The alterations of the web

Leaving aside now the image of a golden string being pulled out of the body of a man (the string that will lead to the holy city), this plate (no. 25) in Blake’s Jerusalem contains words that gave me a little shock of recognition. I must have jotted them down in a notebook and neglected to say where the line was from. When I found them again, looking back through all my notes, it seemed like a line from the Upanishads (where, however, these particular birds do not figure):

“For not one sparrow can suffer, & the whole world not suffer also. “

Fragment 404 of Heraclitus (the authenticity of which some would dispute) suggests that the soul in the body is as sensitive to alteration as the spider is to any movement in its web. Now, that is such a a homely way of putting it. I retranslate from the Spanish, which is the version I read: the spider senses immediately whether a fly has torn one of its threads and it hastens to the spot as if the broken thread were painful…

As in the soul, so in the world at large.


In the Library

(A Borgesian note)

Otto Dix, Annunciation, 1950

What haven´t I done in a library? I’ve done everything but died there or given birth. (The two things Plato said mimesis excluded.) I have found good company there, laughed myself silly at a joke only a few would fathom. Discovered that it did really and truly matter whether you painted the angel Gabriel to the left or the right of the Virgin Mary when he came with the good news. And that I did not know where I was in the Labyrinth. Sat on the floor crosslegged over a rare edition of Menéndez Pidal. Dreamed of revolution, Flirted hard. Cried over the end of the world. Puzzled over the titles of books in a language I only half-knew. Commiserated with the library workers over misshelved books, sat in in protest over the university’s support of war, fallen asleep over Heidegger (or did I do that only at home?), wandered around any and every floor that did not have to do with the topic of my thesis, stared out the window at the trees, made notes on odd pieces of paper because that felt less compromising than writing in a notebook proper, curated the piles of books in my carrel as if they were an art form, Dreamed of revolution. One day there was nothing else to do but write the first chapter of my dissertation.

More on mermaids (MORE on mermaids?)

Perhaps the myth of the mermaid —especially as it has crystallized in Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Little Mermaid”– is no less than an allegory of birth, a painful sacrifice of bliss: one day we are expelled from the waters in which we are afloat, and we are flung out into the cutting, dry air. It hurts. Someone strikes us– jerk our lungs into action– and we cry in outrage; we come into the world thrown out of a paradise, where we lived liked aquatic creatures. In Lorca’s poem “Cielo vivo” from Poeta en Nueva York the lyrical subject reflects longingly on the “primer paisaje de humedades y latidos” (the first landscape of pulses and moisture”), even as he confuses this site with a kind of mystical death: “cuando yo vuele mezclado con el amor y las arenas” (when I soar intermingled with love and sand).

So the little mermaid weeps when she is on land but she does not speak—she is infans, an infant again, without speech— and it hurts her terribly to have legs, instead of a tail, to walk on land…

Monique Wittig Les guérillères (1969) speaks of a mermaid, too. She has an original take on her. But maybe she was thinking of Marie Laurencin’s mermaids.

Il y a quelque part une sirène. Son corps vert est couvert d’écailles. Son visage est nu. Les dessous de ses bras sont couleur d’incarnat. Quelquefois elle se met à chanter. Elles disent que de son chant on n’entend qu’un O continu. C’est ce qui fait que son chant évoque pour elles, comme tout ce qui rappelle l’O, le zéro ou le cercle, l’anneau vulvaire. (p. 16)

Translation: Somewhere there is a mermaid. Her green body is covered with scales. Her face is bare. Underneath, her arms are the colour of rosy flesh. Now and again she starts to sing. They say that her song sounds like nothing but one long O. That is what makes their song evoke –for them–, like everything reminiscent of an O, a zero or a circle, the ring of the vulva.

(See, for example, his story “The flax”, which makes the cultivation and processing of the plant a story of sacrifice for the sake of the sale of linen)

Loving and losing

Lately I’m writing personal things in English. I don´t know whether it is because I feel a bit alienated from Spanish reality (the grind of life in the capital) or because I am really homesick. Not for the country that is on the verge of civil war (obviously) but for what Spaniards call your patria chica. In my case that is upstate New York with its lakes, and from before the so-called Reagan Revolution.

But it’s all about as real to me now as a postcard from the forties. That lake in the picture is Seneca Lake, which I knew as a child as Geneva Lake, as if it belonged to the town. I used to think that oceans and seas could not be matched for their impression on you. A lake does not refer you to a beyond but is the earth itself opening like a blue well. It can come right up to the streets in town. A favorite memory is of me in the back seat (always the back seat) of a car driving right up a main street to the edge of the lake. As the car climbed it looked as if the water had risen to meet you. I have no picture of that exactly, only of someone’s impression of driving downhill and that is a different thing.

