Syd Lea '64 on Mrs. Ragnetti and the Spider
Numéro Cinq Magazine
What an older writer can do that a younger one can't is erect, out of the merest wisp of chance memory and association, a brief, complex image of youth, a life, a satanic struggle ("I've tasted hell," he writes sardonically) and ill consequence (you ache for that boy who runs from the spider lady to a milkshake — oh innocence — that later turns to alcohol). Note the apparently casual opening that rhymes (without telling the reader) spider/arachnid with Signora Ragnetti, the spider summoning the writer into the dark labyrinth of the past; the repugnant singing lesson; the precise oscillation in the text between spider and Signora (Ragnetti means "little spiders," as someone who knows informs me); and the shape: October, fall, tenor — at the beginning and the end — and, in the last line, "spider, Ragnetti." Sydney Lea makes this look effortless; damn, it's not.
October's warm for now, the truer chill yet to come. As it happens, an angler spider, trailing its thread like a fishing line, has just caught me this morning, in exact coincidence with my random recall of Signora Ragnetti, long since dead. Even gone, though, in memory the woman's still an ogre, the one who terrified me every Thursday afternoon one winter. During singing lessons, fist on high, she led me, barely yet turned tenor, through cheerless versions of Caro mio ben' and others.
I arrived, cradling my folio of airs. I'd been sopped and darkened by smutted snow in that stranger's land, Downtown. The bells of San Cristofero's tolled a torpid portent of the slow agony ahead. I've tasted hell.
I hear it already: "How is this? You do not do so simple things I ask. O Dio, che stupido…."
The spider thinks he's found arachnid heaven. That is if a spider may be said to think, and even if so, in terms aside from food and drink. If he can, not knowing how I've shrunk, he has reason to find me quite a catch. He's likely drunk with joy, not knowing either how in those old sessions, when (cretino!) failure seemed its own long season, I was hollowed out to a specter. If he tweaked his thread, I'd rise. I'm only air in this nightmare, a whiff of ether.
La signora is five feet one at most, and perhaps eighty pounds. How can she be so huge, then? She wrests the door inward and lets me in with clickings of her tongue.
"So different from my son," she growls, before I've so much as removed my soaking jacket. She turns to study the photo, which shows a middle-aged man with a face as set and stern as hers. She crosses herself and scowls, then sits malignly down. Soon, too soon, her left hand jabs at scales on her piano, the right one in that gnarled fist, as if it held a dagger.
Piu forte! she insists. I wince, as though from actual blows, while we do-re-mi.
"Disaster!" she spits as I grapple up and down those ladders: "Do you visit here for making such a noise, asino?"
Another note, another Latin imprecation. I grow colder and colder and smaller. My mother, I know, won't imagine my complaints, on my return home, as other than self-pitying puling.
Released at last, I cross the swarming street to buy a milkshake, icy, laced with malt, scant consolation for all I've felt go out of me. My hope is delusion; the treat seems to freeze the fear I'd meant to melt, the poison residue of terror, hate. In coming years, for too long I'll turn to alcohol, in the same vain longing for numbness.
Once I felt the harsh lash of Ragnetti. Now the spider vainly imagines he'll take me into his maw.
It's not yet fall. The years have changed that voice she called a mediocre tenor. The liquor has been banished, and one might think I'd come to accept myself for what I am, no more. I want further to say, but cannot quite: Ragnetti, spider, I amount to something, have gravity.
— Sydney Lea
Sydney Lea is Poet Laureate of Vermont. His tenth collection of poems, I Was Thinking of Beauty, is now available from Four Way Books, his collaborative book with Fleda Brown, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives, has now been issued in e-book format by Autumn House Press, and Skyhorse Publishing has just published A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife. Other recent publications include Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems, from publishers Wipf and Stock, and A Hundred Himalayas (University of Michigan Press), a sampling from his critical work over four decades.
He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. Of his nine previous poetry collections, Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The preceding volume, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets' Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner, and the book is still available in paper from Story Line Press. His 1994 collection of naturalist essays, Hunting the Whole Way Home, was re-issued in paper by the Lyons Press in 2003.
Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont, and Middlebury Colleges, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays, and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. He lives in Newbury, Vermont, where he is active in statewide literacy and conservation efforts.