A beige and brown orb weaver spider built a web across the window of my work-out room one warm August night. The site was brilliant, both in radiance and in light of the spider’s strategy. Winged insects seeking illumination encountered instead an invisible web and became entangled, inextricably, in its sticky silken threads. Each captive soon fell prey, and every night, death would choreograph a new ballet as I’d lift and press, pedal and sweat to delay concluding that way.
Despite initial reservations about my visitor’s predations, I became accustomed to her presence and even looked forward to her company, though as days grew shorter and fall felt fit for a first freeze, I knew that she too, in due time, would die, and I pictured the abandoned web as a lace veil on a lightless sky.
The orb of orb weaver ⸺ from Latin orbem: circle, disk, ring ⸺ refers to the flat, circular webs made by members of the family Araneidae. (It’s not a reference to the bulbous abdomens characteristic of some orb species). The webs themselves are miracles of engineering and natural beauty. Fabricated in as little as an hour, and typically oriented in a vertical plane, each begins with radial strands that emanate like spokes from a central hub and attach to anchor points at the web’s periphery. Superimposed on this facsimile of a bicycle wheel is a recursive spiral of sticky silk whose sequential 360º turns are spaced so closely to one another that they create the illusion of multiple concentric circles.
When elaborating a web, the orb weaver employs a strict division of labor, using its fourth pair of legs to draw fresh strands of silk from spinnerets while the three remaining pairs are used to gauge distance, orient the spiral’s leading strand, fine-tune tension across each span, and dab adhesive at crossing points (using only hooks for hands). That an arthropod can create masterworks such as these has led many zoologists and entomologists to dismiss their behavior as merely an expression of instinct, implying, with some degree of condescension, that orb weavers function not as elite architects with unparalleled dexterity but as mindless automatons, eight-legged robots reflexively following instructions encrypted in their genetic code. I’m frankly skeptical of this perspective, having found it difficult to accept the premise that the spinners of these gossamer wonders are somehow lacking in conscious intent.
The web in the window led me to dwell on the prospect of my own demise. But the impetus to write materialized only when I started to see, embedded in the web’s geometry, a raft of ways to cope with one’s mortality. The uncanny aptness of web metaphors auditioning for parts inspired me to draft “Arachnidæa: Line Drawings.” Part V of the poem relates to music (as proxy for the arts). A close reading follows.
The first word of the title, Arachnidæa, doesn’t appear in any dictionary. It’s a made-up word, a neologism built on the Greek root arakhnē for spider and/or spider web. The taxonomic class of spiders, Arachnida, is derived from the same root. (In the sixth book of his Metamorphoses, Ovid tells the story of Arachne, a talented weaver who challenged the goddess Athena to a weaving contest. When Athena could find no flaw in Arachne’s tapestry, she struck the girl, who hanged herself out of shame. Athena then transformed her into a spider). To my ear, Arachnidæa sounds like a compendium of sorts, an encyclopedia of things imbued with arachnid properties. The character æ, referred to as a ligature or ash, was incorporated to exploit its aura of antiquity.
The secondary title, Line Drawings, weaves together three strands of meaning: the lines of a web; lines of poetry; and renderings in pen and ink. The latter sense reflects the visual imagery that appears in each section of the poem.
Readers may be surprised to find that Arachnidæa contains no explicit reference to spiders (apart from the title). Even so, the narrative voice frequently speaks in the second person, which seems to suggest an implicit presence. Could the “you” of the poem be a spider? Or is the speaker engaged in a soliloquy with his or her own psyche, channeling some vestigial link to a phylum far away on the evolutionary tree?
As is true of other artistic genres, music can serve as an antidote to mortality. Original works have the potential to extend the influence and reputation of a composer beyond the end of their natural life, while performance offers the audience an immersive respite, albeit a temporary one, from quotidian toils that tap out time like clockwork. In the orb weaver’s web, all manner of musical pictograms flashed in front of me. The web as a whole recapitulated an amphitheater, with concentric circles for seating and radial lines for aisles. Parallel strands evoked the musical staff (Br. stave), the five horizontal lines on which notation is recorded. And the ladders of silk between any two consecutive spokes mimicked the frets on stringed instruments.
Part V is a hybrid of free verse, metrical verse, and rhyme, as is evident in the first stanza:
A concert in the round!
Divertimenti scored for eight short hands
will be played by the maestro
for adoring fans.
The introduction reads like an 18th century broadside announcing an upcoming chamber music performance. The exclamation point, the promise of astounding feats of skill, and the meter and rhyme in lines two through four replicate the kind of print advertising historically used to gin up public excitement about such events. (As an aside, the Beatles song “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” was based on a 19th century poster for Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal. John Lennon purchased the poster at an antique store in 1967).
Divertimenti are light, entertaining works for chamber ensembles. In Mozart’s time, they often were played at private dinners as distractions from the worries of the day. Note, however, that pieces for piano are never scored for more than four hands. “Eight short hands” is a tongue-in-cheek reference to arachnid anatomy, and it introduces a measure of ambiguity about the identity of “the maestro.” Similarly, “a concert in the round” presumes a circular venue, a subtle gesture to the orb weaver’s web.
The fine fretwork glistens.
The strings tune and go still.
These lines describe the moments just before the performance begins. The images are both visual and aural. And after the strings go still, anticipation crescendos in the silence that follows. Of course, the strings and frets can also be seen as patterns of threads in a spider web, thus sustaining the ambiguity established in the first stanza.
Once in motion,
you dazzle in the parts for pizzicato,
leap with ease over fourths and fifths,
scuttle up scales to a dizzying height
then plummet, by octaves, to the sublime.
All are amused, for a time.
Here, the speaker shifts to second person, directly addressing “the maestro” with a running play-by-play of her virtuosic feats. Playing a musician in Part V, the “you” of the poem seems to transition from one identity to another with the ease of a Walter Mitty or the late actor Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets. The medley of characters, sprinkled with an inkling of satire, create just a hint of dark comedy.
The momentum of the passage is due mainly to the use of active verbs ⸺ dazzle, leap, scuttle, plummet ⸺ and to a notable lack of adjectives, which tend to act as brakes on forward motion. And though each line is end-stopped, the tempo doesn’t slow to adagio, but continues to race at allegro pace. The spirited recital of lines, in turn, informs and animates one’s sense of the music’s exuberance.