Thomas Wolfe warned: You can’t go home again. I know he did not mean that literally. But there is a sense in which the impossibility is literal. I would have to be wealthier than I am to rent a place for the summer in the region where I grew up because it is now for upscale tourists. I would have to own (or rent) a car probably just to buy groceries. I was lucky enough one summer to live in a cabin near the lake and to pretend I was Thoreau but I did have to drive to the supermarket.

I dream about the waterfalls and the gorges. And if pressed I would say that one of the best moments on earth granted me was at the bottom of the Taughannock Falls when I sat on a rock in the middle of the stream and watched the pigeons fly back through the spray to their nests on the cliffside. And that was as if to say that their real name was “rock dove”, and that they were not the dirty urban birds earning Don de Lillo’s contempt. (He thought they were no better than rats.)

At the time, needless to say, nobody was making any money off the Falls or the pigeons and somehow that did make a difference.

I am not in the business of appraising the attractions of nature.

I am just someone who feels she is defined by the things she loves –and loses.

Penélope, los sioux y Francisca Aguirre

Sheila Hicks, Papillon 1997-2004

Sabemos que en tiempos de Homero la tejeduría era el trabajo femenino por excelencia, tan importante, acaso, como dado por sentado.  En la Odisea, por ejemplo, varias mujeres —mortales o inmortales— se ocupan de las distintas etapas que supone el trabajar la lana o el lino.  Y en el siglo V a.C. Platón pudo construir toda una teoría del buen estadista en torno a la metáfora del tejer y del tejido, por más que no se viera obligado en ningún momento a mencionar a las mujeres que lo practicaban.[1]

Nos enfrentamos, pues, a una incipiente paradoja: en el apogeo de la cultura griega el tejer se consideraba una tarea doméstica esencial para el buen gobierno de la casa (la economía), Pudo servir como metáfora de la dialéctica, e incluso erigirse en el paradigma de los paradigmas, pero el trabajo en sí no dio lugar a consideraciones sobre la excelencia de las tejedoras. 

Así pues, la figura de Penélope encierra una curiosa contradicción. Es posiblemente la única tejedora de la literatura antigua que se recuerde como tal, pero al mismo tiempo se la recuerda por haber destruido su obra. El destejer es casi desconocido como motivo poético. [2] En la Odisea el énfasis no recae en si la labor que llevaba a cabo era buena o admirable: se hace hincapié en que la heroína teje y desteje, crea y deshace lo que crea. Para Homero se trata de una “astucia”, una señal de su inteligencia, puesta al servicio de su deber como esposa en una sociedad patriarcal.

Para otros lectores, posteriores, ese mismo ardid es un enigma.  ¿Llevaría en sí un significado oculto o simbólico (que existiría mucho antes de que Platón formulara sus teorías)? En un conocido ensayo Ortega y Gasset asociaba el ardid de Penélope al proceder de la Gran Madre Naturaleza de la que hablaba J.J. Bachofen a mediados del siglo XIX. Bachofen, en cuanto teórico del matriarcado, se dejó cautivar por la belleza de la metáfora del mundo natural como un gran tejido, en donde aparecía y desaparecía, como los hilos entrecruzados de un tejido, todo lo que tuviera una vida natural. La Gran Madre tejía todo lo vivo, decía, mientras que al mismo tiempo en el seno del mundo algún principio demónico se afanaba en deshacer lo que ella hacía.[3] La astucia de Penélope se le antojaba un lejano recuerdo del simbolismo del matriarcado.

Trasladémonos al Nuevo Mundo. Como comenta Kathryn Kruger, al abordar el significado simbólico de lo tejido, existe un antiguo mito del pueblo sioux que atribuye la creación del mundo a la labor de una vieja tejedora cuya obra se hace y deshace. La destrucción de lo tejido se considera parte intrínseca de la continuidad del mundo. Y, como ya había intuido Bachofen con respecto a los mitos clásicos de Occidente, esta dualidad del tejer y destejer nos remite a una de las grandes leyes de la naturaleza:

The Sioux Indians tell a story about an ancient woman who lives alone in the wilderness weaving a blanket strip for her buffalo robe. A black dog curls at her feet. Nearby a kettle hangs over a fire, filled with a soup made of berries and roots. When the soup boils over, the dog barks to rouse the woman from her work. She hobbles over to the fire and stirs the soup, but as soon as she turns her back, the dog leaps up and unravels some of the threads. Eventually the woman returns to her loom and resumes beating the design into the warp, row by row. Again the soup boils over, and again the dog barks, The woman gets up, stirs her dinner, and as day follows night, weaving follows unravelling. Time moves slowly through the centuries while the old woman makes unhurried progress on her loom. It is said that when she completes her blanket the world will come to an end.

