Abigail Wender's "Fable"
Thoughts on curiosity and metaphor.
O my children, the ant has a boulder in its mouth. Pale-white ant rushes with a potato chip that fell yesterday from our table. I was like that once—moving rapidly— taking food home, bearing the weight because an ant is a lever, its body a physics, the weight of the chip is nothing to it. O wonders of the world, I am nothing compared to the work.
from Reliquary (Four Way Books, 2021)
I first read this poem — like so often happens — in a bookstore. The Corner Bookstore, in particular. A little, almost delicate shop on 93rd and Madison. I flipped immediately to this page and leaned my shoulder against a shelf and read the poem once and then again and then I bought the book.
I was struck, I think, by the poem’s seeming-simplicity. The habit it makes out of observation. Each blank space. Each pause. And then those final lines.
I start my school year soon and have already started back at school, each day full of curriculum planning and professional development. And so I think that the word work holds, now (and once again) a bit of a charged meaning for me. Just a bit of weight. And I think, too, that I’m thinking about teaching again, and what it means, and how to be okay at it. In our department meetings lately, we’ve often talked about what it might look like to do an okay job at teaching English. And it’s hard for me, in those moments, to separate the teaching of both the standardized skills of English and the more fluid and interesting habits that might offer access to such skills — and many more things. I want to say that I wish I could teach each student to build, intentionally, their own individualized and conscious habit of attention and curiosity. I want to say that, if we helped in that process, then we’d be doing a pretty okay job as teachers. But I don’t know exactly what that might look like. And I don’t know exactly how to get there.
This poem, though, models an act of curiosity in its opening three lines:
O my children, the ant has a boulder in its mouth. Pale-white ant rushes with a potato chip that fell yesterday from our table.
It takes a kind of curiosity and generosity to even notice an ant, and then — even still — to describe the “potato chip” in its mouth as a “boulder.” Such a comparison shows that the poem’s speaker is able to sympathize with the ant — to understand the ant’s smallness and the way in which it might be burdened by something so much larger than itself. However, the poem also models what it means to amend and revise oneself in the moment.
There’s a pretty distinct structure to the poem. It goes: ant, “I”, ant, “I”. In the first half of the poem, Wender’s speaker relates the ant’s seeming-plight to herself:
I was like that once—moving rapidly— taking food home, bearing the weight
Here is the world-as-metaphor. The ant and the supposed weight of the potato chip allow the speaker to relate the natural world back to humanity. To ground the daily burden of life in the way in which it seems to occur — over and over again — in the natural world. Here, the dailiness of human life exists at the same level as the ant: ordinary, full of drudgery, filled with hurried and harried weight. And luck, too, right? Oh, a potato chip! Oh no, it’s so huge…and now I have to carry it. This feels so human, right? To connect our struggles — of loneliness, of sorrow, of what we carry and what we don’t — to the world outside of ourselves. Such an act of connection is part of the alleviation of what often prompts the need for connection. When I am lonely, I like to remember that trees talk to one another. It reminds of something intangible that I cannot give a name.
In Leslie Jamison’s now-seminal essay, “52 Blue,” she investigates the research surrounding the sound made by a singular whale and the ways in which such research opened up the possibility for people to wonder about the whale’s loneliness, and their relation to such loneliness. Jamison uses the entirety of the essay to complicate and wonder aloud about our relationship to metaphor. Toward the essay’s end, she writes:
52 Blue suggests not just one single whale as metaphor for loneliness, but metaphor itself as salve for loneliness. Metaphor always connects two disparate points; it suggests that no pathos exists in isolation, no plight exists apart from the plights of others.
Later, she adds:
Loneliness seeks out metaphors not just for definition but for the companionship of resonance, the promise of kinship in comparison.
I love Jamison’s notion that no pathos exists in isolation. It feels so distinctly human to notice, as today’s poem does, the potential struggle undergone by a creature as small as an ant. And it feels so distinctly human to wonder aloud about whether or not we, too, are like that ant. It is a way of searching for that companionship of resonance.
And yet — today’s poem offers that compassionate, resonant metaphor, and then it corrects itself:
because an ant is a lever, its body a physics, the weight of the chip is nothing to it.
Here, Wender does something so seemingly simple. She complicates the metaphor offered earlier — the result of a curiosity that exists in the blank space between the stanzas. A fact is offered. An image. The ant as “lever.” The body as “physics.” The comparison begins to fall apart. The curiosity has elicited more information. The potato chip is not a burden. No — it is “nothing” for the ant. And this is true! Research shows that an ant’s neck can withstand thousands of pounds of force. It shows, too, that much of an ant’s strength comes from its skeletal makeup. An ant is so light, and what it is made of is so strong, that it can carry objects that, if an ant were rendered on a human-sized scale, it would otherwise not be able to carry.
I think this is such a powerful move on Wender’s part. It is revision and complication at once. It resists the easiness of easy metaphor, but it doesn’t close the door on the possibility of metaphor. It pays careful and curious attention. In that blank space between stanzas, I feel Wender searching for more information, wondering if it could be true — if the resonance is real. And this searching does not resist metaphor. Instead, it begs more questions, such as:
If a potato chip weighs nothing to an ant, why am I burdened by so much?
