Elegy in a Spider’s Web 

What to say when the spider
Say when the spider what
When the spider the spider what
The spider does what
Does does dies does it not
Not live and then not
Legs legs then none
When the spider does dies
Death spider death
Or not the spider or
What to say when
To say always
Death always
The dying of always
Or alive or dead
What to say when I
When I or the spider
No I and I what
Does what does dies
Death always I
Death before always
Death after always
Dead or alive
Now and always
What to say always
Now and always
What to say now
Now when the spider
What does the spider
The spider what dies
Dies when then when
Then always death always
The dying of always
Always now I
What to say when I
When I what
When I say
When the spider
When I always
Death always
When death what
Death I says say
Dead spider no matter
How thorough death
Dead or alive
No matter death
How thorough I
What to say when
When who when the spider
When life when space
The dying of oh pity
Poor how thorough dies
No matter reality
Death always
What to say
When who
Death always
When death when the spider
When I who I
What to say when
Now before after always
When then the spider what
Say what when now
Legs legs then none
When the spider
Death spider death
The genii who cannot cease to know
What to say when the spider
When I say
When I or the spider
Dead or alive the dying of
Who cannot cease to know
Who death who I
The spider who when
What to say when
Who cannot cease
Who cannot
Cannot cease
Cease
Cannot
The spider
Death
I
We
The genii
To know
What to say when the
Who cannot
When the spider what
Does what does dies
Death spider death
Who cannot
Death cease death
To know say what
Or not the spider
Or if I say
Or if I do not say
Who cannot cease to know
Who know the genii
Who say the I
Who they we cannot
Death cease death
To know say I
Oh pity poor pretty
How thorough life love
No matter space spider
How horrid reality
What to say when
What when
Who cannot
How cease
The knowing of always
Who these this space
Before after here
Life now my face
The face love the
The legs real when
What time death always
What to say then
What time the spider

Influenced, in structure, by the work of American expatriate Gertrude Stein, “Elegy in a Spider’s Web” builds congruity-towards-truth via blurred and variable perspective, line-based architecture, and the speaker’s attempt to inhabit alterity. The poet’s biographer, Deborah Baker, reads the poem’s meaning in concert with (Riding) Jackson’s 1929 suicide attempt:

‘In the first seven lines, two voices are apparent, the second interrupting the first to call into impatient question the very dynamics by which meaning is elicited from the text . . . In the awkward but infinitely careful crawl of Riding’s spider lay one of the few paths of her recovery of an intensely personal poetic voice, in the shadow of the failed suicide attempt.’

She intimates, further, that ‘dominant modes’ of twentieth-century criticism—‘New Criticism, structuralism, and deconstructionism—evade the simple biographical connection between this poem and Laura Riding’s suicide attempt.’

Giving due credence to Ms. Baker’s insight into the life and poetic of (Riding) Jackson, the perils of ‘simple biographical connection’ in art are rather well-illustrated: Wimatt and Beardsley’s warnings about attempts to scry authorial intent are recalled; the history of psychoanalysis imagines there’s some complexity to relations between the conscious and unconscious mind; beyond these, (Riding) Jackson herself notes, in the 1980 preface to her Collected Poems,

‘The scope of my preoccupations as a poet is of a breadth, a spaciousness of subject-matter content, that does not conform to the stock critical notion of the general as matter of reference, in poetry’ (xxv).

Thus I’d like to hazard a reading of  “Elegy in a Spider’s Web” that errs on the side of holding biography in abeyance—not for the sake of neatly ‘resolving tensions’ via the New Critical or structuralist method, but to honor the congruity (Riding) Jackson says she’s after. If that congruity extends reasonably into the poet’s private life, so be it.

Ms. Baker’s supposition that two distinct voices emerge ‘in the first seven lines’ of “Elegy in a Spider’s Web” is of some interest, but the vagary of her location is not specially helpful. To my taste, a divergence of voice—if it is present at all—is locatable by the third line:

What to say when the spider
Say when the spider what
When the spider the spider what
The spider does what 
Does does dies does it not
Not live and then not
Legs legs then none

setting forth a call-and-response mode that is readable (roughly) every other line. While a reading of this sort elucidates the opening tone to a degree—a second voice that enters on the third line then speaks again on the fifth and seventh achieves antagonism by repeating the terms of the first voice sarcastically (‘Does does dies does it not,’ and ‘Legs legs then none’)—it isn’t possible to sustain with any certainty. The next seven lines read:

When the spider does dies
Death spider death
Or not the spider or
What to say when
To say always
Death always 
The dying of always 

If we choose to continue with our method of voices alternating lines, ‘Death spider death,’ ‘What to say when,’ and ‘Death always’ have vacated their earlier tonal continuum—the repetition of ‘death’ in line nine doesn’t resonate sarcastically, and the following two lines are graver still. In my reading, frankly, the tone of these seven lines is uniform.

Arguments about the structure of voice-play might continue ad nauseum—that one voice is dominant and another enters sporadically, that both voices show swinging moods, etc etc—save for a few formal points, which will posit my forthcoming reading as at least as reasonable as the aforementioned two-speaker one. First, the entire poem is majusculated and without punctuation, making it nearly impossible to locate the entrance and exit of speakers with any definitiveness, begging the question of (Riding) Jackson; next, the title of the poem points to a singular composing speaker; finally, the architecture of the poem speaks more powerfully as an examination of a speaker divested of her ability to move and visually pin-down vibrations (of thought, fear, of the spider himself) than as a dialogue between a stuck self and a dissociated self inserting its voice inchoately. Would a speaker caught in a spider’s web have any choice but to conceive of sensation as extra-visual, and thus to form of poem outside the stringencies of eye or mind’s eye alone?