[Cuentan los indios sioux la historia de una anciana que vive sola en el monte donde teje el panel de una manta para agregar a su manto de piel de búfalo. A sus pies se ha arrellanado un perro negro. Y cerca en el lar cuelga una caldera, llena a rebosar de una sopa de bayas y raíces. Cuando hierve y se desborda la caldera, el perro ladra para llamarle la atención a la anciana. Ella se dirige renqueante hacia el fuego, para remover la sopa, pero en cuanto le vuelve la espalda al perro, este empieza a destejer una parte de lo que ella ha tejido. Al cabo de un rato ella vuelve al telar para rellenar la trama con el diseño que proyectaba, hilera por hilera. Vuelve a desbordarse la caldera y vuelve el perro a ladrar. Se levanta la mujer, remueve la sopa y así como el día sigue a la noche se vuelve a tejer lo destejido. El tiempo se mueve despacio por los siglos mientras  la mujer hace lentos progresos en su telar. Dicen que cuando termine la manta, el mundo llegará a su fin.[4]]

Algo de la grandeza de aquella labor creadora, hecha y deshecha, ha quedado vivo en nuestra imaginación, vayamos o no en su busca para explicar los ciclos de la naturaleza. Planea sobre el quehacer de Francisca Aguirre, autora de Ítaca (1972). En este su primer libro de poesía Aguirre construye toda una melancólica filosofía en torno a la idea de que Penélope es una creadora no reconocida.[5] Decir esto es sugerir que Aguirre modifica el sentido de la historia que Homero cuenta y pone en boca de su personaje. [6]  Porque no hay nada en el poema homérico que sustente esta interpretación. No, en la Odisea, lo relativo a la tejedora — breve y escueto—, gira en torno a un ardid, nada más. Pero Aguirre prefiere acercarnos a ella en tanto que persona reflexiva y que ahora, desde su madurez, recapacita en el espacio privado del poema lírico. Concluido todo, esta Penélope medita el pasado, el presente y el futuro en poemas que, como en la mejor tradición lírica, se hacen no para ser oídos sino interiorizados. Frente al original perdido, lo destejido, no pretende ahora (en ese ahora nuestro de la escritura) restaurar la pérdida sino empezar de nuevo, recapacitando sobre lo sucedido.

[1] En el diálogo El Político.  Véase el sugerente ensayo de Arthur Danto en el catálogo Sheila Hicks, ed. de Nina Stritzler-Levine (Nueva York: Bard Graduate Center, 2018, pp. 22-36).

[2] Alan Deyermond no señala más que un fragmento de una chanson de toile. Pero Barbara Clayton (Penelopean Poetics. Reweaving the Feminine in Homer’s Odyssey, Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Press, 2004) ha inistido en ese aspecto del quehacer de Penélope en la Odisea. Y mantiene que el tejer y destejer es una metáfora del proceso por el que se compone un largo poema oral. Véanse pp. 35-38. “Each reweaving represents the same story, but in an inevitably different, because new, story cloth.  Penelope’s web is essentially a metaphor for the oral poetic process “(35).

[3] Véase el ensayo “Ocnos el soguero.” Destaca en la interpretación de Ortega su resistencia a considerar que la Gran Madre también disponía la suerte de todo lo vivo.

[4] Kathryn Kruger, “Clues and Cloth: Seeking Ourselves in the Fabric of Myth” disponible en  Para una variante del mito véase “The End of the World”, una leyenda recogida en 1967, reproducida en la web del Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center (de Dakota del Sur)

La traducción es mía.

[5] Ítaca fue reeditado (Madrid: Colección Genialogías, 2017) y recogido en las obras completas, Ensayo general. Poesía reunida, 1966-2017, con un prólogo de María Ángeles Pérez López (Madrid: Calambur, 2018).

[6] Me remito al espléndido artículo de Pura Nieto Hernández, “Penelope´s Absent Song”, Phoenix 62, No. 1 / 2 (2008): 39-62. Nieto comenta que Penélope tendría su propia historia del tiempo transcurrido en Itaca, durante la ausencia de Ulises, pero que esta historia queda cercenada en el poema, reducida a cuatro versos sobre su ardid en el canto 19. Aun así, Barbara Clayton la ve como una “bardic figure” (p. 24) en un poema lleno de narradores.

The Task (an outtake of sorts)

La tarea, 1955
 Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven 
William Butler Yeats*

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

The task in which the two protagonists of Remedios Varo’s painting La tarea (1955) are engaged is no mean one. Two female figures (and they are only figures, prototypes, perhaps, of what a woman might be) are seen somewhere in a medieval tower, one of Varo’s’ favorite settings, gathering up a seemingly endless piece of cloth that is draped over all of the buildings, like a net to catch the stars. One must decide if it is being taken down from the sky or whether it is being made in the tower and spread at the window, but I choose to think that the airy fabric is coming down from the sky and that the stars are trapped in it. The women take it down the way one would take sheets down from a clothesline, working as a team to pull the star-spangled curtain into the tower and the unseen rooms within, where the fabulous cloth or the stars themselves might be folded up and put to use. One’s first thought is that the cloth has been entrusted to them and that they are hurrying to perform a duty, as if they were staff of some sort and compelled to act quickly once the wind has risen. But the figures are oddly unfinished. They look more like mannequins waiting to be dressed or given human form.