If a potato chip weighs nothing to an ant, why am I weighed down by so many things that are invisible?
How much do I carry that I am not built to carry?
How much do I carry that is not natural for me to carry?
At the heart of these questions is a longing for connection that is no longer there. The metaphor has been dismantled and yet is still searching for a way to be real and true in some way. The ant’s act of carrying is much easier than the speaker’s. The ant is not frazzled and harried. No, the ant is lifting the lucky gift of a potato chip with absolute ease. Meanwhile, all of human life goes on — so much of it burdened by so much else.
And so there are these final lines:
O wonders of the world, I am nothing compared to the work.
Though Wender uses that word “nothing” to describe the basic weightlessness of a chip to an ant, I feel her using that word in a different way here. As in: I think Wender is naming how much the “work” of life feels different than the way an ant carries a potato chip. How it feels harder. How it feels sometimes unnatural. How it feels heavy, so heavy. How it is a colossal weight, and how we are so small in the face of it. How it is so big on our shoulders.
When I read this poem, I find it hard not to think of the distinction between natural and unnatural work. I think of the ant, and how carrying a proportionally heavy load is something hardwired into its physicality. How an ant is made to do such a thing. And I think, then, of what we are made to carry that is not natural. And I think, even still, of how we have shaped the world into an unnatural thing, such that so many of our acts of carrying are not acts of carrying the things we are made to carry, but things, instead, that we feel we must carry, or have to carry, or should carry. I think of work under capitalism. I think of daily labor. I think of the lack, for so many, of a living wage. I think of criticisms of the recent plan for debt forgiveness, and how some people think that it is unfair to forgive people their debts. I think of how callous people have become in this callous society, to think that forgiveness is unfair rather than just. I think of the tragedy of living in such a tragic society, where the evils of the society replicate themselves in the individuals of that society. I think of what the speaker of this poem refers to as “bearing the weight.” And I think of how, for so many, life itself is a continuous act of bearing the weight.
Perhaps I’m thinking of this because I’m at the dawn of another school year, about to do a job I love, but one that is a job nonetheless, a job influenced and stressed by the failures of systems and structures that could — like an ant’s neck — be reimagined more compassionately, could be reassessed so that, collectively, we can each individually carry the weight we need to carry, and have such weight feel light. David Graber’s oft-quoted line from The Utopia of Rules is always on my mind:
The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.
Our world seems to be structured in a way that is disproportionate to the limits of our bodies and our minds. If we were to be like ants — as today’s poem begins to suggest — then our daily lives would be filled with things we can carry with a kind of lightness. But — as today’s poem also reminds us — we aren’t entirely like ants. The work overwhelms us. Our bodies cave under the weight.
There’s a poem — “At Night” — later in Wender’s collection that feels in conversation with such a subject. It reads, in full:
Roads lead into and away from the fort Hours pass. Years might pass. Rain, rain, sun— if change is everywhere, I am in despair; I see nothing of it—
That’s a human weight, too, isn’t it? To carry the longing for change and the despair of not seeing the change you long for? It’s a heavy weight, too. So heavy.
Over the past couple of weeks, as I’ve been going into school to prep for the year, I’ve been sneaking away on my lunch breaks to play music with a fellow teacher, who is an absolute maestro on the guitar. There’s an out of tune piano on a stage tucked away in the building, and my friend tuned his guitar to the out-of-tune-ness of the piano, and we’ve been playing our own jukebox favorites. The Band’s “The Weight.” Springsteen’s “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” and “New York City Serenade” (an absolutely underrated song in Springsteen’s discography). When we’ve played “Sandy,” I’ve laughed each time, trying to recreate on the old piano that big, bulbous, bass-y moment that walks down the notes as Springsteen sings did you hear the cops finally busted Madame Marie for telling fortunes better than they do, which is one of my favorite lines he’s ever written, full of ordinary specificity and disregard for the powers that be.
These moments have been the true joy of each day — separate from the work we’re being paid for, and yet so full of lightness and curiosity and a willingness to fiddle and play and try to listen our way together toward something that makes us feel like we are doing something beautiful. And that — what I just said — isn’t that a lovely way to think of life? Something about listening and curiosity and lightness and beauty?
And this makes me think about a reason why music is special. I think that we are made to play music because we crafted the instruments we play such music with. We created the instruments to mesh with the physics of our bodies. It is not work to play the piano. It is something so gentle, to touch a piano and make it make a sound. It just takes a finger to press a key, and an entire mechanism is flung into easeful motion. It goes into production, and creates something lovely. And a guitar. A guitar fits into the fold of a body. It is a delicate thing, to fingerpick the descending melody of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” It requires attention, I think. And some delicate touch. And the curiosity to learn how to move the fingers in a way that they are able to move. There is work happening in such a moment, but it doesn’t sound like work. It sounds like music. And I wish that’s how work sounded like. And I wish it made us feel how music makes us feel. It does sometimes, I know. I hold those moments close and long for more.
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