Friday, May 29, 2009


I've been thinking about snakes lately. Last weekend I took my two boys camping with my brother and his sons. Just as it was beginning to get dark, another camper pulled up to our site in a pickup and motioned for my brother to come over. The camper showed my brother Eddie something in the back of the truck, and Eddie motioned us over. The boys and I walked over and peeked over the tailgate: a rattle snake lay curled up in the bed, its head somewhat coarsely chopped off I assumed by the knife hanging from the camper's belt. The camper addressed the boys directly, warning them to be cautious. After the truck had pulled away, we returned to our spots around the camp fire, and something my brother's eight-year-old said has stuck with me all week. Somewhat despairingly, he wished he had never even looked in the back of that truck. His comment got me thinking about the way adults pass on fear to children, especially regarding snakes. It's made me want to write a poem, too. But I feel intimidated by such an enormous subject. To remedy this intimidation: I've made a list of what I want my snake poem to do.

among other themes, I want such a poem to confront:
1) as I've mentioned, the ways in which adults hand down fear to children: the purposes and ramifications of such a lineage.
2) the intersections of fear and religion. while it's tempting, i don't think a snake poem can ignore the judeo-christian symbolism attached to the serpent.
3) the more secular and pre-christian symbolism: archetype as well as freudian symbolism
4) the very visceral reaction humans exhibit when confronted with a snake. there's a kind of very specific physical response snakes produce in me, and I'm assuming many others: a corporeal manifestation of fear. How to produce this? not sure, but i think it's important to address this as well.
5) the sentiment voiced by my nephew, the desire for ignorance when faced with fear. the wish to remain unaware of the dangers that surround us, on both specific and universal levels.

These are the things which seem immediately necessary to me. What do you think? Any other requirements for a snake poem? I'll be meditating on the poems below as I work this out. As you read these poems, perhaps you'll be inspired as well. Although, I have a feeling this kind of inspiration comes most forcefully from some kind of direct contact, even if it is dead and decapitated in the back of a pickup. Enjoy!


The Envoy


One day in that room, a small rat.
Two days later, a snake.

Who, seeing me enter,
whipped the long stripe of his
body under the bed,
then curled like a docile house-pet.

I don’t know how either came or left.
Later, the flashlight found nothing.

For a year I watched
as something—terror? happiness? grief?—
entered and then left my body.

Not knowing how it came in,
Not knowing how it went out.

It hung where words could not reach it.
It slept where light could not go.
Its scent was neither snake nor rat,
neither sensualist nor ascetic.

There are openings in our lives
of which we know nothing.

Through them
the belled herds travel at will,
long-legged and thirsty, covered with foreign dust.

The Imagined Copperhead


Without intending to hide,
the imagined copperhead
hid on the path ahead,
unseen on bronze leaves, unheard,
and a mortal likelihood
at every step. This was childhood,
mine, the wood’s jihad
against a boy who’d
intruded among monkshood,
wasp, tick, and nettles haired
with needles. Scrub brush abhorred
him with a horde
of  welts, bites, and stings, but he’d
never seen a copperhead,
though he’d looked hard
taking, as he’d been ordered, heed.
The snake wasn’t a falsehood,
though, to him. Dread
was his nature, and he hared
through sunlight and shade, head
swiveling for the copperhead
he’d begun to covet, the ballyhooed
killer a camouflaged godhead
on which his inborn faith cohered,
and his priesthood.



I saw a young snake glide
Out of the mottled shade
And hang, limp on a stone:
A thin mouth, and a tongue
Stayed, in the still air.

It turned; it drew away;
Its shadow bent in half;
It quickened and was gone

I felt my slow blood warm.
I longed to be that thing.
The pure, sensuous form.

And I may be, some time.

What the Rattlesnake Said


The Moon's a little prairie-dog.
He shivers through the night.
He sits upon his hill and cries
For fear that I will bite.

The Sun's a broncho. He's afraid
Like every other thing,
And trembles morning, noon and night
Lest I should spring and sting.