Several of Varo’s paintings from the fifties reflect her engagement with Gurdjieff’s teachings, as Tere Arcq and Richard O’Rawe have suggested. And magic abounds in Varo’s work, according to María José González Madrid.

Is this Varo’s visual translation of the task facing students of Gurdjieff’s method, one of whom was Varo herself? To learn to dress or protect themselves symbolically with the cosmos, to bring the cosmos inside, so to speak, like fabric that clothes us? The task is arduous; and no one promised otherwise. Possibly, this is why Varo resorts to magic to reflect her pursuit of a “superior knowledge.”

I am putting the finishing touches on a paper that looks at the motifs of knitting, embroidery and weaving as having an ancient symbolism. And here I think I see a point that I would love to fit into that paper but cannot because of the word-length that has been imposed on me. (For a paper journal; a digital one would not be so concerned.)

Juan Eduardo Cirlot reminds us that the ancients sometimes referred to the starry sky as a veil or garment fit for the gods. They were writing –needless to say–with a more religious than philosophical intent.

*from The Wind Among the Reeds 1899

Three short pieces by Carlos Piera (trans. RAQ)


The sea, that only smacks of salt, and the air’s

smack of salt, and the long reverberation

of worlds and sea,  a hollow of vaulted arches,

and the moon’s final segment.

In gratitude I measure,

the tail-ends of words.


Time lost,

the gray rain of March:

a turning and turning

in which nothing returns.


Toward the end he builds a nest

in a nightmare left behind:

tables and chairs obstructing

something that was not life and that musters

the little bit of light, the little bit of sun

that gets through,

and the little bit of time in which to have been nothing.

Two Takes on Lace (Rereading a Feminist Critic)

Towel Just Hanging There (RQ)

Years ago when it was perfectly natural to read little magazines in paper format (instead of on the web) I came across a text —a cross between poetry and criticism—  by an author with a Franco-Italian surname, in a feminist journal based in California. [1] At the height of feminism and the prestige of theory coming from the continent, I read, “Arachnee the Spider. Subjective and objective on a show of laces through the history of Europe” with considerable interest (piqued a little bit by the odd spelling of Arachne). But because it had nothing to do with the dissertation I was working on, it did not occur to me to jot it down as a bibliographical reference. The words went straight to my heart and not to the researcher I had become. And besides, those were other times and I was sure that the journal would be there exactly where I had found it, in a small alternative library —one of the many that were created when feminism was at its peak— if I ever needed to go back to it. I believed, with the naiveté that you have only when you are young and living in the lap of privilege, that archives and memory would always continue to be accessible to whoever took an interest in them. But this time I was wrong. The Los Angeles journal Chrysalis did not last more than three or four years, no one ever spoke again of that piece or its author, and the university where I had consulted Chrysalis had raised barriers against access to it, considering it a rarity that should be properly looked after and restricted to on-site use. (Copies are, however, digitized now.) I was not researching a topic even remotely related to lace: feminism had not yet made inroads into academia, certainly not among Hispanists, anyway, and that was my field. At the time, I was reading and browsing as a lover of literature, no more. But I copied out the title “Arachnee the Spider” and a striking fragment from it, convinced that the author Anne-Marie Sauzeau Boetti (1938-2014) had revealed something important about the traditional female world which I, a budding academic,  had turned my back on. [2] Suddenly the world of my Italian grandmother opened  before me like a secret trove. Sauzeau Boetti’s words were to feature as an epigraph to a poem, which  I never finished to my satisfaction.  But I finally recovered the article that had impressed me and was able to contextualize the fragment that had caught my attention. It read as follows: “…But lace, laced into nothing, articulated into a void, is made by women.”