Pizzicato refers to the technique in which strings are plucked rather than bowed. A web-weaving arachnid with tiny hooks at the end of each leg might be expected to excel in this skill.
On its surface, the phrase plummet, by octaves, to the sublime describes stepwise falls in pitch, each by the interval of an octave, until a sense of sublimity permeates the lower registers. At the same time, the structure of the phrase ⸺ three short word groups separated by a pair of pauses ⸺ mimics the harmonic progression it describes, i.e., it performs its own meaning. Simultaneously, it emulates the descent of a spider on a single thread ⸺ smooth drops periodically interrupted by transitory stops. (The essential role of syntax in this setting is perhaps best appreciated by transposing the prepositional phrase by octaves to the end of the line: plummet to the sublime by octaves. In so doing, both the musical mimicry and the visual imagery evaporate).
The stanza concludes with a comment about how the piece was received. While the audience is clearly delighted in the moment (All are amused…), the review is qualified, after a pause, by the caveat for a time ⸺ ominous innuendo and a cautionary sign.
The circle is crossed by chords,
point to counterpoint,
illusions of balance, of words.
Stanza four marks a change in tenor and tone. The latter seems impersonal, even austere, particularly in light of the levity that came before. The lines aren’t so much spoken as intoned. And despite its brevity and direct diction, the statement exudes a cryptic, sphinxlike quality. A haiku poem, or a Zen proverb, or the inscrutable utterance of a Delphic priestess may come to mind.
Though the stanza poses as a puzzle, it’s not an articulated Rubik’s cube. Its one sentence expresses meaning with clarity. What sets it apart from other sentences is that it explicitly conveys two distinct meanings. The first relates to music while the second relates to the architecture of a web.
The first two lines can be interpreted as a description of the chamber concert. Circle refers to the circular venue where the performance is taking place, while chords represent pitches arranged according to harmonic intervals, played simultaneously, and conveyed in air across the stage and stands. Finally, counterpoint alludes to the art of combining different melodic lines in a musical composition.
The identical language outlines the geometry of the web: circle for the overall shape; chords1 for any lines that extend between two points on a circle; and point to counterpoint for each finite span of silk stretched between its respective points of attachment.
Though the split in sense seems absolute, the dual meanings nevertheless have in common the idea of balance. With respect to classical music,2 especially prior to the 20th century, balance was expressed in contrapuntal patterns, harmonic intervals, and chordal progressions (e.g. resolution from the dominant to the tonic). Balance is equally evident in the structural stability of a web. The opposing forces acting on each tension element (each segment of silk thread) and the multiple vectors of force acting on each point of intersection add up to zero, producing a state of equilibrium and sustaining the status quo.
Alas, the third line of the stanza offers a fatalistic perspective on each of these examples of balance, identifying them as illusions. It’s true that the music will eventually end. And the web, engineered with mathematical precision, will also lapse into ruin. The notion that balance is ephemeral and ultimately an illusion gestures toward the inevitability of decline, disorder and death.
A word on form. Stanza four is structured so as to instantiate the idea of balance. A couplet (lines 1 and 3) is suspended on either side of line 2, which acts like a hinge or axel or fulcrum. Given that each line of the couplet consists of three metrical feet, equal weight is applied on either side, and neither tray of the scale hangs lower than the other.3 Furthermore, line 2 is a sonic palindrome: Point-te-coun-te-point. This places the peak of the fulcrum at the middle of the line and at the exact midpoint of the stanza.
Initially, I planned to ply a perfect rhyme for line 3, but abandoned the idea because perfect rhyming in such close quarters would sustain some of the exuberance of the musical performance and thus would conflict with the enigmatic, cerebral tone of Stanza four. By contrast, of words satisfies in two ways: 1) it provides a slant rhyme, and 2) illusions…of words alludes to the duality of meaning conjured in the first two lines. Accordingly, the stanza comes to a close on a self-referential note.
Listen to the last mournful strains
murmuring a requiem for the days.
This, the final stanza of Part V, consists of a single sentence written in the imperative voice to an unknown listener. Yet instead of being peremptory or assertive, the tone is somber and solemn, almost plaintive, as if the speaker is expressing not a directive but a lament. Many of the words ⸺ last, mournful, requiem ⸺ connote an ending. That the requiem is murmured (rather than sung or played) speaks to melancholy and despair, to a spirit drained. The word strains imparts its own sense of strangeness and pathos, an effect best appreciated by replacing it with alternatives such as notes, measures, motif, or coda. The sentence also begs to be read slowly. This represents an exception to the rule that lines tend to quicken in proportion to the number of unaccented syllables (which tally 7 in the final line). At least part of this slowing relates to the unusual metrical structure of the stanza:
trochee – anapest – trochee − monosyllable
dactyl − second paeon – anapest
Given this pattern of inflections, natural speech invites a short pause after every metrical foot, except perhaps for the first foot of line 2, where murmuring flows naturally into a requiem. These brief caesuras significantly slow the overall cadence, as do the alliterative “l’s” and “m’s.”
I’m keen to conclude this commentary with one final observation. The last three stanzas present the reader with stepwise changes in tone, from the exuberance of Stanza 3 to the enigmatic quality of Stanza 4 to the pure pathos of Stanza 5. These transitions comprise yet another reenactment of plummeting, by octaves, to the sublime.
1 Technically speaking, the linear strands that extend between consecutive radial spokes are not chords since they don’t originate or terminate on a true circle. However, because they collectively create what appear to be concentric circles, some amount of poetic license ought to be granted.
2 Western canon.
3 Picture the scales of justice.
Over the last four centuries, Italian and English sonnets have undergone a loosening and progressive shedding of formal constraints. “Seeds,” by contrast, moves in the opposite direction. It operates within a formal structure that’s more stringent than many of its sixteenth century predecessors. First, the poem is syllabic, employing ten syllables per line.1 Second, only two sounds — un and own — function as end-rhymes. In comparison with the classic English sonnet (in which each end-rhyme is used at most twice), “Seeds” requires use of a much larger portion of the pool of English words that terminate in each rhyming sound. Furthermore, by virtue of the fact that the two end rhymes interdigitate with one another throughout the poem (a-b-b-a-a-b-b-a-b-b-a-a-b-b), the sonnet is tightly integrated. During the drafting process, translocation of a particular end-rhyme from one line to another would create a need to alter or rewrite multiple lines. The same would apply if two end-rhymes were transposed. Unlike the English sonnet, there are no quatrains that can be edited independently, i.e., without affecting the remaining ten lines of the poem.
