12 August 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/33

Arachne Gives Thanks to Athena

It is no punishment. They are mistaken –
The brothers, the father. My prayers were answered.
I was all fingertips. Nothing was perfect:
What I had woven, the moths will have eaten;
At the end of my rope was a noose's knot.

Now it's no longer the thing, but the pattern,
And that will endure, even though webs be broken.

I, if not beautiful, am beauty's maker.
Old age cannot rob me, nor cowardly lovers.
The moon once pulled blood from me. Now I pull silver.
Here are the lines I pulled from my own belly –
Hang them with rainbows, ice, dewdrops, darkness.

AE Stallings

In case you've forgotten the myth Stallings is playing off of here: Arachne was a mortal renowned for her weaving, and she wasn't modest about it either – she boasted repeatedly that her art was greater than that of Athena herself. The goddess, angered by this presumption, appeared in the shape of an old woman and cautioned the girl to show proper respect to the gods. Arachne declined to do so. The insulted goddess then assumed her immortal form and the stage was set for a weave-off. Arachne not only used every resource of her considerable art, she provocatively chose to picture in her tapestry various stories in which the gods had wronged innocent people. As both goddess and woman were nearing completion, Athena noticed not only the type of story Arachne had chosen, but the peerless quality of her workmanship. In a rage the goddess tore Arachne's work to pieces and turned the arrogant girl into a shriveled little spider, so she might weave perpetually. It's an interesting myth; Athena is usually wise, good, and just (isn't she everyone's favorite goddess?), but she doesn't come across too well this time.

In this poem Arachne is still arrogant, but it's the calm arrogance, more of an assurance, of an artist; what concerned her before her transformation was not so much showing up a rival as creating something perfect and permanent, both qualities beyond human reach. (Nice wordplay at the end of the first stanza: "at the end of my rope" is literal in her case, but also carries with it the idiomatic meaning of being at the furthest end of frustration; and "knot" carries the pun "not"; the noose's knot bring Death, the big "not.")

The second stanza is just two key lines, balanced between the five lines of both first and final stanzas. Arachne's viewpoint has become that of an immortal: individual webs will break, but the underlying structures – the pattern – will endure.

In the third stanza she continues her statement of her power as an artist; in this case, specifically as a woman artist (I think a male speaker would be more likely to talk about his loss of strength rather than of beauty, and faithless rather than cowardly lovers). She puts aside what most people would conventionally value in her (personal beauty, youth, fertility and marriageability) in favor of the shining beauty she spins from her gut. She was fairly youthful when Athena transformed her (if, as she puts it, the moon was pulling blood from her, then old age is a potential worry, not a current reality), but she is serene about her shriveled ugly immortality – contrast her attitude with the suffering of Tennyson's Tithonus; but then Arachne is an artist and he was only a lover. Referring to the webs as "lines" is both accurate description and a reminder that the poet too is pulling her own lines out in the form of this poem. It all ends in darkness. (The initial d sound in darkness nicely picks up the two ds in dewdrops, the repeated d - d - d closing out the poem with the soft finality of a muffled drum.)

Arachne is sincere in what she says here, but it's impossible not to sense beneath the sincerity the possibility that she's taking one last hubristic fling at Athena: the vengeful goddess inadvertently gave her exactly what she wanted ("my prayers were answered"). Her art, embedded now in Nature itself, will outlive the not so immortal gods; in their ultimate contest, she has defeated Athena.

AE Stallings is a contemporary American poet and classicist (Penguin has published her translation of The Nature of Things by Lucretius). This poem is from her collection Archaic Smile.

4 comments:

Sibyl said...

Thank you for this poem. So beautiful. I had put off actually reading it until today (still suffering poetry aversion, as I have mentioned here before), but there it was, reproaching my cowardice. Thanks for that, too.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Thanks for reading; I'm glad you enjoyed it. I thought I had already cured you of your poetry aversion? Maybe it's a longer, more fraught process than I thought. Sorry there's hasn't been much here lately except the weekly poem -- I'm not always sure where the time goes, but it does go, and I fall ever farther behind. I loved the Tales of Hoffman at the opera -- I still mean to post something about that, possibly before the new seasons starts. . . . Anyway I had been meaning to do this poem for a while and then I realized my original plan for this week was going to take a long time so this one came up. I think it's really wonderful. Continue to be brave!

Sibyl said...

I have been doing much better about poetry, thanks to your influence, but mostly poetry I *already knew*. Baby steps for atrophied poetry muscles. I would LURVE to hear your take on Hoffman!

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I often feel that baby steps are pretty much the best that any of us can do, at any time. Hoffman write-up will be coming, I swear it!