BY D.H. Laurence

A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.

In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob tree
I came down the steps with my pitcher
And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough before me.

He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom
And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the
edge of the stone trough
And rested his throat upon the stone bottom,
And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness,
He sipped with his straight mouth,
Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack long body,

Someone was before me at my water-trough,
And I, like a second-comer, waiting.

He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and mused a moment,
And stooped and drank a little more,
Being earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels of the earth
On the day of Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.

The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous.
And voices in me said, If you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.

But must I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of this earth?

Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him?
Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him?
Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
I felt so honoured.

And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him!

And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid,
But even so, honoured still more
That he should seek my hospitality
From out the dark door of the secret earth.

He drank enough
And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air, so black,
Seeming to lick his lips,
And looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air,
And slowly turned his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice adream,
Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face.

And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders, and entered farther,
A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into
that horrid black hole,
Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly drawing himself after,
Overcame me now his back was turned.

I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.

I think it did not hit him,
But suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed in
undignified haste,
Writhed like lightning, and was gone
Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front,
At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.

And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.

And I thought of the albatross,
And I wished he would come back, my snake.

For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.

And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life.
And I have something to expiate:
A pettiness.

The Black Snake


When the black snake
flashed onto the morning road,
and the truck could not swerve--
death, that is how it happens.

Now he lies looped and useless
as an old bicycle tire.
I stop the car
and carry him into the bushes.

He is as cool and gleaming
as a braided whip, he is as beautiful and quiet
as a dead brother.
I leave him under the leaves

and drive on, thinking
about death: its suddenness,
its terrible weight,
its certain coming. Yet under

reason burns a brighter fire, which the bones
have always preferred.
It is the story of endless good fortune.
It says to oblivion: not me!

It is the light at the center of every cell.
It is what sent the snake coiling and flowing forward
happily all spring through the green leaves before
he came to the road.

Friday, May 22, 2009

(1) Seed Across Snow and (2) John Updike

I just finished Seed Across Snow, Kathleen Driskell's new book, and I loved it. After hearing her read many of these at Spalding, some of these poems felt like old friends ("With a Shiner, My Husband Enters the Flower Shop," "Why I Mother You the Way I Do," and "Wedding Ring"). Others were wonderful new discoveries. One poem that particularly struck me was "Forgive." The poem begins: "Short, really short, I said, but I was in fact, not thinking/ of him, was looking out the wide windows, the traffic passing" (1-2). The effect is one of distraction, confusion, and the reader must sift through the details to locate the scene as the poem progresses, which is that of a boy in a barber shop.

The "him" is, as we learn, but not until line eight, the narrator's ten-year-old son, who is suddenly severely shorn. The narrator conjures up horrible imagery of prisoners of war and a "plucked bird," then says: "His crime? To have a mother whose head could be turned/ from him so easily" (13-14). The rhythm of these lines pounds the sinking realization of the narrator home. And the line break (beautiful place for it, on "turned") slows the pace just enough to emphasize it even more. The line does what the narrator cannot do in the beginning: slow her thoughts enough to turn them toward the present, toward her son. The last word there, "easily," falls softly from the tongue, making the indictment more tender.

Of course, I recognize myself in this poem: I too am the distracted mother, whose worst fear is that I will be distracted at the wrong time, and it will be too late to make up for it. I also love the end of the poem, "his furious attempt to turn this poem to cinders." Again we see the verb "turning," only now it is the son's doing. He is not successful in burning the words, which oddly magnifies the central conundrum of the poem: the son is in some ways less powerful than the mother's words, than her mental life, yet he becomes "the sun," exerting upon his mother the power of guilt.

Just a few thoughts. It was a fabulous poem, as they all are. I recommend reading Seed Across Snow.