These formal elements create a challenge for fluency. The poet’s objective is not simply to abide by an arbitrary set of rules, but to do so in a way that doesn’t detract from the natural flow of language or the intended unfolding of ideas. Evidence that a sonnet isn’t meeting the expectations it set for itself include uneven tone, twisted syntax, cringeworthy diction, and a lack of lengthy enjambed sentences. The formal structure ought to be unobtrusive, though not invisible. That the rhymes seem to magically appear on cue should be a source of surprise and wonder. Frost famously described this attribute of a poem as “riding easy in harness.” (He also reportedly described free verse as “playing tennis without a net”).
“Seeds” is a sonnet that explores the cycle of life and death. It employs an extended nature metaphor — a dying flower and the spread of its seeds by a bird. The turn (a.k.a. “volta”), occurring as it does between words eight and nine in the final line, is almost certainly the most delayed among published sonnets.
A goldfinch whose yellow rivals the sun
could cull any bloom this garden has grown
yet favored a flowering long past blown,
its petals shriveled, stem brittle and dun
in a coneflower patch where just this one
seemed to wither, wilt and ask to be mown.
These six lines comprise a single sentence. Line one introduces a goldfinch whose color is likened to that of the sun. The equivalency of hue intensifies the imagery, but it also connects bird and sun at an abstract level, hinting that the goldfinch may be a life-sustaining force as well.
The primary meaning of cull in line two is to choose, pick or select. But the secondary sense is to kill, establishing a kind of oppositional symbolism in which the goldfinch is involved in both life and death. Note the similarities in sound between cull and kill. Also note the alliteration between could and cull.
Other alliterative pairings include garden and grown, favored and flowering.
The coneflower figuratively asks to be mown because it has withered and is nearing death. In this context, be mown offers up a reinforcing double entendre (bemoan).
The bird plucked the seeds ensconced in the cone,
made it sway the way that metronomes run
till time runs out, till the goldfinch has flown.
These lines were inspired by my observation through a bathroom window that each time a goldfinch plucked a seed from a coneflower, the momentum generated by the bird’s movement caused the plant to oscillate. I initially associated these oscillations with those of an upside-down clock pendulum, which struck me as a potentially useful conceit since the image evokes the passage of time. In addition, the um of pendulum might have sufficed as an end-rhyme. Ultimately, I settled instead on the phrase made it sway the way that metronomes run. This improves on pendulum by virtue of a perfect rhyme (run) and by invoking a mechanical device, a metronome, that doesn’t require inversion to simulate the observed motion. Note the internal rhyme between sway and way. And consider how, in the world of the poem, metronomes keep time only until time runs out and the goldfinch has flown, both subtle gestures toward death.
One flower spent, the perennials sown —
a fête conceived by the dying and done
(though death, it’s said, may breed oblivion).
So many seeds were borne by each alone,
so many lost with loss of those I’ve known.
Here, fête denotes a celebration of the cycle of life, commemorating in particular death’s paradoxical role in sowing the seeds of the next generation. As it turns out, the word can be vocalized in two ways: fet (American) and fate (British). Although the latter pronunciation has an alternative meaning, both senses work equally well in context.
This final section seems to focus on dying and death. But buried in the lines are a trio of words — conceived, breed, and borne2 — whose secondary meanings connote the creation of life and thus serve as a gratuity for readers who relish irony.
A defining feature of traditional sonnets is the “turn” or “volta.” Typically occurring after the first eight lines, it has been variably described as a change in the opening argument; a shift in perspective; a point of transition from the particular and tangible to the philosophical and metaphysical; or a surprising and/or ironic reversal. The turn in “Seeds” is delayed until the last two words of the final line. The phrase I’ve known unexpectedly implies loss of the speaker’s friends and family, and, by extension, transforms the nature metaphor into a human one. The late turn also retroactively changes the meaning of each alone in line 13 to each individual instead of each coneflower. And the “many seeds” that were borne and then lost can be interpreted by the reader in a variety of ways: relationships, memories, knowledge, and wisdom that was never passed on.
Note that final couplet is written in iambic pentameter. This is intended to intensify the sense of loss while simultaneously providing the sonnet with closure.
1 While one might whine “ten syllables define each Shakespeare line,” when meaning or inflection called for altering design, the Bard, though resolutely ten-inclined, reluctantly resigned himself to eleven or nine.
2 With respect to borne (past tense of “to carry”), irony derives solely from the word’s homophone born.
A lunar eclipse occurs when the sun, earth and moon briefly become aligned, and the earth casts its shadow on part or all of a full moon. The central, darkest portion of the shadow is the umbra, while the surrounding annulus of partial shadow is the penumbra.
The poem operates on three planes. On its face, it describes an actual eclipse. But the image might also serve as a metaphor for a) a human relationship that’s fleetingly in alignment, or b) an erotic encounter.
The brevity of the poem reflects the evanescence of its subject. However, “(eclipse)” is neither a snapshot nor a still. The planetary bodies, as well as their metaphorical counterparts, are in motion. Accordingly, the images and actions in the poem exist along a temporal continuum. The ellipses at the beginning and at the end are intended to express this. The opening ellipsis situates the poem just after all that has come before, while the ellipsis at the end anticipates all that is yet to come. (Ellipsis derives from the Greek term for “leave out.” The ellipses in the poem represent the entire continuum of time except for the moment of the lunar eclipse ― the only moment that’s been left in).
The two stanzas of the poem exist in opposition to one another. The first stanza depicts an eclipse; the second, its dissolution. At an abstract level, alignment shifts to misalignment, order degrades to disorder, and union gives way to disconnection. The technical elements of the poem reenact this transition.
In contrast to the opening stanza, the second stanza is characterized by disrupted syntax and by disintegration of meter (though the a-b-a-b rhyme scheme is maintained). John Ciardi would regard the change in perspective and technique as an example of “countermotion,” and he would emphasize that such oppositional structures are critical to the creation of meaning.1
Parentheses are employed in the title to simulate the twin halves of the moon’s circumference. They also create an enclosed space or hollow, such as might be used for a tryst.