Sauzeau Boetti’s first point was an historical one: while men had often been weavers, and sometimes embroiderers, too, of great prestige, only women made lace. The author’s piece was to accompany a museum exhibition and —as I have since learned—  she wrote as a critic close to Italy’s arte povera movement; for over twenty years she had been married to the artist Dante Alighiero Boetti (1940-1994), and on occasion she colaborated with him. Although these facts emerged much later for me, I grasped immediately that she was trying to make us change the way we perceived one kind of “women’s work”, the lavori women had been devoted to since time immemorial. (In ordinary parlance lavori —“labors”— is an almost generic Italian term for any needle, crochet or knitwork.) This was a new line of criticism and sensibility in the feminist movement and possibly a more European than American one.[3] It made me think of my grandmother, who had died a few years before, without my ever asking her seriously to teach me how to do the work at which she excelled (I learned only the rudiments.) Sauzeau Boetti had also been thinking of her grandmother and of the women who had filled their homes with their lavori. Yet the first sentence of her short text is complex: it evokes the lacemaker as a mythic relative of the Greek heroine Ariadne, who gave Theseus a thread to lead him out of the labyrinth, and the Three Fates (the Parcae in Latin) even as the allusion distances her from the education in the classics that allowed learned granddaughters to imagine their grandmothers differently.

My grandmother knew nothing of the Parchees (sic) and nothing of Ariadne, but she was very good at spinning wool….

And so one granddaughter reflected on the gulf of learning that lay between her and a generation of women of the late 19th century, who knew peasant arts and perhaps even finer practice but who had probably not had much schooling. Her grandmother would not have known of the body of myth that linked thread arts to a female figure. The learning gulf seemed even greater to me if I thought of my own family because it was not only temporal but geographical. I lived in America and my maternal grandparents, at the head of my extended family, had come from Italy.

In 1920 my grandmother crossed the ocean with her trousseau. She was already expecting a child and the trousseau would have been the tangible proof of her hope to start a new life.[4] Although I do not know what its original contents were, as a child I remember my aunt going over with me each of the pieces which remained, as if inspecting the remnants of a family treasure. From out of a great cedar chest she pulled out all kinds of embellished pieces —towels, sheets, handkerchiefs,and —for me,  the great prize— a white petticoat belonging to a thin young woman from a small Italian town who never figured in the family albums (It was as if the story of her life began in the New World with her wedding portrait, which hung in the dining room.) The majority of the original pieces were unbleached linen but her petticoat was sewn of finely loomed cotton that has remained as white as when she made it.

Look, my aunt said, your grandmother never followed a pattern, she made up all her own designs: I saw lozenges, clusters of grapes, intricate vines and flowering circles. None of it was precious; crocheted with either cotton or linen thread, it was what one writer termed “poor man’s lace.” At odd moments, all through her life, my grandmother  had practically put her eyes out, working on such pieces, summoning all her imagination or lessons from long ago. In the end it was not to make a new trousseau for her granddaughters. (Though she did help her daughters.)  Neither I nor my sister dreamt of having such a thing —that was Old World stuff, thousands of miles away— and I didn’t have any intention of marrying, anyway: such was my instinctive feminism.  If my grandmother kept on crocheting it was in order, it seemed, to decorate the furniture in her living room and dining room or to make gifts for infant children  (I remember a pink jacket) or simply because —as Sauzeau Boetti had intuited— that is just what a woman of her roots did.

Naturally, the view of a curator of lace (for it was thus I imagined Sauzeau Boetti’s role) could not be more different from that of a layman, for whom all such lavori might look like make-work. For years when women knitted or crocheted or worked with a needle it was considered a household task and one that was welcome in its place but not museum-worthy.

In a piece that Sauzeau Boetti published a year earlier and for which she is more remembered, the question of women’s traditional lavori comes up and here the critic is somewhat apologetic of women’s work. The lacemakers —high and low—, in the societies in which they worked,  had been erased as subjects;  they were oppressed and even self-oppressed;  their urge for creativity had been channeled into what was unconsciously a repetition of  a spider web: The thousands of lace doilies, more maniacal than modest, which always radiate like spiderwebs…

It was as if the lacemaker labored under compulsion, as if she had internalized a requirement to repeat and to conform. If women are to be emancipated creatively, says Sauzeau Boetti, speaking to a feminist readership, “ it is not a question of reproposing lace doilies  but of recalling them as examples of the atrophied expression of  a culture which remains authentic (although smothered).”[5]

That view is probably more familiar to all of us.

In the world of letters of the early 20th century the prospect of women’s creativity was not welcomed as a widespread phenomenon.[6]  The nineteenth century sometimes contrasted the needle with the pen as a proper implement for women, as if sensing obscurely that women’s first rebellious impulse was to abandon the former for the latter. Thus the poetry critic Augusto D’Esaguy saw fit to dismiss the growing body of work by women poets in Iberia, at the start of the 20th C., by joking that women wrote poems the way they knit: automatically, without thinking.[7]  Sauzeau Boetti, on the other hand, was speaking of one specific branch of women’s work that had acquired prestige and was, from the Renaissance onward, a sign of the wearer’s wealth. The historian Fanny Bury Palliser was possibly the first to vindicate the craft as a peculiarly female accomplishment.[8] The epigraph to her History of Lace, the “lavori d’Aracne”,  is a quotation from Petrarch. Yet, unlike historians,  Sauzeau Boetti did not marvel over the material value of the product (the “objective”side of things in her subtitle) or the intricate techniques that had evolved so much as the symbolism lace bore within it; she hinted that in its very structure and in its marginalized makers  (women exclusively) there lay an unrecognized symbolic value.  In her choice of the word articulated she suggested that the lacemakers were “expressing” something. But what was that?

