About the Feature

On Seeing a Phasma Gigas

Photo by Michael Eisen


In adamant clarity, in an acrylic cube,
the one called phasma or ghost, difficult to see
on its native bark, compels and says I am,
repels and says I am. Which camouflage is which?

Stunned by extravagant repugnance, by alien
symmetry, I study its mottled wings,
the long segmented abdomen—a thickened twig
to burn for fire, a rod for bruise or rule.



Letter to Philip Rau
from the black entomologist, Oct. 29, 1914.

Dear Mr. Rau:

I desire [       ]

[                   ] but                    cannot [      ]

[       ] long to say [                   ] but
I know so little
about [        ] less
about [       ] and           nothing
[             ] beyond the grave [             ]
[       ] ponder [                                                 ] I must

confess, however, [                         ] not [             ] understand.
What is [       ]? What is beyond [             ]
Eternal [       ] or eternal [       ]             which?
How I long [             ] At times

I am almost persuaded

Yours sincerely,
C. H. Turner



Even in a phasma gigas: redemption,
that it has made the eye falter, stop, turn,
that it has stilled the mind’s restlessness
and covered its questions with sticky eggs.

The phasma gigas disappears: twig, bark, a stain
of light, or lack,

and isn’t it lack, or want, or absence
that seduces, lures, releases at last?



He feared spiders, my father, ran screaming
at the touch of one. Cried like a baby, she said.

Is that what she said? Just as scared
as he could be. Neva did like them.

Is it the black widow that eats its mate’s head
or the praying mantis?

From: “Homosexual mating behavior in male
Doryonychus raptor (Araneae, Tetragnathidae)”
by Rosemary Gillespie

Twenty five days after capture (23rd August), I observed
these male spiders with their chelicerae locked together
(I did not witness the initial coupling), one male with its
fangs locked against the dorsal apophysis of the other.
The abdomens were paraxial, neither curled under.
The only movement observed was that of the palps
of both males. These were used alternately to “search”
the underside of the abdomen of the respective partner.

White cottony eggs in my basement corner, so many,
so many. Don’t kill them, my mother said.
It will bring bad luck.

The translucent spiders that live in the corners
of my ceiling have adapted themselves to painted stucco,
to dust, and incandescent light.

That shadow? It could be a spider.
It could be a brown recluse.
It could be my nappy hair.



Charles H. Turner wrote
that spiders were not machines, do not
make the same web over and over—
not, as Stein might have said: a web,
a web, a web, a web.

A funnel weaver spider
lowered into the aorta of a human heart
will weave a web appropriate for the space.

We love each other and so the web
has a human shape.

What if my touch is not affection but only hunger?
Rub your skin-web against my skin-web: listen.



My favorite story explains the origin
of the spider’s web. The animals owed
a debt, but it fell to spider to pay it,
and so spider wove lace to sell at the market,
hung its fine linens over limbs and leaves.

Walking beside the prairie, I ask if you see
the thin strings cat-cradled between
slants of bluestem, gold spans,
ties, snares, garlands of sunlight.
Look, I say. Look. Do you see them?

A strand of spittle winds from an ailing lip.

Web-based content management systems.

Against my breast, a strand of your gray hair,
the light striking it.

a spider is paying my debt.



In Papua New Guinea a child brings a phasma gigas
to show the stranger.

Find more, the stranger says, more spiders, butterflies,
beetles. Find more. And he promises—always—to pay.

About the Author

Janice N. Harrington’s latest book of poetry is Primitive: The Art and Life of Horace H. Pippin. Earlier books include Even the Hollow My Body Made Is Gone and The Hands of Strangers. She teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.