Unearthed was selected over the alternatives (e.g. found, dredged up, used, utilized, deployed, etc.) not only because it denotes uncovering and bringing forth a hidden object, but also because it conjures, consciously or subconsciously, the image of a shadow leaving the earth.
In the second stanza, unlinked our lines is unlinked by a line break between the first and second word. The phrase thus enacts its primary meaning. (Playing devil’s advocate, one could argue that enjambment of the phrase serves instead to link two consecutive lines that otherwise would be unlinked and independent, but that can be our little secret).
Before leaving, please note that penumbra makes for a quasi-perfect rhyme with whi-tened from the, which may be a first for this word.
1Ciardi, J (1959) How Does a Poem Mean? Houghton Mifflin Company. pp 994-1022.
“Dung Beetles” is a meditation on art across time. The poem explores themes of cyclic renewal, reincarnation, and the creative impulse. This essay was excerpted from a letter to my father, penned in 2005.
The title is the reader’s entree. It is concise, visual and unpretentious, even self-deprecating. Yet, paradoxically, the very baseness that seems to eschew poetic expression may evoke in some readers a heightened sense of the potential for transcendence, a curiosity about how insects — coprophagic insects at that — might metamorphose into something more. Others might even perceive that the ostensible humility of the title is not only contrived but that the contrivance itself is intentionally transparent, thus conveying just a hint of tongue in cheek. Perhaps there’s something to this.
The body of the poem comprises three distinct parts. The first and last sections incorporate identical formal elements while the middle section is more freely constructed. The return to form at the end — a cycle of sorts — echoes one of the recurring themes of the poem.
The two formal sections are organized into quatrains — stanzas composed of four lines. Each line contains five metrical “feet,” i.e., five stressed or accented syllables, a line length to which the term pentameter applies. In addition, each quatrain has an interdigitating rhyme scheme (a-b-a-b).
Nineteen thirty-five, and Escher bores
into a block,
The opening is economical. Just nine words have been used to identify a particular artist, conjure an image of the artist creating a woodcut, and place that image at a defined point in history.
No natural break occurs at the end of the first line; the sentence spills over into the second line without a pause. Termed enjambment, this continuity across lines produces two effects of significance.
The first is a play on the word bores. The reader eventually comes to understand that the verb is being used in its intransitive form to denote the action of burrowing into wood (and perhaps to suggest a subtle link between the artist and his subject). However, at the end of line one, the reference to the block of wood hasn’t yet appeared, which renders the transitive interpretation of bores (as in “to weary someone through tedium, repetition or dullness”) somewhat more tenable. As a result of leaving the ambiguity unresolved until the prepositional phrase into a block, the reader is initially lured by the secondary sense of bores, only to settle on the primary, intransitive meaning by the next line.
The device of using a strategically placed line break to split the sense of a phrase into two distinct layers is most effective — and most enjoyable for the reader — when both levels of meaning have significance. Little is gained if the initial detour turns out to be just a red herring, a nonsequitur in the context of the poem. In the present work, the initial “tricky” sense of bores is an oblique reference to the bland critical reception that accompanied Escher’s prewar renderings of landscapes, architecture and animal subjects. One of these early works is Scarabs, alternately catalogued as Dung Beetles. Of course, some readers won’t pick up on the duplicity here, but for these individuals, the mechanical sense of the word bores should suffice.
The second effect of continuity across consecutive lines is that it avoids the repetition (and the boredom!) associated with multiple phrases and/or sentences of identical length. Simultaneously, it converts most of the rhymes in the first section to internal rhymes, echoes that are encountered “en route” rather than at stopping points. Such rhymes become fleeting, fortuitous phenomena along the forward flow of syntax. (Rhyming coincident with a pause at the end of a line is employed much less often in this poem. When it does occur, it serves to suggest resolution or to confer more weight on a particular image or idea).
The form of the first section wasn’t intended to function as a constraint. Instead, it was conceived as a kind of maze through which the language of the poem would seem to glide, with rhymes somehow appearing on cue. Frost alluded to this objective as “riding easy in harness.” Readers can decide for themselves the degree to which this has been achieved.
Historically, the most common rhythmic patterns employed in English verse have incorporated the iamb, which is a metrical unit or “foot” consisting of a light, unaccented syllable followed by a heavy, accented one (ta-dum). Forms based on iambs are referred to as iambic, and iambic verse that contains five accented syllables per line is termed iambic pentameter.
“Dung Beetles” is not composed in iambic pentameter, although it selectively makes use of this meter at various places in the first and last sections. The beginning lines make clear that the poem’s rhythmic patterns have a greater allegiance to contemporary speech than to any metrical system. Line one can be scanned as an iamb in reverse (a trochee); another trochee; a monosyllable; a light-heavy-light combination (an amphibrach); and another monosyllable: Nine-teen thir-ty five, and-Esch-er bores. The next line begins with a trochee and an iamb: in-to a-block. Note that the nomenclature of meter is of little relevance; it’s the rhythms themselves to which the reader needs to be attuned.
sending chips and scrolls
of pearwood flying to the floor,
As was true of the preceding phrase, this one straddles two lines, avoiding a rest at the break. A mandated pause occurs after the word floor, but what’s most interesting about the rhythm of this line is that two very brief pauses can be appreciated even before arriving at the comma, one after pearwood and another after flying. The fact that both words are reversed iambs (trochees) partially explains this; in each instance, the light second syllable naturally maintains a closer temporal relationship to the accented syllable preceding it than it does to the separate word that follows. The intimate comingling of syllables in a single word is particularly pronounced in flying. The word is reminiscent of springboard diving: a long “i” for the initial jump, a slow bend at the y-sound, and a quick recoil into a high twang, ending as a tight curl at the back of the throat. Given the elasticity of the word, and given the rapid staccato of the preposition and article that follow (to-the-floor), the existence of a subtle pause after flying seems only natural.
and leaving scores
of tunnels where white will be, plateaus and knolls
These lines express in concise format the fundamental concept of relief printing: the cutaway portions of the wood block lie below the surface, transfer no ink to the paper, and appear white on the final print. Raised areas, by contrast, impress the paper and print out black. Note that the contours of the plate are referred to in geographic terms (tunnels, plateaus, and knolls). This is a metaphorical gesture. The carved surface becomes a kind of world, thereby suggesting a telescopic sequence of transpositions — the world of the artist transposed and reinvented in his mind; his mental terrain transposed onto the wood block; and ultimately, the block transposed onto paper, creating the world depicted in the print.