Now for (2), John Updike, but briefly. I'll say more in a future post. I came across an excerpt of his Endpoint poems in a March issue of The New Yorker. As the title suggests, they are his ruminations on the death that is imminent for him. They are stark, heart-breaking, and achingly hopeful, but only half-heartedly. My aunt and I had planned to read some of his early short stories together, so I then turned to his Olinger set. Reading "Pigeon Feathers," which is basically an autobiographical account of one of his sweeping "fear of death" waves, after reading the poems had a profound effect on me. It has been one of those major shifts that happens after reading something so honest and brilliant that it can't help but change the way you think about life and the world and your small space in it. I continue to read from The Early Stories volume. More on that next time.

Happy, happy Spring-almost-Summer,

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Poems at Semantikon

After a few delays, some of my work is up at Semantikon, a community based online journal. I hope you'll go check out the poems and also explore the rest of the project. I think you'll find it well worth your time.

Thanks go to Mick Parsons (Guest Editor) and Lance Odditt (Editor) for supporting my work.


Literary Feature:


Sunday, May 3, 2009

Coleridgean Poetic Failure

The following is a portion of an essay I'm writing about aporetic modes in the poetry of Coleridge. The first (smaller) part is my attempt to provide a declaration of Coleridgean poetic failure. In the second part, I'm looking at C's "Dejection: An Ode." I know. Not very accessible or contemporary, but so much of what Coleridge accomplished in the early nineteenth century is still being attempted today. "Castor Oil" by Charles Bernstein is a perfect example.

Here's a link to Coleridge's "Dejection"



The poetic failure of Coleridge exists when one or more of the following are fulfilled: the speaker of the poem 1) admits that poetic language fails to provide emotional or spiritual catharsis, 2) paradoxically acknowledges the failure of language within a system of language, 3) is made aware of the unbridgeable différance between perceived and perceiver, signified and signifier, 4) apprehends that observations of external realities cannot alter, alleviate or modify internal states, 5) asserts that observations of external realities allow no obtainable truth concerning those realities, such observations are only capable of producing a realization of the processes of observation, 6) explicitly acknowledges the failure of the poem within the poem.

“Dejection: An Ode”

The first five of these principles are especially applicable to “Dejection: An Ode” which begins with the speaker’s notice of the weather conditions and his hope for a storm that “might startle this dull pain, and make it move and live” (l. 20). Coleridge’s use of the subjunctive signifier “might” in the line and its parallel in the line immediately previous initiate the poem’s hypothetical and aporetic mode. In the second stanza, the speaker identifies the particular melancholy he experiences as:

A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
A stifled drowsy, unimpassion’d grief,
Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,
In word, or sigh, or tear— (l. 21-24)

It is an extraordinary grief especially because it is explicitly irresolvable. The speaker’s acknowledgement that the “word” cannot offer “outlet” or “relief” creates the inherent metapoetic paradox of the ode which is written to alleviate emotional trauma yet admits to the impossibility of such an alleviation, a paradox which is immediately and intrinsically related to the “self-undermining” processes identified by Ayon and Coleridge’s own assertion “that a man can know one thing and believe the opposite” (Biographia Literaria 395). In the remainder of the stanza, the speaker briefly introduces a “Lady” who he apostrophizes throughout the ode but turns quickly and comprehensively to descriptions of the act and processes of an instance of observation-the object being the “western sky” and the moon and stars which fill it:

And still I gaze—and with how blank an eye!

I see them all so excellently fair,
I see, not feel how beautiful they are! (l. 30, 37-38)

The distinction between visual observation and emotional perception made in the final line is indicative of Coleridge’s attempts to identify the essential separateness of the external sphere and the impossibility of an authentic perception of this sphere by the seer, who may observe beauty but fails to understand it. In the third stanza, the speaker again confesses to feelings morose and melancholic while expounding on internal and external diffĂ©rance: “I may not hope from outward forms to win / The passion and the life, whose fountains are within” (l. 45-46). For the speaker of “Dejection,” observations of outward forms cannot alleviate internal states of emotional anxiety. In stanza four, the speaker again apostrophizes the “Lady” and asserts that the only obtainable epistemological systems are those which come from within, “O Lady! we receive but what we give, / and in our life alone does nature live” (l. 47-48). Nothing may be obtained from observations of the external object but the processes of this observation. This is further expounded in stanza five as the speaker realizes that even this obtainment is not certain—but dependent upon the perceiver’s emotional state:

