression woven into form. This form rhymes, and in its rhyme it catches a wasp and it catches a fly. The former threatens the structure into which it flew; it has a sting it can fling. The latter offers sustenance for sorrow to feed on.
When I think of this poem—I confess I think of it often, say, when I'm walking home from class, or when the image of it appears unbidden in my head—I always see the spider delicately stroking the back of the wasp. It is an act of such fearful care that I've never learned how to appreciate / understand / comprehend it, never learned what conclusion to draw. I suspect those creatures that abide in the poem are actually each the same creature: spider, wasp, fly sharing some secret symbolic unity, seemingly oppositional, but at a lower layer each simply the showing forth of radically different faces of the same element, the same concern.
How much of our lives do we spend weaving traps in the hope of capturing ourselves? And when we do so, we sometimes find a different self in the web. The sorrow-self fears the anger of the wasp-self; the sorrow-self feasts on the self that is only the "silly fly."
I wonder to what degree creative work—the writing of the poem which is also the weaving of the web—calls into question the creative self? Questions if that self is a solitary creature, or one, like the wasp and spider and fly, a manifold creature? I wonder if the metaphysical cost of writing a web is to become the prey that into the web must fall? The reader, too, is such a creature. Taylor's metaphysical conceit is that we become the creature upon which we feed, and we always become the creature which we fear. Those poet-spider creatures are caught in the language of this reader-elfe creature. Sorrow is in perfect rhyme with sorrrow. Collision is its own kind of proof (or is it a hope?) that what I feel I do not feel alone. Make a web and I'll buzz my way into it; or here is my web, fly in but be warned.
I love, too, how this poem destroys itself. The first half of the poem, so precise in its naturalistic attention, almost forgets it opens in allegory. The poem seems convinced of its own reality and to forget the nature of its own symbolic motivation, the moral it was supposed to impart. The poem's first half leaves conclusions undone: the wasp forever being calmed by sorrow's fretful spider; the fly always suffering the bite behind the head. The second half of the poem attempts to break through the reverie of the first half. The poem's crisis of self is so perfectly woven that the only means of release from the poem is for the poem to destroy itself. And so it does. A new language enters, suffused with the web-tearing weight of theology, of biblical history and biblical lesson. The poem ends with a last transformation meant to be joyful but which strikes my ear as discord. We'll be nightingales singing in Glory's cage. But the nightingale's song, in comparison to the earlier music, sounds rote, sounds prescribed. It is the song that must be sung rather than the song that might be sung. A web is an organic creation whose pattern is innate. The spider and the spider-web co-express one another. The nightingale's song, too, is an innate melody. But that song is not, as is the web, a place of capture. No. The nightingale is the thing that is captured. It is put in a cage to sing. A wasp would fly through the cage without being caught, as would the fly. The cage cannot be broken as can the web. The nightingale has nothing but its own tune to feed upon, and a song, I fear, is a meager meal. That song is joy, or so I'm told. But give me sorrow. Let me fly into its web, wasp-like or fly-like. Let my song be the pulse of my own wings which calls forth not miracle but response: that the maker of the web approaches, recognizes, and strokes my back, or bites.
About the Author
Dan Beachy-Quick is the author of four books of poems, most reecently This Nest, Swift Passerine. He edits poetry for A Public Space and teaches in the MFA Writing Program at Colorado State University.
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