The use of tunnels (as opposed to, say, valleys or ravines) has a logic to it. It’s consistent with the action of boring into a block of wood, and it also reinforces the insect imagery. Thus, it again serves to create a sense of connection between the artist and his subject, the second such linkage in the stanza.
Consider the simplicity of the phrase where white will be. It has an innocent, open, guileless quality, as if it were spoken by a child. In addition, the string of “w” sounds superimposes a gentle playfulness,without the more obvious alliteration that can be associated with harder consonants. The fragment for black, by contrast, carries a faintly ominous tone. In part, this may be due to the change in syntax to a short prepositional phrase. (Observe the loss of dramatic effect when one substitutes the hypothetical phrase where black will be). Furthermore, displacement of the last two words of the sentence to the beginning of the next stanza isolates them and creates something akin to a startle response, as if they suddenly appeared in a dark doorway. A hint of mystery can also be traced to the abrupt stop at the letter “k” — the reader, carried by momentum, drifts for just an instant in the silent space beyond the period.
The gouge and burin exert the force
he needs for relief, while something else controls
Here, the focus shifts to the forces at work. The first of these forces is purely mechanical, the physical transcription of an idea into a tangible form. The second — “something else” — is left ambiguous. Even so, the lines help to shape the possibilities through a kind of analogy: The artist’s tools are to manual technique what “something else” is to topography / pattern / design. Could it be intellect? Aesthetic sense? Inspiration? All of these?
The word relief flickers back and forth between alternate meanings: relief as in “the raised surfaces of a woodcut,” and relief as in “the artist’s outlet for some inner drive.” Note, too, how topography picks up and carries forward the earlier motif of a world transposed.
These lines generally conform to iambic meter. Nevertheless, there are variances that alter the cadence in subtle ways. These include a short rest after the word needs; an extra light syllable before the fourth stress of the first line (bur-in ex-ert); and an extra light syllable in the second foot of the second line (for re-lief). One can argue whether topography should be read with one accented syllable (to-po-gra-phy) or two (to-po-gra-phy).
and in darkest ink, restores
two beetles and the ball of dung they roll.
Flanked by commas and ensconced in the middle of the line, the phrase and in darkest ink simulates an impressario’s lead-up, a bit of melodrama designed to heighten anticipation just before the curtain is pulled back to reveal what’s behind. The superlative form of the adjective dark seems to deepen the dramatic effect, lending an aura of mystery and foreboding.
Why restores? Alternative choices, such as depicts, shows or illustratrates, would certainly work at a denotative level. What is lacking in the latter, however, is the sense of recreating something in a new form, of successive incarnations. The concept of renewal, a central motif of the poem, inheres in restoration.
The last line of the stanza is notable for a potpourri of elements that conspire to give the reader a temporary sense of resolution. The image of the print finally appears. The end of the sentence, a natural stopping point, coincides with the end of the line. The word roll receives extra emphasis by virtue of being an end-rhyme and because it represents the fourth iteration of the same sound (following scrolls, knolls, and controls). Finally, after the words two beetles, the line relaxes into a predominantly iambic rhythm (which “rolls” like a ball).
Perhaps the ball is a symbol. A world of waste
that dwarfs the bugs, which grapple nonetheless,
Here, the poem moves from visual image to facetious musing, from observation to interpretation. These first few lines speculate (or, more accurately, pretend to speculate) about what the artist was attempting to convey.
Inclusion of the word ball in the word symbol (read: sym-ball) is playful, allowing the sentence to be heard in two ways. The poem also points to the comical aspect of two earnest creatures diligently trying to transport a ball of dung many times their size. The scene is perhaps reminiscent of some of the antics that occurred in silent film comedies. The last word, undeterred, reminds us that scatological humor is permissible, at least in a poem entitled “Dung Beetles.”
As an alternative to comedy, the poem could have characterized the insects’ struggle in stark mythological terms. The image of Sisyphus forever rolling a stone uphill offers a perfect parallel and a powerful drama. Nevertheless, so as not to muddle Egyptian religious belief and Greek mythology, the poem avoids the latter.
And where the pair is placed —
One aft and up, one fore and down — suggest
an artist drawn to natural symmetries,
immersed in black and white, inverted, upright.
Listen to the interlocking sounds in the first phrase above: the internal rhyming of where and pair; the alliteration in pair and placed; and of course the rhyme between placed and the final word (waste) of the first line of the stanza.
Just eight words are used to evoke the spatial relationship between the insects and the dung ball. Given that the imagery is complex — the two creatures occupy opposite sides, exhibit rotational symmetry, and appear to be tumbling clockwise around their shared planet — the brevity of the description, i.e., the compression, may afford some degree of satisfaction.
Based on observations about the geometry of the image, the poem suggests something about the artist’s proclivities / motive / psyche. But the poetry here has little to do with logic or inference. It resides in how the ideas are presented, the words recruited for the job. Notice, for example, the duplicity of drawn. The overt sense of the word approximates “attracted to” or “pulled toward.” At the same time, with just a slight shift in the way the line is heard, it connotes “rendered” or “depicted with lines,” as if the artist were the image, the naturally symmetric subject of a drawing. This ambiguity, which is irresolvable, serves to further confound the distinction between subject and object, between the artist and their art. The word immersed functions similarly.
Escher was indeed obsessed with duality in nature — order and chaos, up and down, convex and concave, earth and sky — and these motifs permeate much of his art. Black and white is perhaps the most elemental dichotomy. Additionally, it relates to print making, and it serves to foreshadow the imagery in the lines to follow.
The marks become indelible: dichotomies
go spiraling through night and day and night.
The initial phrase exerts its effect through a combination of brevity and understatement. At the most primitive level, the “marks” are simply lines and shapes printed in ink. Meaning expands outward from there. The reader senses that the word simultaneously connotes works of art, products of extraordinary creative effort. That the marks become indelible suggests some type transformation or transcendence rather than a static state. There is a strong sense of time, of permanence. Having entered the poem through image, and having meandered through corridors of interpretation, the reader now finds him/herself being ushered toward something mysterious and alluring, something just out of sight.
