The spider—why the spider?, or, a defense of recurring images

Ten spiders, showing much variation in shape and colour. Gou Wellcome V0043845

(art from Wikimedia)

A few days ago on Twitter, a poet tweeted about searching through her poems to make sure she hadn’t already used the image she wanted to use in a new poem. Another poet responded that she often does the same.

My response: I will fight you.

I mean: I haven’t slept since.

Well, okay, I have, but only restlessly.

Let it be said that these are poets whose work I admire deeply. And yet… And yet… My response: horror.

Horror, because what if Bonnard had only painted Marthe in the bath once?

What if Diebenkorn had worried about repeating himself, and only painted a handful of Ocean Parks, rather than painting 150 (correction: according to this source it was 145) Ocean Parks over the course of eighteen years?

What if Ruth Asawa had thought more than just a few of her sinuous and shapely wire sculptures would be repetitive?

What if Louise Bourgeois abandoned her obsession with spiders, which began appearing in her work in the 1940s, and which she was still using in her art early in the next century (i.e., this century)?

Reader, I would not want to live in that world.

Nor in a world without Charles Wright’s spiders. Nor without Ted Hughes’s crows, nor Larry Levis’s horses and wrens, nor Whitman’s body-as-land / land-as-body imagery, nor Emily Dickinson’s birds.

What if Mahmoud Darwish had stopped writing about his homeland, and Terrence Hayes had only written one American sonnet for his past and future assassin?

I mean—and now I’m getting really serious—what if Jack Gilbert had stopped writing about Gianna and Linda and Michiko and Pittsburgh for fear of being repetitive?

No thank you, my friends, no thank you.

There are images (and, I would add, subjects, and even colors, and probably other things, too) that belong to certain poets. They use, and reuse, and use again these images across and throughout the body of their work. Why? Because obsessions fuel art. Because images do more than simply describe or represent something in a novel way—they also haul up to the surface a particular emotional resonance. An image is a portal into a poet’s mind and interior world, and hopefully, into our own as well. And troubling a particular image over time, over time, over time, and more time—this is one of the things I love about reading and writing poetry.

Look: now Wright’s spider is “recit[ing] his one sin.” Now he’s “still there, invisible, short of breath, mending his net.”

Now Marthe is in the tub, practically Ophelia. Now she’s in the tub again. Now she’s—you guessed it—in the tub again. (I could go on).

So, no, we don’t want to close ourselves off to using new images. And we don’t want to read or write an image in the exact same wording and in the exact same situation every time across a body of work (although now that I think of it, I may not be entirely opposed to that either—I mean: think of the guts that would take). We don’t want to be lazy or unthinking. But yes, please, for all time to the obsessive return of a writer or artist to his/her/their foundational  images.

Especially because the best images, returned to, reveal more of themselves to us each time we read or write.

Especially because we change and (we hope) grow and (we hope) become more capacious and complex beings—so that a spider to us in 1987 will be very different to us than a spider in 2021.

Even the same spider.

Here are some of the images I return and return to in my own writing: the roof, the fence, the rib, the stone. The birches. The hillside and its forever-willow. The ditch, the meadow, the snow. The wood thrush; the indigo bunting, it’s song about fire. The dune. The doorway and the window. Abandoning them would be like giving up my own, well, rib.

Here is Bourgeois: “The spider—why the spider? Because my best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and as useful as a spider.”

Why the rib? Because mine aches in times of grief or sorrow. Why the ditch, the hillside (which is also where the meadow was, ftr) and her willow? They were my best friends—places to see from without being seen. Good for watching storms blow in. Dappled, quiet, buggy, blown. Useful as a ditch / hillside / willow.