snake poems

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Zero at the Bone

Maybe the Bible was on to something. There’s something elemental about snakes, after all, and their reach into our psyches. Why do 97% of people fear them? And why do the 3% who don’t rub the 97%’s faces in it by picking them up, fondling them, and bringing them closer for a little cold-blooded interaction?

Without even realizing it, I wrote not one but two poems about snakes in the “animal poems only” section of my second book, Lost Sherpa of Happiness (“Search 2”), but they’ve got some growing to do to surpass Emily Dickinson’s stop-the-presses poem about a little guy who slithered through her Amherst lawn so many years ago.

Note how she makes a long length of simple words undulate in extraordinary ways! Note how striking the poem is, how quickly it sinks its fascinating fangs into our 97% hearts:

A narrow Fellow in the Grass (1096)   by Emily Dickinson
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 —
But when a Boy and Barefoot–
I more than once at Noon
Have passed I thought a Whip Lash
Unbraiding in the Sun
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 alone
Without a tighter Breathing
And Zero at the Bone–
I didn’t have to give you the poet’s name for your to realize Emily’s work. Random capitalization and dashes, dashes, dashes give it away. Me, I like best the description of the grass via simile: “The Grass divides as with a Comb–” and the neat use of imagery: “A Floor too cool for Corn–.”


Note, too, the use of active verbs for this most ambulatory (when not lolling in the sun) of “Fellows” (sans “for he’s a jolly good…): “rides,” “divides,” “closes,” “opens,” “wrinkled.” And yes, there are the verbals, too, adjectives in verb’s clothing–swanky participles that paint pictures of movement. Words like “unbraiding” and “stooping.”


That all said, I think the poem rises its scaly head above the hundreds of others Dickinson wrote because of that most difficult maneuver for every poet: the ending. You know, when you meet this fellow, how you feel “a tighter Breathing / And Zero at the Bone.”


That last line, as I like to say, is worth the price of admission alone. Using “Zero” instead of the easier “chills you to the bone.” Clearly she thought of the cliché, then she thought one better.


See how it’s done, poets? You think. Then you think one better. Too many poets get stuck at the think part or think and then pat themselves on the back for a job well done, but the real deal–the part that separates the grass between good poets and superior poets–is the think one better part.


Seems simple, doesn’t it? Kind of like narrow fellows in the grass….