The image that follows is a flight of fancy. It simulates observation but resists being easily defined. Does the action occur in space? Across time? And what does it mean for dichotomies, which are conceptual entities, to spiral? Do we imagine a multitude of Escherian fragments spinning in some cosmic vortex? Or do we perceive a metaphor for ideas that are no longer anchored to one place or one time? Much is left to the imagination; the words merely provide the initial push.
The evocation of night and day plays into meaning in a number of interconnected ways. It happens to be one of those dualities with which the artist was obsessed. It also symbolizes time and perpetuity, thus echoing the word indelible. And finally, it points to a cycle, to continuity in the midst of change, to a sequential reiteration of events (notice that the line itself cycles back to the word night). As will become increasingly apparent, the notion of renewal constitutes a unifying theme of the poem.
Having arrived at the juncture of the first and second sections, the reader is translocated. Both the form and the tone abruptly change, so much so that the second section might at first seem to be an entirely different poem. The intimate relationship with the previous section is initially obscure.
The structure that served to reflect and reinforce the themes of the opening section is no longer in evidence. Form remains vitally important, but in this new realm, the various forms evolve organically; the grid is gone.
The lines here are shorter on average. This slows the cadence and renders it more deliberate. Overall, the tone is sepulchral, serene, and meditative:
feeds on her womb.
Swathed in a whitish gauze,.
she is larval.
in the stone cocoon.
The name of the deceased establishes a context in Egypt at the time of the pharaohs. Although she happens to have been a real person (the wife of Tut-ankh-amun), the historical Ankh-essen-amun is unimportant from the standpoint of the poem. Her name was appropriated primarily because of its inherent beauty (a reasonable Anglicized pronunciation would be Ahn kess’n ahm’n). In addition, the fact that it incorporates ankh, the word for the ancient Egyptian symbol of life, is subtly ironic — or perhaps not.
From out of the larva metaphor arises a host of associations, all of which intermingle and resonate with one another. These include the notion of a life cycle, the potential for metamorphosis, and the possibility of an existence after death. The comparison also superimposes an insect image onto a human one, confusing the two so as to imbue the latter with characteristics of the former.
Some amount of poetic license is taken. The pupa, not the larva, represents the inactive, transformative stage of insect development, i.e., the stage that correlates most closely to the mummified human state. The fifth line of this stanza is, therefore, biologically incorrect. That said, larval remains the better word. It has a visceral quality, it stretches and contracts, and its aural texture approximates the physical properties of a worm through a kind of synesthesia or “visual onomatopoeia.” Larval evokes both wonder and horror. Can the same be said for the alternative phrase she is pupal?
An amulet exhumes
the shallow cup of her neck —
set in green and gold,
its form and folded wings
This is a moment of quiet revelation. The detail of a funereal talisman reveals a coincidence of image that bridges more than three thousand years. It also links the first and second sections of the poem through a common motif and invites the reader to be receptive to parallels and divergences, to what has stayed the same and what has changed.
The scarab — a molded or carved representation of a beetle — was the most sacred of the ancient Egyptian religious icons. It symbolized the transition to a life after death, and it was regarded as having powers of renewal and reincarnation. Scarabs often were buried with the dead so as to enable entry into the afterlife.
Scarab worship originated in the keen observations of a people who were profoundly awed by nature and who sought to explain their own existence in terms of natural phenomena. With respect to scarabs, they observed that adults arose out of excrement, as if formed de novo from lifeless matter. In addition, because only male beetles were seen — the females remained below ground in tunnels and side burrows — the ancients inferred that beetle procreation was asexual, i.e., an act of self-generation. This had powerful implications for the concept of human reincarnation. Finally, they perceived an analogy between the movement of the dung ball and the motion of the sun, itself a source of life and a potent symbol of re-birth and renewal.
A common word deployed in an unconventional context can sometimes produce uncommon expressive effects. Indeed, such an idiosyncratic usage may feel “right,” almost inevitable, as though no conceivable substitution could achieve a comparable semantic or aesthetic result. Consider the verb exhumes. In the poem, its object is the subtle midline depression at the base of the neck. Applied in this way, exhumes is utterly devoid of literal meaning. Its conventional sense no longer dominates the word, but this affords an opportunity for connotation, image and metaphor to rush in and fill the void.
Dig a little deeper. First, observe that the verb is transitive. As such, it is more compelling — more powerful — than any hypothetical intransitive alternative (e.g., rests, sits, floats, etc.). The power of the verb, in turn, may subliminally influence one’s sense of the mystical sway of the verb’s subject, the amulet / scarab. In addition, some readers might perceive an intuitive logic, a reciprocity of sorts, in the notion of ex-huming a cup or physical depression, as in “bringing out” or “exteriorizing” the interior of a concavity. Of course, exhumes makes a strong gesture toward death and the notion of raising the dead, thus evoking the possibility of some greater transformation even as it makes a pretense of focusing on a tiny area of a woman’s neck. Sound also is important. Whereas the etymology of the word (ex + humus; earth) suggests an action involving hard or solid material, exhume seems more akin to words that deal with less tangible, insubstantial forms of matter (e.g., exhale, vacuum, fumes). To some readers, the sound of the word may even conjure an image of random, low-lying swirls and convections that suddenly coalesce and ascend in a great gaseous column.
Speaking of sound, be attuned to the many instances of assonance, alliteration and internal rhyming in those six lines: An and amulet; the recurrent “s” sounds; amulet, neck and set; the incorporation of both form and gold in folded; and finally, green and serpentine. These interlocking repeats create a sense of unity in the stanza, notwithstanding the ostensibly “free” form.
Decipher the inscription
(which the carver’s lips still whisper):
The overriding sense here is one of anonymity. The imaginary artist who carved the scarab lacks physical attributes, personal history, or identity. We have only a pair of lips, and the lips merely whisper (and are couched in parentheses). Contrast this with the depiction of the 20th century artist in the first section. Across millenia, an identical motif reappears, yet something fundamental seems to have changed in the relationship between the artist and their art.
Great Khepri, source of creation,
as you shall summon the sun from the depths
and wheel the blazing disk across the sky,
so too the beetle moves his ball across the sand,
descends, and creates himself anew.
Go with my queen, oh god of light,
that she may reach the afterworld,
sip life eternal, and renew.
