The light is like a spider.
It crawls over the water.
It crawls over the edges of the snow.
It crawls under your eyelids
And spreads its webs there—
Its two webs.
The webs of your eyes
To the flesh and bones of you
As to rafters or grass.
There are filaments of your eyes
On the surface of the water
And in the edges of the snow.
The spider is both a maker of things and a mortal danger, venomous, sinister, an object of fear and wonder. It weaves something large in the mind while retaining a scale that is tiny and, in the extrusions from its spinnerets, almost infinitesimal. Its webs are both magnificent and horrifying in their delicacy and purpose, to trap and enshroud living creatures. In the story of Arachne and Minerva the spider is a vision of creative transgression against the gods: the weaver as arrogant artist whose work surpasses the divine. To say of light that it is like a spider is to say that, in the imagination, it is something purposive and dangerous, something we can separate from the rest of nature, as a goddess is separated from nature even as she bends nature to her will. Turning light into a spider is to slow it down to the action of an animal spewing thread from a gland, to make it “crawl,” to make it invasive, as if the photons had gained heft and slowness in the concentrations of the mind.
And after invading the eyes and the brain, after crawling under eyelids heavy with dream or closed against such invasions for fear of their dangers, the spider multiplies. It grasps immediately the binocular disparity of human vision, the offset angle that permits dimensionality. It doubles itself, like a Dostoyevskyan doppelgänger that wreaks havoc on our world. But this Golyadkin never panics, never suffers crises of identity; it simply embodies perceptions that stoke the restlessness of our minds. After it enters the eyes, the spider not only spreads multiple webs but insinuates itself and incorporates itself into the fiber of our being. However, these webs are fastened to our bodies not like Gulliver’s ropes or like sinews attached to bone, but something altogether more delicate and externalized: they latch onto rafters or grass the way cobwebs do above a barn’s autumnal hayloft, in delicate attenuations of mortally limited substance.
This incorporation of embodied photons into the living matter of our vision and consciousness bestows on us something of the essence of the spider, the transgressive creative being that strives godlike to weave a fabric out of nothing. The spider enters us and makes us a spider, too. We throw out filaments on everything we see, both the unfrozen stream and the snow that crowds the edges of the water, in the uncertain season where water is both liquid and solid. We too make a violent mark on the world, a tattoo, in the act of seeing. Our vision possesses the power to distinguish the elements, to impose discriminations of clarity and whiteness, of liminal solidity and fluid borderlessness, on the Heraclitean flux of water and the cold mortal nothingness of snow.
“Tattoo” is a poem by Wallace Stevens.