What I had seen, on reading Sauzeau Boetti’s text for the first time, in 1980,  was that the author came back time and again to how the needlewoman’s hands worked in a void: “making lace, creating holes and patterns out of nothing.” Every time she named one of the lavori that women were carrying out she availed of the word nothing or hole:

Then the thread became knitting, a soft expansive network that started out of nothing —the unwinding of a line.

Another kind of thread [… ] served for embroidering, bordering holes made on purpose; and […] for making lace, creating holes and patterns out of nothing (p. 88)

What she described was the making of a web. In the heyday of lacemaking writers evoked its creation in the same terms. But something else in her words resonated with me, the student of literature. Had I ever before seen anyone tease a philosophy out of the spider’s web?

Hopefully my skills as a researcher have sharpened over the years. But I suspect that even on a first reading, I had heard, remotely, in these repetitions the echo of an author I admired for his metaphors of existence and whom I had been poring over.

Kierkegaard saw the spider as a creature who confronted the void and the fear that there would be nothing to guide us as we made our way through life. In Either/Or he asked:

What portends? What will the future bring? I do not know, I have no presentiment.  When a spider hurls itself down from some fixed point, consistently with its nature, it always sees before it only an empty space wherein it can find no foothold however much it sprawls. And so it is with me: always before me an empty space; what drives me forward is a consistency which lies behind me. . . [9]

Over time I have become convinced that Sauzeau Boetti was also a reader of Kierkegaard’s “Diapsalmata  (Refrains).” And that her “nothing”  was probably a version of what is translated in his text as “empty space”.  Keats said that the spider built an “aery citadel” with its fabulous “circuitings”,  but Kierkegaard questioned whether this construction was ever very far from a dangling over the void.[10]

More than one person has invoked the marvellous nature of lace by praising its seeming apparition from thin air. None, however, have done this with the very vivid hint that lace might remind us, as Kierkegaard said of the spiderweb, of mortality or risk.[11] It seemed that, whether lace was made with a needle or a hook, or a set of bobbins,  Sauzeau Boetti found most compelling the fact that the lacemaker created ex nihilo, that the fabric —be it the finest Venetian lace or the trim on household linen— was constructed out of nothing, a void that was never, to be sure, very far away when she recalled one maker in particular.  

She had retained from childhood an image found on a pair of thin, white  curtains that hung in her grandmother’s bedroom; each of its panels bore, at its heart, the threaded outlines of a spider and ever since that time the child imagined the entire curtain as a spider’s web. She saw in this figure what was ultimately her metaphor for any thread design, that needed “legs” to anchor it to a more solidly established edge:

The spider, like all embroidered subjects, dangles in suspension, prevented from falling by the same hours of embroidery, the same web, that gave a center and limit to my grandmother’s life. (p. 88)

In her mind’s eye the creature at the center of the curtain was not a predatory arthropod lying in wait for an unhappy fly, nor was it the creature Aristotle said  would “suck life-juices” in order to eat.  It was a captive, caught in the fine threads that the artist —like a spider herself—  had teased out of the air and which gave her a foothold over an abyss. In a sense the art critic had seen in the figure in the curtain the image of her grandmother. The lacemaker herself was there at the center, preserved, but at the same time metamorphosed into an emblem of the work she performed.

It is hard to use this vocabulary without thinking of Ovid. His Metamorphoses are the third classical reference completing Sauzeau Boetti’s earlier mention of the myth of the Parcae and the story of Ariadne’s thread. I  am sure that the critic knew all her classics well. But she rejects the moral of Ovid’s story, which presents the spider as a creature who has been punished for her hubris, the term the Greeks had for mortals’ disrespect for the power of the gods, their arrogant assumption that they could match a god (or goddess) in any sphere of activity. Arachne was guilty of that sort of thing. She believed her weaving —her lavori—would outshine the goddess Minerva’s work, And so she agreed to a contest. But not only was Arachne’s superb skill offensive; what she wove also gave umbrage. She created pictures of the gods, of whom Zeus stood out, as a rapist and abuser of women — Europa and the bull, Leda and the swan, the shower of Danae… The goddess Athena (who had sprung from Zeus’s head and was perhaps in consequence a loyal daughter), grows so angry at the skill that Aracne displays that she has the girl hang herself and then (out of pity!) turns her into a deformed and repugnant creature:

Nothing but belly, with little fingers clinging
 Along the side as legs, but from the belly
She still kept spinning; the spider has not forgotten
The arts she used to practice (Book VI, ll. 142-145)[12]

