Prose from Poetry Magazine

Poetry Is a Dumb-Ass Spider

A cartoonist in the house of dust.

by Lynda Barry

Chicago hotel room, September 2009, fourteenth floor. Hungover and awake too early because of strong sun, at the window pulling down the shade, I see a spiderweb bigger than a dinner plate on the other side of the glass.

I think, Why there? You dumb-ass spider. What are your chances? How many bugs are flying around downtown at 140 feet? Why build your web almost flat against the glass when it reduces your capture area by half?

Back in bed, I think of being a bug in a wind storm blown straight toward the hotel window, knowing I’m going to die, preparing myself for impact when I’m suddenly caught by a net at the last moment: the feeling of the miracle of this, of being saved, which turns quickly to the opposite of a miracle, which is being eaten alive.

Which death is worse?

And then the utilitarian thought: at least the bug did not go to waste.

And then the memory of the fellows who have been skinning human bodies and plasticizing their insides and putting them on display in action poses. There are shows of them that travel to museums and other venues, including one in Las Vegas. People can see the miracle of the actual human body: the arteries, veins, muscles, and tendons. It’s not a somber display. Some of the bodies are running. Some are ice skating. Some are throwing basketballs. Who are these people? And how did the skinner-men get so many of them?

And the memory of the photograph of the mobile execution trucks used in China, looking like recreational vehicles, rolling in a utilitarian way, cutting out the middleman, combining death sentence with pickup-and-delivery service and on-the-road organ harvesting.

And the memory of another photo taken in China on a cloudy day: two dead young men with wrists zip-tied behind their backs, lying naked in a driveway where a man is casually hosing them off like floor mats from a car.
And the memory of reading that the skinner-men get their bodies from China.

And a memory of accusations that the “researchers” had used political prisoners as the body source, a controversy over skinning and displaying people who had been put to death for their ideas. Then the utilitarian thought: the people who say, At least these bodies didn’t go to waste. At least some scientific lemonade has been made out of a sour situation.

I am suddenly so thirsty and my head is pounding. I know the $9.00 beer in the mini-bar fridge will help. As I’m pouring it down my throat, a fragment of an A.E. Housman poem memorized two years ago presents itself as vividly as if someone were shouting it at me:

When I watch the living meet,
    And the moving pageant file
Warm and breathing through the street
    Where I lodge a little while,

If the heats of hate and lust
    In the house of flesh are strong,
Let me mind the house of dust
    Where my sojourn shall be long.

Only now it means the exact opposite of what I thought it meant. It’s not about forbearance and taking the long view in life at all. It’s saying, Life! Life! Get it while it’s hot! I lift the beer can to that. To the dead A.E. Housman’s still-living ideas.

And as the alcohol soothes me back into sleep, I think: What are the chances of a spider building a web against my hotel room window on the fourteenth floor while I drunkenly slept? How lucky I am! Not a dumb-ass spider at all. A genius spider. A genius spider speaking to me as clearly as the fictional Charlotte spoke to the fictional Wilbur. My eyes get wet. I lift my beer can toward the window. I say, “Some spider!” I sleep again.

What I don’t know yet is the spider I’m toasting is long gone, and that the web I thought was new is old and empty except for the tiny gray bodies a lot like ours wrapped tightly in the web’s edges where we shall vibrate together in the useful wind until that moment when the poetry finally lets us go.

Originally Published: July 1, 2010


On July 17, 2010 at 8:04am jerry brown wrote:
I had to read this because the Lynda Berry video was so life and poetry affirming. And the spider story reaffirmed my feeling that here is talented human being with an in your face [dumb-ass spider] style and some poetry insights to share that resonate with me. I have taken up reading and writing poetry later in life and didn't know why. I can see now, thanks to you Lynda ,that it is for the images and inspiration and joy. And thanks, I will be memorizing a few of my favorite verses to keep me forever young.

On July 17, 2010 at 7:13pm Dorothea Grossman wrote:
Loved the video of Lynda Barry talking about (and singing) poetry, especially what she said about Emily Dickinson.

And this article (Poetry Is a Dumb-Ass Spider) confirms once again that she understands the essentials. It was an unexpected treat to find her in Poetry Magazine.

On August 3, 2010 at 3:23am Samuel wrote:

On August 4, 2010 at 9:34am Sarah Battersby from Happy Medusa wrote:
Amazing woman, wonderful artist. I salute you, Lynda Barry! Loved reading this.

On August 6, 2010 at 4:25pm Sarah Goodman (word!) wrote:
Lynda, WORD! This glimpse of life and
death and poetry and the rainbows in a
beer ties so many worlds together (like
the spider-god did or does). I sit in
Ashfield at Wellspring, a writers retreat,
with a tractor mowing. I write and smell
grass, and see the book at my elbow,
Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart: Poems
for Men, and open by chance to the page
"The Spider" by Cesar Vallejo. He's now
stuck in the web with E.B. White and A.E.
Housman. His words: "It is a huge
spider, whose abdomen / prevents him
from following his head. / And I have
been thinking of his eyes / and of his
many, many feet . . . / And what a
strange pain that traveler has given

On September 5, 2010 at 10:46pm The MOD Squad wrote:
Peggy Lipton, Clarence Williams, and Michael Cole

On September 27, 2013 at 8:23pm TLHousman wrote:
Truly provoking...wonderful how life and verse collide and create such epiphony. Last time I remember a hangover of that proportion nearly tore down my house with my VW! Look forward to finding more of you, Lady Lynda.

On October 20, 2013 at 3:00pm Angela McIntyre wrote:
I love the painfully circular hangover processes, the "utilitarian"
distinction, the humanity inherent in the questioning and the lovely
euphoric balm of poetry.

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Lynda Barry is a cartoonist, writer, illustrator, and painter. Her comic strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek is syndicated weekly to newspapers and magazines nationwide.

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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