The above is an invocation to Khepri, the creation god and god of the rising sun. It’s not an actual translation but an imagined text based on information gleaned from several sources, including a 1996 article by E. A. Evans entitled The Sacred Scarab. Excerpts from religious texts, as well as proper names and narratives, often were inscribed on the flat undersurface of scarab amulets so as to enhance and/or direct the scarab’s inherent amuletic powers.
Scarab beetles were believed to be the reincarnation of Khepri, and Khepri often was represented as a beetle or as a man with the head of a beetle. In the Egyptian myth of creation, Khepri developed himself out of primeval matter, just as the dung beetle was thought to do. The Egyptians also conceived of Khepri as being responsible for the cycling of the sun: shouldering it onto the horizon and pushing it across the sky during the day, then descending at night to the other world where he becomes reenergized and capable of resurrection. Interestingly, the Egyptian word for dung beetle and the name of the creation god share a common phonetic origin.
The inscription is admittedly a strange, somewhat perplexing detour in the poem. One might wonder what purpose it serves and how it figures in the play of ideas. Some of this is intuitive. What can be said is that it has something to do with human motivation. The words inscribed, the words that were whispered, suggest a close connection between religion and the drive to create. Perhaps a reader will sense that for an anonymous carver in a different age, mystical beliefs were no more separable from art than were inscriptions from stone. And perhaps this notion will begin to stir comparisons.
By a winding river, women wail
and men flail their own flesh.
This is an isolated frame, a glimpse outside of the tomb, a fragment of context. Listen to how the “w” sounds flow, how they combine with the short “i” of river in the word women. The image of a people plunged into grief speaks to the depth of spirituality and mysticism at the time. More important, it serves as a foil for the line that follows:
She is dead to all of this.
And so remains
till membranes give,
and linen bonds dissolve
in a rush of wings.
The initial line is a blunt instrument. It hammers the reader with fact, in striking contrast to the ethereal possibilities swirling through the earlier stanzas. Notice, too, that despite the play on words, there is no nuance or innuendo to soften the blow. Both the literal sense and the colloquial sense of “dead” are overt, equal in weight, and mutually reinforced.
The phrase that follows, And so remains, is another double entendre in which the twin meanings resonate with one another: “remains” as in to persist in the same state, and “remains” as in human remains (read: And so, remains).
Then something happens. Or not. The word till leaves it ambiguous as to whether the description is meant to be interpreted in the present tense or whether it represents a vision of metamorphosis that might yet occur at some indeterminate time. Indeed, the four final lines of this section strain to remain unfocused, to suggest but not define, to draw upon partial images and intermingle them as in a dream. They gesture at birth, at release, at flight. They point, but they offer no resolution.
Certain disorders of the eye destroy central vision. Those afflicted can still see peripherally, but they are blind to everything situated in the direction of their gaze. The paradox is that in order for such individuals to look at an object of interest, they have to look away from it. Words can be like this. Particularly with regard to matters that challenge comprehension — emotion, meaning, metaphysics, and spirituality — a direct approach often yields no view at all. But by looking obliquely, metaphorically, words can sometimes provide a glimpse, a moment of insight or intuition, however evanescent.
We’ve arrived at the poem’s final section. Short but intricate, it is the common destination of the two preceding sections. Its multiple optical metaphors intersect and play off of one another, creating a vantage point from which the reader is invited to look back at all that has come before: two artists separated by millenia, twin acts of creation, and sequential incarnations of the same mysterious animal motif, itself a symbol of cyclic renewal, reincarnation and eternal life.
The frame shifts. Angled glass refracts
the slant of motive and motif, splays the two apart.
The frame might refer to a shifting frame of reference. Or it might evoke a movie frame or a narrative scene. It might even suggest a window frame, ajar and off kilter. The possibilities oscillate strobe-like in the mind, radiating a composite meaning that somehow conveys more than the simple sum of its parts. The word itself shifts.
The next phrase picks up on the sense of a tilted pane of glass. It asks the reader to conceive of the abstractions motive and motif as being visible entities whose images are initially superimposed and indistinguishable. In this construct, a change in the angle of the intervening glass affords a new view, an altered perspective, a different slant, wherein the two images are perceived as separate and distinct. Note, too, that the word slant connotes a linear quality, which is consistent with the notion of being bent (refracted), in the way that linear rays of light are bent by a refracting medium.
Think about how the “shifting frame” might relate to the first two sections of the poem. Also consider what the imaginary divergence of “motive and motif” might suggest about creative impulse at opposite poles of history.
As to the endless reflections, know this fact:
What’s done is done in mirror, bowel
Reflections and refracted images are complementary; their juxtaposition sets up a natural counterpoint. That the reflections are endless speaks to an absence of limits, a perpetual succession of recurring themes, a line of iterations and variations stretching to infinity. The closely spaced repetition of sounds (the end, re-flec) serves as a subtle reenactment of this idea.
The following phrase, know this fact, speaks directly to the reader. Its impact derives from use of the imperative, from the concatenation of three accented monosyllables (unique in the poem), and from the anticipatory effect of the colon. The drama of the final line is commensurately heightened.
On its surface, the statement at the end of the poem simulates an aphorism. It seems to posit a truth about creative endeavors, and it does so with an air of authority, even pomposity.
But things are not always as they seem on the surface. Note that the phrase what’s done is done is itself a reflection, a quote widely recognized to have been uttered by Lady Macbeth in Act 3, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s 17th century play. But the saying didn’t originate with Shakespeare. The Bard based it on a virtually identical French proverb from the 14th century. Accordingly, its appearance in “Dung Beetles” represents yet one more reflection of prior art, another reincarnation. At the same time, it has become unmoored from the conventional sense of the phrase (i.e., what has already happened can’t be changed, so learn to live with the consequences and move on). Instead, the present usage — pertaining as it does to art — seems to suggest that what was done before is done again, and it leaves open the possibility of additional iterations in the future. It’s this notion of duplication, of “endless reflections,” that implicates a mirror. Even the order of the words — what’s done is done — recapitulates the phenomenon of reflection: an object (done) facing its mirror image (done) across a reflecting surface (is).
Reflection as a shared attribute of mirrors and art is easy to stomach. But bowel? How does that squeeze in? Though it mimics a non-sequitur, bowel is linked to mirror by virtue of cohabiting the sonic space between one syllable and two. And the fact that the bowel is an organ of transit nudges the ear from done to dung and gives off a whiff of What’s dung is dung for the reader to sniff. The play of sense is neither noisome nor obscene. On the contrary, in this poem, dung is more sacred than profane.