Arachne is still able to spin, but her picture-making ability is gone. As a spider she can only weave a net over and over, from the proteins (as we know now) which are extruded form her body.  Ovid, like the Greeks before him, sees the spider’s spinning, with its compulsory repetition,  as a torment worthy of hell. His Arachne may as well be Sisyphus, forever rolling a rock uphill only to have it fall back down again, or the Danaids, who  keep going to the fountain to refill a broken pitcher of water with no bottom to it. Like them, Arachne can only work at the same task over and over with a dumb animal tenacity;  if she repairs her broken threads or makes a new web she is, again, only doing the one thing she knows how to do.  Her “webs” do not have the pictorial vivacity they had once had and which had so challenged Athena.

Nonetheless, to be on the side of Arachne is, despite the low estimation into which she and her work had fallen, to vindicate what her work once was and could still be. It is in the name of a once and future possibility that Sauzeau Boetti concedes that women make a “pilgrimage” back to their grandmothers’ arts:

Women’s art sometimes starts on this pilgrimage of rediscovery and vindication of traditional gestures.[13]

And it was, finally, the pilgrim in her who strayed quite far from Ovid and the moral of his story. Instead of focusing on the unprepossessing little black animal that Arachne was cursed to become, Sauzeau Boetti brings us back, in her early contribution to Chrysalis, to a symbolism that places the mystery and the plight of the human maker of webs at its heart; she reminds us that the artisan is an artist and the same time a mortal creature, dependent upon the web she created (and in which she is imprisoned) in a bid to defy the fall into nothingness.

If I press the analogy further I might say that the lacemaker is also dependent on grandaughters, who become critics, to justify her work to future generations.

[1] Anne-Marie Sauzeau Boetti (1938-2014) was a writer and art critic who collaborated with her husband (from 1962-1987), Dante Alighiero Boetti, one of the leading figures in Italy’s arte povera movement.  She is also remembered for her contributions to Italy’s feminist movement of the seventies.

[2] Little magazines were print journals of limited circulation devoted to culture. They flourished all throughout the 20th C. The text titled  “Arachnee the Spider” appeared in translation (from the Italian) in No. 10 (1979), pp. 87-89 of the feminist journal Chrysalis (Los Angeles), published between 1977 and 1980. Thanks are due Eamon McCarthy,  who helped me get a copy. Now available from JSTOR  (consulted 12 Jan 2022)

[3] There is, for example, no entry for textiles or the thread arts in the overview of feminist art practice offered by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard (editors) of The Power of Feminist Art. The American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact  (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994), though some attention is paid patchwork.  Appliqué work,  adopted from African peoples by former American slaves in the United States, merits attention in a reader on art criticism (Feminist Art Theory. An Anthology 1968-2000, ed. Hilary Robinson, London, Blackwell, 2001).

[4] On this see  Embroidered Stories. Interpreting Women’s Domestic Needlework from the Italian Diaspora, ed. Edvige Giunta and Joseph Sciorra (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014).

[5] See her “Negative Capability as Practice in Women’s Art”, in  Why Art Criticism? A Reader, ed. Julia Voss and Beate Söntgen (Berlin: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2022), pp. 238-241 (p. 239).

[6] In poetry, the prospect could cause alarm, as when the Spanish critic Guillermo de Torre wrote ironically about the collective phenomenon in Latin America in La Gaceta Literaria [Madrid], núm. 3 (1 de febrero de 1927).

[7] Augusto D’Esaguy, “Poetisas portuguesas”, La Gaceta Literaria [Madrid], Núm. 3 (1 de febrero de 1927).

[8] Fanny Bury Palliser, A History of Lace, 3rd. ed. (London: Sampson and Low, Marston, Low & Searle, 1875). She has an occasional  grievance to air as when she documents underpaid workers toiling for long hours in darkened rooms to spin the fine thread that Brussels lace was made from.

[9] See Either/Or [Enten-Eller] trans. David F. Swenson and Lilian Marvin Swenson (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday-Anchor, 1959), p. 24.

[10] See the Letters of John Keats, selected and edited by Robert Gittings (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002), pp. 62-64 (62).

[11] For example, Jane Schneider, “Trousseau as Treasure: Contradictions of Late Nineteenth-Century Change in Sicily”, en Beyond the Myths of Culture. Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Eric B. Ross (Nueva York: Academic Press, 1980), pp. 323-56. On p. 348: Lace is “created from air”. It makes its own “scaffolding,”

[12] I quote from Ovid. Metamorphoses, trans. Rolfe Humphries (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1955), p. 133.

