Friday’s Poem 4/24/09

Wendell Berry – “The Snake”

At the end of October
I found on the floor of the woods
a small snake whose back
was patterned with the dark
of the dead leaves he lay on.
His body was thickened with a mouse
or small bird. He was cold,
so stuporous with his full belly
and the fall air that he hardly
troubled to flick his tongue.
I held him a long time, thinking
of the perfection of the dark
marking on his back, the death
that swelled him, his living cold.
Now the cold of him stays
in my hand, and I think of him
lying below the frost,
big with a death to nourish him
during a long sleep.

From Openings, 1968.

Unlike Mary Oliver, Berry does not shy away from the bloodier, more destructive aspects of nature, though he has the same awe and admiration of the natural world. Like here, his descriptions are usually concise and evocative. This is a very specific moment and observation. On the one hand, I don’t feel that this poem is shallow. On the other hand, I can’t gleam anything much beyond the surface meaning. Maybe there’s a message about death or the cyclic nature of existence, but I can’t grasp anything beyond the image of the speaker holding the engorged serpent.

One thing that is interestingly pointed out here is the vulnerability that comes with being a predator – the snake’s food has made it vulnerable to a hawk, that might want to eat it, or a man, who might want to be cruel to it just for the fun of it. Luckily, the speaker here simply wants to observe it.


One Response to Friday’s Poem 4/24/09

  1. Angele says:

    Wendell Berry’s “awe and admiration of the natural world” is more akin to that of a naturalist or a farmer (one of Berry’s occupations) than to Mary Oliver’s wide-eyed–dare I say tourist-like–enthusiasms.

    In “The Snake,” Berry’s hibernating, self-sufficient reptitle provides an indirect contrast to the gestational warmth of a pregnant mammal:

    “..body was thickened…
    the death
    that swelled him, his living cold…
    big with a death to nourish him…”

    Berry’s speaker-turned-snake handler also seems to be quietly boasting of his lack of fear, which liberates his description of the snake from traditional metaphors (the fear and loathing that snakes have inspired, in art and in life).

    The speaker’s admiration of the snake’s beauty–“the perfection of the dark marking on his back”–and the lingering, almost-sensual memory of the feel of the cold-blooded animal (“Now the cold of him stays/in my hand, and I think of him/lying below the frost…”) creates the snake anew in this poem, even as it lies dormant, absorbed in the business of survival.

    In contrast, here is Emily Dickinson on the subject of a more active snake:

    A narrow Fellow
    in the Grass
    Occasionally rides –
    You may have
    met Him?
    Did you not
    His notice instant is –

    The Grass divides
    as with a Comb –
    A spotted Shaft
    is seen,
    And then it closes
    at your feet
    And opens
    further on –

    He likes a
    Boggy Acre –
    A Floor too
    cool for Corn –
    Yet when a
    Boy and Barefoot
    I more than
    once at Noon

    Have passed,
    I thought, a
    Whip Lash
    Unbraiding in the
    When stooping
    to secure it
    It wrinkled
    And was gone –

    Several of
    Nature’s People
    I know, and they
    know me –
    I feel for
    them a transport
    Of cordiality –

    But never met
    this Fellow
    Attended, or
    Without a
    tighter breathing
    And Zero at
    the Bone –

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