“Cyclone Batsirai” consists of 59 lines. This essay will focus on three of them:
Nights punctuate the transience of light
as though each dark period foreshadows
some longer pause....
These lines appear at a point in the poem where day transitions into night. The text that comes just before describes a sunset. That which follows describes a dark and violent storm.
The phrase takes the form of a statement or assertion, with Nights as its subject. Light is presumed to be transient, and its transience is the object of punctuates. And should a reader, as readers often do, see light as the source and symbol of life, and choose to conflate the two, then the lines will presume that life is transient too.
The surface sense of the passage, i.e., its ostensible meaning, comes close to something like: Nights remind us that light is not permanent by regularly interrupting its continuity. Or, alternatively: Nights, by virtue of being lightless, highlight the fact that illuminated existence is finite and transient. The dark intervals function like recurrent omens, portending the end of light and presaging eternal darkness.
The verb punctuate was chosen over its alternatives (emphasize, accentuate, bring out, etc.) in part because of the sonic punch it delivers, akin to that of puncture. Foreshadows, the only other verb, eclipsed its competition by incorporating the noun “shadow,“ which evinces a natural connection to darkness and night.
Sometimes less is more. Understatement expresses the importance or magnitude of a thing using language that’s inversely proportional in size or exuberance. Thus, a terse fragment couched in a neutral tone can, paradoxically, create a greater sense of immensity than a lengthy depiction overflowing with superlatives. Some longer pause, alluding as it does to eternity, illustrates this paradox.
Note, too, that the impact of the ellipsis ― the symbolic expression of some longer pause ― is enhanced by being situated at the end of the line where it extends outward into nothingness.
This page-long deconstruction of sense would appear to have covered the subject exhaustively. But a closer reading reveals that the lines harbor a second sense, one that owes its existence to a sequence of five double entendres. One might expect, indeed ought to expect, that five puns sprung from a pillbox of fifteen words would, of necessity, be scattered across the map in terms of subject matter and would have no more connection to one another than a fistful of different pills. But that expectation would be unfounded. In each of the five duplicitous conceits, the secondary sense relates directly or indirectly to punctuation, specifically the typographical sort. Thus, all five alternate meanings easily cohere into a semantic layer that runs in parallel with the surface sense. And because both layers of meaning emanate from the same phrase, both are expressed through identical language and syntax.
Meaning can’t be minted on a press or template, and poems can’t be organized on graphs. That said, a diagram can sometimes serve as a useful tool for exposing artifice in wordplay.
|Primary or Surface Sense
|insert in the manner of punctuation
|each dark period
|the punctuation mark
referred to as a period
|reference to an ellipsis
consisting of four periods
(i.e., “four shadows”)
|some longer pause
|innuendo evoking eternity
|a pause longer than that
associated with one period
|symbol evoking eternity
|symbol of a pause longer
than that associated with
As noted above, the secondary sense moves in parallel with the primary meaning, but this duality isn’t analogous to that encountered in geological strata or the composite structure of roadways, in which adjacent layers are adherent but discrete and inert. On the contrary, the secondary sense in this part of the poem operates as a metaphor.
The great 20th century poet Richard Wilbur (1921-2017) once defined metaphor as “the thisness in that and the thatness in this.”1 Metaphors tend to be recognizable things or objects that are compared to something else, often of a more abstract, elusive or otherwise ineffable nature. Through the comparison, the metaphor comes to represent the “something else,” and the qualities, properties or attributes of the metaphor carry over and attach to the thing represented. The best metaphors operate in ways that are at once surprising and unconventional while nevertheless leaving the reader with an unshakable sense of the “rightness” of the comparison.
In the three pivotal lines discussed in this essay, the poem employs a punctuation metaphor. That both the metaphor and the primary sense derive from the same lines and the same words facilitates conveyance of the metaphor’s semantic attributes to the surface meaning. The metaphorical elements resonate with the primary sense of the passage, enriching it, reinforcing it, and rendering it more evocative and visually satisfying. Like viewing a film with two images superimposed on one another, the mind of the reader flickers back and forth between two competing but interrelated perspectives, one concrete and grammatical, the other abstract and metaphysical.
A coda in closing. Shortly after recruiting foreshadow on the basis of its shadowy reputation, the opportunity presented by its notorious doppelgänger and homophone became evident, and an ellipsis with three dark periods became an ellipsis with four. This is an instance of a poem performing itself, the form of a line reenacting its content. It’s also unabashedly self-referential. Meta may be the best term for a passage in which an embedded punctuation metaphor is reflected in the punctuation on the page.
1Amherst Today poetry symposium. Amherst College. September 2006.
The poem is constructed in fives ― five lines, five accented syllables per line, and five end-rhymes. To avoid the tedium of repeated rhyming in close quarters, all of the rhymes are slant and all of the lines are enjambed.
Three years, and we’ve lost our taste for covid ―
The opening line conveys the malaise and emotional fatigue that many feel three years after the beginning of the pandemic. To express this collective exhaustion, the line employs the idiom lost our taste for. At the same time, the phrase alludes to one of the classic symptoms of covid: loss of taste sensation.
the counts, the cures, the clashes,
Three alliterative nouns encapsulate the media coverage and controversies that defined the period ― counts of cases, hospitalizations and deaths; treatments, both effective and not; and the belief systems that sundered a nation.
what love did
to make a plague of grief.
Here, love is implicated in the widespread grief that accompanied the pandemic, for without love, there can be no grief. Plague was selected over possible alternatives (scourge, bane, etc.) for obvious reasons.
Better that Ovid
pen his flower myth:
Ovid (43 BC to 17 AD) was a Roman poet who wrote the Metamorphoses, a long poem concerned with transformations, most of which were drawn from Greek mythology. Three of the stories recount the unnatural deaths of three young men ― Narcissus, Hyacinth and Adonis ― each of whom was subsequently transformed into a flower. These stories have become known as “the flower myths.” My poem imagines that Ovid is alive and writing a flower myth for the millions who died of the virus. (All things are permissible in poetic narrative).
this meadow clovered
and blossoming, this field of rest, the sky above it.
The poem concludes with the pastoral image of a meadow carpeted with clover, one blossom for each lost soul.