[13] Her earlier article “Negative capability as practice in women’s art” (1976) is also reprinted in Feminism-Art-Theory, 2nd ed., ed. Hilary Robinson (London: Wiley Blackwell, 2015), pp. 229-232

Night of Unsleeping Love (from the “Sonnets of Dark Love”)

Alhambra, Manuel Angeles Ortiz


Together the ascent in the full moon’s light. 
I began to cry and you only laughed. 
Your disdain was a god,  my complaint
a chain of moments and  doves.  
Together the descent. Crystalline grief
as you wept at the deepest removes.
My pain was several agonies
astride your feeble heart of sand.
Come dawn, we were as one on the bed, 
our mouths pressed to the cold fountain
of an endlessly ebbing blood.
And the sun came through the shuttered balcony
and the coral of life spread a branch
over my heart in its shroud.

Translated by Roberta Quance

Translator’s note: The only stanza I retained from an early draft (from around 1986) is the final one. I could not really hear the poem until I grasped that there was a mystical implication (an echo of John of the Cross’s “dark night” in the contrast between the ascent in the night, with all its hopes, and the descent into daylight. Let no one be taken aback by the profane context; there is a tradition of reading the Spanish mystic as a love poet and there is an even older tradition in European love poetry of lovers who are separated at the break of day.  Here Lorca turns the motif into an agony of what is ultimately disunion.

The presence of doves goes back to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when the bird was associated with Venus,. But in another sonnet Jesús Ponce Cárdenas suggests an Arab influence in the presence of the dove as a messenger of love. See “El vuelo de la paloma: Góngora, Lorca y la poesía hispano-arábiga”, published in  Lectura y signo 3 (2008): 365-381

Something of herself

Picasso, Girl Reading

In retrospect, there was an instinctive need to plunge into another reality, to lean over a book with her hands over her ears, so that nothing would intrude on fantasy. But she had always liked words, how they sounded, how they contained within themselves an older likeness. When her father acquired a big Webster’s dictionary for the family (bigger than the Bible), she pored over it as if it were a treasure and even took it to college with her. Yet books were not plentiful. Thankfully, when she was at her grandmother’s she had her aunt’s collection to read. (Her aunt who had never married.) And so her niece found Anna Karenina, Vanity Fair, and Ramona, in no particular order and with little sense of hierarchy. When her family moved to a bigger town, on account of her father’s job, her mother drove the family car every Saturday to the public library. All of this made up –almost– for growing up the first ten or so years of her life in a small town that was little more than an exit on the New York thruway, a place where paperbacks were sold– promiscuously– on a display rack in the drugstore.

Her grandmother’s house, which came with three unwed adults in it, was her first home. She could and did get lost in the different worlds it harbored: each bedroom was an altar to a different devotion; for one it was the Navy (with an Atlas of the world, a clipper ship in a bottle); for another it was the bowling alley and golf course (trophies lined up on the dresser); for her aunt it was figurines of the Infant of Prague and St. Anthony. Even though her father eventually returned from the service and put a down payment on a new house, just for them, something like the pull of gravity would not let her move away from that immigrant house and its demarcations. She invented secrets for all of the unmarried children, marvelling that she herself –through her mother’s existential rebellion– was in the world at all.

Her grandmother’s petticoat folded away in a cedar chest —its fine white lawn, embroidered with the initials of her maiden name— told her that the heavy-set woman who needed help now putting on her sandals, had been young once like her and reed-thin. But that was the young woman she never knew –who had grown up in a town near Rome in Italy– and whom the granddaughter thought (sadly) she could never be like because she was born “American”.

When her father came home from the service, he recovered, one by one, the old fishing holes he had known as a boy. Her mother would sit on the bank with her feet in the creek, while her father and brother kept their eyes on the fishing lines, waiting for that slight bobbing motion that meant a fish was nibbling and might decide to bite. She caught a fish once (to prove she could), but what she really liked was to leap from one stone to the other in the stream and to marvel at the quick silver of minnows.

After a while, her father stopped taking his catch home and at the end of the day threw whatever he had caught back into the stream. The fish would survive the hook that had torn their mouths, he said; some of those old timers wore the scars proudly! Had he come to see (never making it explicit) that stocks in the creeks were dwindling? Or did he think that the fish were no longer good to eat?

You could learn things from him. Curious things about the weeds that the Indians had used: roots that were edible or that would stain your hands yellow and red. Or things that that hunters knew. Like how to shake somebody off your scent if you were being followed, wading the length of the stream for a while.

Here now in a foreign city, with trees that were unfamiliar and no fields to tramp through, much less streams, she was convinced that there were voices in the wood. She had learned to rub wax into an oak floor and to get down on her knees to scrub it to a sheen and to hold her cheek to the ground as if to hear something inside the grain. Her uncle spat on the boots he was polishing. And there was that word bootblack. Like other words, they told her that she had to put something of herself into all the things she loved.