The predator’s presence is strong in this poem: ‘spider’ and some variant of ‘death’ is mentioned in 64 of the first 100 lines. For this reason, the ‘I’ is either completely evacuated or rises to manic ‘insertedness,’ impending extinction dancing with ego:

What to say now
Now when the spider
What does the spider
The spider what dies
Dies when then when
Then always death always
The dying of always
Always now I
What to say when I
When I what
When I say
When the spider
When I always
                       (ll. 29-41)

As this dance of alterity—where the spider, even if unseen, takes on the presence of a titan, rising in stature as the  fearful ‘I’ fights on—reaches a proximal crescendo with ‘Legs legs then none/When the spider/Death spider death’ (ll. 66-68), a most remarkable turn vaults the poem into more palpably epistemological space—

The genii who cannot cease to know
What to say when the spider
When I say
When I or the spider
Dead or alive the dying of
Who cannot cease to know
Who death who I
                       (ll. 69-75)

Metrically, said turn is clearly marked: ‘The genii who cannot cease to know’ is the only five-foot line in the poem, the only line in clear iambs. A rather fascinating choice of vocabulary, too: ‘genii’ operates first, for most readers, as the plural of ‘genie,’ a tutelary spirit or one of the sprites or goblins of Arabian demonology per the OED; secondarily, it is defined as the plural of ‘genius,’ whose earliest fourteenth century definition references the tutelary god or attendant spirit allotted to every person at his birth, moving through, in the seventeenth century, the quasi-mystical personification of something immaterial, to the definition most familiar to us, that of a native intellectual power of an exalted type. Notice how the poem moves into, again, a deeply epistemological space following the line of iambic pentameter; the entrance of either spiritual forces or the self’s sense of native brilliance removes the narrative from give-and-take contention to, I would suggest, resolute self-reflection: the spider is wrapped in the folds of a larger matter of philosophical estimation, one of many figures in service to, or generative of, thought. Formally, the move forward is toward linear atomism—’The spider who when/What to say when/Who cannot cease/Who cannot,’ then

Cannot cease
Cease
Cannot
The spider
Death
I
We
The genii
To know
What to say when the
Who cannot
                       (ll. 80-90)

And though the temptation may be to reinscribe the two-voice method in these lines (as, again, call-and-response: ‘Cease/Cannot/The spider/Death/I/We’) the reappearance and continuing mysterious use ‘genii,’ and then echoed self-reflectiveness (‘To know/What to say when the’) stays our readerly course—a course, that is, of many shades of the Self.

If ever, in the case of “Elegy in a Spider’s Web,” a biographer would find her look requited, it is in the last twenty lines of the poem. The congruity-toward-knowing is thinned to a wire’s width with ‘Or if I say/Or if I do not say/Who cannot cease to know/Who know the genii,’ and following:

Who they we cannot
Death cease death
To know say I
Oh pity poor pretty
How thorough life love
No matter space spider
How horrid reality
                       (ll. 103-109)

These are certainly the most legibly narrative lines in the piece, recalling the asyndeton of (Riding) Jackson’s “The Wind Suffers.” Notice, specifically, the entrance of a gallery with ‘Who they we cannot’; overt (perhaps facile?) emotion with ‘Oh pity poor pretty/How thorough life love’ and ‘No matter space spider/How horrid reality.’ Yet there is something ultimately redemptive in the use of ‘thorough,’ I think, that moves this narrative chunk past pathos—the iteration is quite removed, almost ‘professional,’ as if even absorption in that moment of readable emotion is understood in the context of the spiritually real; that life has a ‘thorough-ness’ to attend to, even as some subjects languish in the spider’s web. And, as with “The Wind Suffers,” the anguish of being is pushed past, as it must be—as language must be pushed toward the veracity of its motive in saying—

Who cannot
How cease
The knowing of always
Who these this space
Before after here
Life now my face
The face love the
The legs real when
What time death always
What to say then
What time the spider
                       (ll. 112-122)

The singing, stone comport of the ‘then’ in line 121 is easy to miss, so often has the line ‘What to say when’ appeared; as a conjunctive adverb, it implies, perhaps for the first time, the speaker’s sense of both cause and effect in her manifold architecture and her method of thinking. The poem becomes flesh, a dasein, a being-there.

This achievement, this being-there, is not only confluent with Laura (Riding) Jackson’s hopes for language, and for the triumph of language and goodness qua poetry—what I have termed ‘congruity-toward-truth’—but also confluent with a larger Modernist concern. One thinks of Jackson Pollock first, his proclamation that his art should manifest nature or experience ‘not as an illustration—(but the equivalent)’; one thinks of Rothko and Gottlieb’s letter to the Times;  of Wallace Stevens’ “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself.” While it has not been my goal to interrogate (Riding) Jackson’s poetic apostasy, mention of Rothko and Gottlieb’s missive brings to mind two disparate, perhaps mutually exclusive views on the issues of imagination: for (Riding) Jackson, ‘The necessity of resolving the conflict between the poetic ideal of the linguistic natural and the commonplace verbal procedure’; for the painters, that ‘This world of the imagination is fancy-free and violently opposed to common sense.’ Certainly (Riding) Jackson’s poetic method, through the lenses of pieces like “The Wind Suffers” and “Elegy in a Spider’s Web,” speaks to the inscrutable (or the inscrutably ‘got at’) because it wants more than strict signification. How, exactly, does the poet manage ‘the thing itself’ without requiring of a reader more various minds? This query, this impasse imposed by (Riding) Jackson on herself, meant that even successes in congruence became kinds of termini.