TALK WITH A SPIDER
Pablo Neruda wanted to. At least that's what he wrote in a poem, that he
wanted to have a talk with a spider. As for me? I don't want one. But if I
were forced to talk with a spider I'd prefer to do an interview rather than
have an informal back-and-forth. Perhaps it would be something like this:
Q: Where did you learn everything you know?
A: From my mother. My father died before I was born.
Q: How do you come up with your ideas for webs? Do you wait for inspiration?
Or do you simply begin and see what happens? Or maybe you make a plan before
A: You can't wait for inspiration, it comes while you are working. Henri
Matisse said the same thing.
Q: Have you ever spun a web and had the feeling that you would never be able
to match that web? That all your future webs would be inferior?
A: No. I have to believe that whatever I'm spinning now is the best.
Otherwise I'd be depressed because it would seem I'm going downhill.
Q: Are individual lines or strands more important to you than the entire web?
A: No. It all must work together, all the individual lines, the
intersections, angles, spaces, shapes, the density of my silken strands, all
the elements must be right by themselves and also must create something
complete that never existed before I traveled out into the air to create it.
Q: Would you ever work with another spider on a web? In other words, how do
you feel about collaboration?
A: I couldn't work with another spider. The creative act involves a delicate
inner balancing. There are a hundred little decisions and balancing acts
involved in every inch of web. Plus, I feel different from day to day and my
webs don't satisfy me unless they are in harmony with my body. For example,
if even one of my legs is stiff then I create a totally different web than,
say, if one of my eyes is swollen shut.
Q: Are there any of your webs that you regret creating?
A: No. What I do regret is talking to you rather than working on my latest
web. You may ask one more question.
Q: How do you react to the criticism that you are a control freak?
A: Freak? Sure, I love control. But
freak? Who doesn't seek control?
Does it matter what color the sand is? Did you see an hourglass shape when
you saw the title up there, above the blocky paragraphs of words? And was the
sand you pictured at the top of the hourglass? Mine was, that's how it comes
to mind for me. Grains of sand moving down because of gravity. Falling
grains, falling and landing until there are no more to fall. On the moon
they'd fall so much more slowly. In outer space an hourglass wouldn't mark
passing time. If they took an hourglass into outer space it could function as
a piece of abstract art rather than a time-telling device.
The word obconical is curiously pleasing. It so rarely makes any vocabulary
list. It means obversely conical, of the form of a cone with the base upward
One of the stories I've always remembered about one of my uncles features an
obconical shape. This uncle was in Italy, in a gelato shop. He ordered what
he thought was chocolate, paid for it, and the moment he tasted it he
realized it was some other flavor, perhaps coffee. He asked the person behind
the counter to exchange it for the chocolate he wanted. The person refused.
My uncle politely explained the mistake, thinking that the person in control
back there, the one with the scoop and the access to the goods, simply hadn't
understood that he had not gotten what he wanted. But the person had
understood and refused again. My uncle then said something like OK, lifted
the ice cream cone treat he had paid for up above his head and slammed it
down on the counter. Now, having told the story, I realize the unlikelihood
that the fragile cone became obconical for more than a few nanoseconds because
the impact would have shattered it. The fragments, mixed in with the dark
gelato, would have been such a variety of geometrical shapes that it would
have been difficult to catalog them. (I suspect it was my aunt who liked to
recount this story, rather than my uncle. Anyway, my memory is vague, but I
am fairly sure I heard this story from either my mother or father rather than
this particular uncle or aunt.)
That happened so many years ago in Italy. Stories like that are contained
within a narrative hourglass, one story at a time going through the opening.
Memories and stories, all related to this uncle, now start to flow in my mind
but soon they will run out and there will be nothing left to move from one
place in my mind (some small neural tubular passageway?) to another very
nearby place also enclosed by my skull. Grains in an hourglass don't fall
far, that isn't the point, going long distances.
In the Old English Dictionary the first usage of the word hourglass is from
1515. As I write this it is 2009. So the word has been traveling for about
500 years, at least. Would it be unreasonable to suggest that in 2015, on
some given day, there be a moment set aside to commemorate the 500 years we
know the word has been with us? Any moment, it doesn't matter which, similar
to how it doesn't matter which grain of sand from all those grains is the one
that falls first or in the middle or second-to-last. Each person could chose
his or her own moment to think about how long 500 years really is, how many
uncles and great uncles and great-great-great-great uncles have lived in 500
years, how many happy hours and hours of frustration, inspired hours and
dreaming hours, hours under skies and hours under roofs. All I request is
that the moment not be celebrated in a classroom. Then so many of the
students would be watching the clock rather than thinking about an hourglass.
NETS AND OTHER POSSIBILITIES
Who was it who said that free verse is like playing tennis without a net?
Whoever it was is dead and that was many years ago he (I know it was a guy,
not a gal) said it anyway. We need some new analogies or metaphors. Why
bother ourselves thinking of games now? It's like playing ping-pong without a
table. It's like playing basketball naked. It's like picking up a handful of
mud, quickly shaping it into a ball, and throwing it against a backboard in
an attempt to bank in as much of it as possible. No, we need to completely
ignore games and gamesmanship and find new ways to speak of the inadequacy of
You, there, in the t-shirt with the Philip Guston painting on it. I'll call
on you first. What's your suggestion?
It's like drinking single malt scotch that is so watered down that it tastes
like tap water.
Not bad, but not appropriate for grade school. Frank, don't write that one on
the chalkboard. Sorry, sir. You there, in the yellow low-cut blouse. I meant
to call on you first, to tell you the truth. What's your suggestion?
It's like putting your hand over a camera lens and taking a photo of nothing.
That's a good idea. Frank, write that one down on the chalkboard and label it
number one. You there, in the back, with the red beard.
It's like having an election for office in which there are ten thousand
candidates and no one can finish reading the ballot before the polls close.
Hey, not bad. Frank, do your work. You, with the black ribbon around your
neck, in the red velvet dress?
It was Robert Frost.
It was Robert Frost who said writing free verse is like playing tennis with
the net down. Not, by the way, without a net, but with the net down.
I stand corrected. And you're completely right, hitting a ball back and forth
over a net uselessly laying on the courtŠ
Not laying. Lying.
Yeah, I'm sorry. Um, where was I? Uh, yeah, hitting a tennis ball, let's say
it's one of those yellow ones, over a net lying on the court would be very
different than hitting it over the court itself with no piece of netting
dividing. . .Wait, wait, please, please. Don't leave. The session isn't over.
Frank, hold up Curious George. Look, folks, I was going to save this for
later, but I'll tell you now that we are going to vote, once we get five new
analogies up on the chalkboard, and the person who all of you believe came up
with the best analogy will get that six-foot Curious George as a prize. See
how we've glued a toy tennis racket into one of his hands? I guarantee you,
this will be a conversation piece in your classroom or living room for the rest
of your life. Another suggestion? Please, please, if you insist on leaving
don't shove through the crowd already gathering at the door, wait your turn
to exit in an orderly fashion. Mom, thank you for remaining seated. Do you
have a suggestion?
© John Levy 2009