Joy is the sweet voice, Joy the luminous cloud—
We in ourselves rejoice!
And thence flows all that charms or ear or sight,
All melodies the echoes of that voice,
All colours a suffusion from that light. (l. 71-75)

In stanza six, the speaker reminisces on his happy past which enabled him a poetic ability and laments his current emotional state which “suspends what nature gave me at my birth, / My shaping spirit of Imagination” (l. 85-86). Such contemplations motivate the speaker to shift his gaze from inward to outward in the seventh stanza, as he attempts to provide a description of the wind “which long has [raved] [unnoticed]” (l. 97). This shift demonstrates the paradox of the poem yet again as Coleridge maintains the futility of external observation as he practices such observation. Furthermore, because of such a paradoxical and dual mode, it must be assumed that Coleridge’s textual representations of “wind” represent nothing in the external sphere. Instead, these representations betray their compositional processes. His personification of wind, therefore, must also be viewed as a personification of his own identity. Coleridge himself is the “Mad Lutanist,” the “Actor, perfect in all tragic sounds,” the “Mighty Poet, [even] to frenzy bold!” (l. 104, 108, 109).

In the final stanza, the speaker again returns to concerns for his “lady” friend, and wishes her joy and sleep, two accommodations which he does not allow himself. Ultimately, the speaker’s sadness is irresolvable and unalleviated. Whether or not the woman is Sarah Hutchinson, an unrequited love of Coleridge’s, is irrelevant. What is significant is the tension created by her resolved state and the speaker’s unalleviated sadness, a tension which remains unmitigated and, it might be assumed, unbearable. Eddins makes a similar conclusion in “Darkness Audible” as he asserts that Coleridge’s final apostrophe to the Lady represents a hypothetical allusion which provides no relief for the poetic failure of the poem. However, Eddins’s analysis departs from my own in another significant way. Eddins recognizes a conflux of failure in the “metapoem that is at once a lament for vision’s loss and a prayer for its return” (409). The latter aspect emerges as the poem’s central redemptive (aesthetic) quality. This redemption is symbolized in the poem as the approaching storm, which characterizes the possibility of the re-attainment of voice and vision. A similar interpretation is made by Thomas M. Greene in “Coleridge and the Energy of Asking.” Employing one of Coleridge’s many notebook fragments as an access point to the body of the poet’s work, Greene identifies the dominant symbol of “privation” within this fragment and asserts that “the suggestion that all imaginative writing derives from a certain experience of privation needs to be considered seriously” (908). Greene further contends that Coleridge’s creative confrontation of privation is redemptive, even in a poem of negative capability such as “Dejection: An Ode,” which Greene identifies as Coleridge’s discovery of the “metaphoric generativity of the storm” (927). What both of these critics fail to consider is that the metaphor of the storm is fully realized. The transference of tenor and vehicle occurs within the aporetic progression of the poem and the speaker’s personification of himself (discussed above) as the “Mad Lutanist,” the “Actor, perfect in all tragic sounds,” the “Mighty Poet, [even] to frenzy bold!” (l. 104, 108, 109). To identify the possibility of aesthetic redemption within the storm metaphor is to neglect the narrative of the poem. This transference, (this possible redemption) has already occurred in the poem and has already failed. In Coleridge’s words, “This, however, transfers, rather than removes, the difficulty” (BL 404).

Eddins, Dwight. “Darkness Audible: The Poem of Poetic Failure.” Style 34 (Fall 2000): 402. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Camden-Carroll Library, Morehead State University. 28 Mar. 2009.

Greene, Thomas M. “Coleridge and the Energy of Asking.” ELH 62 (Winter 1995): 907-931. Project Muse. Camden-Carroll Library, Morehead State University.
12 April 2009.

Halmi, Nicholas, Paul Magnuson and Raimonda Modiano. Coleridge’s Poetry and Prose. New York: Norton, 2004.