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.

1 comment:

Jill Koren and Matthew Vetter said...

Well, I've made many to-do lists for myself, but never for a poem-to-be. I love the idea! I suppose I may do this in my head in a much foggier way, but laying it out on paper seems a smart thing to do.

Thank you for the bevy of snake poems. I see how each of them is informing your process. I enjoyed them all, especially Lawrence's, for its luxurious long-windedness, and Oliver's, for the way it spoke to the Updike poems I mentioned in my last post. Death seems different, less ominous, when considering another animal (besides the human).

You have read the Galway Kinnell poem about snakes, "Everyone Was In Love," I assume? But then, snake as clothing was not on your to-do list.

Our neighbor, an elderly man, brought out a snake on his shovel the other day to show everyone. He had killed it, of course. He kills them regularly. I tried to ask him why, but he couldn't really give me a clear answer. Snakes remind me of bats in that make-you-jump kind of way. So I share your fascination with the maligned-but-beautiful-but-really-scary-too creatures. (What is with the hyphens? Not sure.)

Looking forward to reading the poem.