St. Lucy’s Gown

December 13, 2011

Becalmed brides, sisters, speech
so faint the spider, who
can only know land as a wave
of webs, could hear their voices
only as the distant, fallopian sounds
he always heard at human birth.
The tension in his eyes
was like a wake of cold water,
as if the sea had parted
and gravity had brought his web
to rest against a bucket on
the frozen floor, too cold for life.

How I do love you,
Little Betty Bo Peep.
How I do care about
your lovely, lonely sheep.
And you too Miss Muffett,
that such a king should play bo-peep,
and go to fools
while grapes hang frozen on
your vines. I might
have explained the clouds to you.
I might have found the great breath.
Do you see this?
Look on her: look, her lips.
St. Lucy’s gown forever fits.

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10 Responses to “St. Lucy’s Gown”

  1. extrasimile Says:

    And thanks Eve. Your comments kind of got lost here, but I appreciate you reading the poem and taking the time to let me know about it.

  2. extrasimile Says:

    Tom, let me draw a parallel between teaching and poetry: Just as a good teacher teaches his students that they are smarter than they think they are, a good poem makes the reader feel smart—or smarter—or more aware—or more curious—or capable of a greater flourishing—or all of the above. There is a wonderful poem by Rilke, The Archaic Torso of Apollo, which ends, ‘Everyone can see you. You must change your life.’ This seems a sub-message all credible teaching ought to make—and poetry…well, poetry is perhaps at the origins of teaching, yes? A gathering of world and word, the self and the sacred, something a spider might spin. I am not familiar with the Navajo Spider Woman, but it would not surprise me to find a confrontation of creation with destruction, life with death (entering an underworld, that sort of thing) as part of the story. They are made of common cloth, as it were.
    I think that the John Donne poem (full title: ‘A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day, being the shortest day’) is the ur-poem at the base of this poem. It is on one level rather a bleak poem. The poet is in bed in the middle of the night, in the middle of the winter, meditating on the death of his wife.
    I, by Love’s limbec, am the grave
    Of all, that’s nothing
    But once you get into the rhythms of the poem, and start investigating his essence…perhaps a glimmer of a greater flourishing becomes apparent. The world, after all, mimics this process each year, sinking downward to darkness…on extended wings. It does, doesn’t it?
    ‘St. Lucy’s Gown’ tries to get to this great stillness, this great silence. The spider focuses this attempt. One tries to avoid the cliché, one tries to court as much beauty as one can—and perhaps as one fails again and again, a little success creeps in. ‘St. Lucy’s Gown’ is, let’s face it, at best, a pebble on the edge of a vast ocean…but seeing what you and John are making of it is quite satisfying as a conclusion to the writing process.
    Well, Santa Claus brought me a CD of Mahler’s second symphony this year; I think I shall settle back and listen.

  3. Thomas Davis Says:

    I’ve finally got back to this! I’ve been wanting to for days, but time sometimes gets short in my life. Thank God for poetry like this. It helps me to slow down.

    Anyway, in Navajo the spider is representative of Spider Woman, who helps the two warrior sons find their father the sun in the creation story. She gave the Navajo weaving and survival skills. To the Hopi Spider Woman molded people from clay.

    When I think about spiders in my poetry it is always going back to these touchstones. I’m not sure, though I would not be surprised, you are familiar with American Indian creation stories, but in your poem that wonderful phrase “wave of webs” is not only high poetry, but also seems to capture the idea of the spider as present at creation and could, as in the Hopi idea, be part of creation itself.

    On the other hand,
    The tension in his eyes
    was like a wake of cold water,
    as if the sea had parted
    and gravity had brought his web
    to rest against a bucket on
    the frozen floor, too cold for life.

    The sea that parted seems to refer to Moses and the sea parting as part of the intervention of God in order to save the Israelites. But even with the intervention of God, the saving of St. Lucy’s sight after she had blinded herself, gravity (her situation, life, the laws of human life, perhaps) brought the web of life, of creation, to rest against a bucket too cold for life resting on the frozen floor.

    The part about Little Bo Peep and Miss Muffet I read as comments on the tragedy of St. Lucy. Miss Muffet’s relation to the spider is interesting as well as cleverly exploited. I take this comment as an affirmation of the importance of the life of young women and life, as represented by Miss Muffet’s spider, creation itself.

    The ending of the poem, then, at least as I read it, notes that St. Lucy’s gown forever fits in spite of her death when the web of her life was frozen against the bucket. Its symbol of purity and faithfulness to faithfulness is the perfect fit to help us remember the importance of the values she represents in this contemporary world of ours.

    The wordplay throughout is brilliant, of course, as noted by Eve Redwater and John. What a masteful poem!

  4. Eve Redwater Says:

    Amazing, obsolutely love the word play.

  5. Thomas Davis Says:

    Jim! You are simply a challenge to me. I have been thinking about the puzzles this poem poses for a couple of days, but I am not as bright as John Stevens. Nor as good a poet, I might add.
    But…since St. Lucy was a virgin who blinded herself, but was later killed, as a result of the pagan desires of a lover who loved her eyes, I can only conclude the spider,

    who
    can only know land as a wave
    of webs,

    is a character whose weaving,

    hearing the voices of the brides, sisters voices
    only as the distant, fallopian sounds
    he always heard at human birth,

    is part of the creation of humankind itself. But does that make sense?

    Ahh, I’ve got to go think some more.

  6. John Stevens Says:

    I hadn’t remembered Cordelia (memory crumbling away I’m afraid) and of course that would have made more sense of the preceding lines.
    I think Polyhymnia must have been hanging around still while you were writing this one.
    I’ve just been re-reading with enjoyment.

  7. extrasimile Says:

    My thanks to Fatesjoke03, Fivereflections, Flyingodiva, sorealtonight, and Thomas Davis for spending a little time with this poem. I’ve glanced at all your blogs and I will get back to them–now that I have a little time–over the semester break.

  8. extrasimile Says:

    John, you have no idea how pleasant it is for me to have someone say, ‘Oh yeah. St. Lucy’s Day’ and have some associations about her, actually know the story. (Yes, it’s the 13th.) St. Lucy, the saint of sight—though of course, the whole eyes thing developed from her Latin name, Lucia, and had nothing to do with her maintaining that (pure?) virginity—or did it? I am also very fond of the John Donne poem. (A Nocturnal on St. Lucy’s Day, etc…) Still, a saint who owes her reputation to language…nice.
    Where did the spider come from? Perhaps he crawled in from ‘Polyhymnia Disinterred’. You know, the one who is sewing skirts for dandelions. I wonder if he does gowns.
    Yes, the gown could have something to do with virginity (I like this idea, but…) but it would also continue to fit a corpse. The last words Lear speaks, searching for life in the lifeless body of Cordelia, are: ‘Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips./ Look there, look there.’ The great breath, yes?

  9. John Stevens Says:

    Ah – wait a moment … “the gown forever fits” … of course, because she remained forever a virgin, hence her martyrdom. Plus: “look on her (ie if you have eyes to see)” Clever!

  10. John Stevens Says:

    My wife had already told me that it was St Lucy’s day a couple of days ago (the 13th?) so I see that you timed this one adroitly, and I had some fun looking for the references to St Lucy among the lines. Eyes seem to appear and reappear; so too does virginity.
    That’s a mysterious image: the spider, who can only know land through a wave of webs. Not exactly a terra firma for this poor creature. So what kind of knowledge can we, poor humans, expect either? It’s a marvellous image!
    What’s that about her gown which forever fits?


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