We have a variety of many-legged bug, some variety of arthropod. They like our brick house, our cement-floor basement, the clay soil, our proximity to the lake shore.
No matter how many times I hear the entomologist on public radio assure me these particular bugs are harmless, only unsightly, I want to kill them all. I put out glue traps, chase and flatten their long bodies, their multijointed legs. They skitter across me as I sleep. Even on the hottest nights, I must have a sheet fully covering me—just in case. There has been midnight panic: thrashing limbs, a tangle of sheets, cursing of the centipedes to wake an entire block. A few weeks ago I woke to the flurry of feet on my cheek; slapped and threw the thing against the wall. In the morning, I found its carcass: poor Gregor, the curled husk was at least an inch long.
The world is full of signs and wonders, portents. Tara Betts’s poem “A Season of No” has a spider wake her. The speaker is asleep on the floor, and the arthropod flutters her forearm, waking her. But this visitor is welcome. It calls her back to herself, breaks a spell. It is maybe a descendent of Anansi, an answer to the femme fatale spider woman, rebuke to a Dwight Yoakam lyric. The spider helps the speaker Break the Habit.
Folklore, more specifically fairy tale, has girls and women sacrificing much for love—their legs, their voices. They show devotion by cutting off their hands and wandering the world. As Betts chronicles the story of love, she touches on these themes. In “Ink on the Sheets,” the speaker worries about forgetting to cap a pen, explains, “after the divorce you get rid of all the bedding / you shared.” After the divorce—or maybe even before—“they felt like trying to sleep / on a hardened pea.” In stories about the creative woman, the intellectual woman, the investigative woman, a common theme emerges: at some point, to keep him, the girl/woman is offered a choice. She must sacrifice some integral part of herself. When the spider jolts you awake, you were on the floor, cast out of the marital bed, a pen loose in your hand, blank pages in front of you.
Betts’s poetry urges the reader to be awake to the world, to break the habit of inattention. In her poem “Acupuncture,” she writes, “after the last needle was drawn, I knew / people could be footnotes, or pain,” juxtaposing the body’s resilience with its permeability. By the end of the collection, she returns to spider stories: the Greek weaving goddesses, the Druids who believe a spider portends a creative project calling to be finished.
“Another Clearing of the Land: Epitaph for Hadiyah Pendleton” contains the story of Hadiyah, a fifteen-year-old girl shot in Chicago in 2013; it also contains the story of the two young men charged with her death: “One in school, & two not, & all / Black South Side teens / with nothing in common but a pained echo / for a future.” As I’ve been rereading this poem against the backdrop of fluctuating numbers of “victims,” of “deaths,” I’ve recalled how in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, some counts of victims/deaths would be smaller, two smaller—both the twenty-year-old shooter disappearing, but also his mother. Betts’s poem addresses the world that goes on:
What I hate, what I
will forever hate, is how she fades with every
day from numbness, from
an empathy undone, not bound to anyone,
the swift, ruthless slap casual
as someone swiping a bus pass,
for this is what
The poem imagines Hadiyah an “unopened bulb / that insisted on being much bigger,” but also those who shot her, mistaking her and the group she stood with for a rival gang, as “boys behind guns tamped / their lives heavily to prune // the years cut down.”
If the beloved asks the poet to give up her voice, he also asks her not to chronicle the world as it is, the world as it must be known, the world inhabited and filtered through the poet’s permeable skin. Break the habit of disconnecting context—the story of fast-fading names—from the world that moves too quickly to the next news, the new breaking report, the report of the too-soon-forgotten particulars that make the skin of the world we inhabit.
This previous fall semester, we had the distinct pleasure of Tara Betts visiting to read, meeting with students, and breaking bread. After the reading, driving back to the hotel, she told me how she crafts her collections—how she crafts her readings. She thinks about how each poem can reach someone differently; the poet uses her spinnerets, sending out a dragline, beginning to build. She read her poem “A Lesson from the Terrordome,” and I knew a friend who would love the idea of Chuck D introducing Huey Newton, uncovered through a library’s microfiche, that archaic magic. After the reading, another friend flipped through the book, stumbling upon “The Futility of Bras,” her face breaking into a wide smile. From the lectern, Betts explained the story of one of her spiders, the front-porch sitter she named “Craig,” lofting her eyebrow at the audience, waiting to see who would get the allusion.
And I am drawn back to the spider poems, their myth-making, their insistence on claiming the end of the book that is both end and beginning of a story. And I think I should be less brutal to my own house centipedes that call me to attention when I enter a darkened room.
To love, Betts’s poetry suggests, means to embrace the change and difficulty after the blared radio parking lot dance has ended. It means to welcome the portent of the spider, to watch the many-legged things in their short lifespans of weaving and egg sack and disappearance and desiccation. It means to offer a friend in pain a couch, your cat. It means to inhabit the pain of the body and make a textual music of it, the words lifting off the page. The spider wakes us, greets us, frightens and intrigues us, calls us to myth and history, “an inevitable / signature that flesh forces / us to write.”