A Murder and the Birth of a Poem
by Zbigniew Herbert
is a perfect creature
equal to itself
mindful of its limits
with a pebbly meaning
with a scent that does not remind one of anything
does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire
its ardour and coldness
are just and full of dignity
I feel a heavy remorse
when I hold it in my hand
and its noble body
is permeated by false warmth
— Pebbles cannot be tamed
to the end they will look at us
with a calm and very clear eye
Translated by Peter Dale Scott and Czeslaw Milosz
Heartbreak, whether of greater or lesser magnitude, is the true business of the pebble-poem, accomplished discreetly, by subterfuge, in words spoken so quietly they travel almost in silence.
~ Jane Hirshfield “Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry”
Last night, after hours of coaxing and cajoling my daughter to sleep, I finally sat down in front of the computer. I listened to my daughter’s uneven breathing, as she struggled to draw air in through her nose and ended up breathing it in through her mouth, when a big spider fell on my forehead from the ceiling. It was one of those black spiders that live in nests and don’t build cobwebs. My first instinct was to jump up and scream. I have an aversion against creepy-crawlies. I never made a good camper. Afraid to awaken my sick daughter, I did jump, but soundlessly. The dazed spider landed on the wall, tried to crawl away. I looked for the first thing within reach—my notebook. I killed the spider. I had no remorse afterwards. A huge tiredness overcame me and I went to bed without writing my response to Hirshfield’s essay. I had a fitful sleep. I dreamed of battling legions of spiders, retreating in front of them cowardly. I dreamed of spiders crawling in and out of my daughter’s nose. I woke up exhausted.
Busy with morning chores, I thought of that blank page waiting for me on the computer; I thought of Herbert’s poem “The Pebble” that I’ve kept rereading several days in a row in the hope it would sparkle some intelligent ideas. I thought how smooth and seemingly fragile the skin of a pebble-poem is, how much pebble-like the body of the spider felt when it bounced off my forehead. I thought of the thick sound it made hitting the wall, how gravity would have pulled it down, had its legs not clung to invisible crevices. I thought of my notebook, marred with spider blood, of the crime committed in my bedroom, of the punishment no one in full sanity would inflict on me. In my mind, I saw the delicate body of the spider squished by a giant hand, as if by divine intervention, by some kind of unknown-to-a-spider’s-mind justice. What were its last thoughts as it attempted to escape its fate? Why had it chosen my forehead to land on? Will the spider look at me with a calm and clear eye whenever destiny brings us together again?
I wrote a note to my host asking to call in an exterminator. I fed my daughter breakfast. I looked at the stain on my notebook. I wrote a poem.
Death of a Spider
has committed a crime.
I wiped white blood
off its cover.
I cleaned the spot on the wall
with a cue tip.
I flushed the evidence
down the toilet.
For lack of a better word,
I proclaim it a murderer.
For lack of an appropriate punishment,
I keep writing.
When I finished, I ran back to Hirshfield’s essay, looking for an indication as to whether my poem was of the pebble kind or not. I wanted it to be heartbreaking, not falsely witty. I wanted it to show me how to live through my next encounter with a spider–The Spider. I wanted the poem’s skin to warm up to my touch when I read it. I wanted it to skip lightly across the page as if crawling swiftly on spider legs. I wanted its words to travel in silence as my hand did when it struck. I think I failed.
The poem is pretentiously witty; lazy, loud, and cold. It’s not a pebble-poem. It doesn’t keep crawling inside me when I’m done reading it. But I achieved something nevertheless. I’ve interiorized the experience of a pebble-poem. Maybe I needed this little murder I could get away with to inspire me to creation. Inside me I feel the contours of a smooth-shaped, cool-skinned promise of a poem–one I have yet to write. And I’m done with my apparently inconsequential household tasks without the usual agony. And I managed to write a rather unorthodox and desperate response to an essay.