Sunday, July 7, 2013

Tuesday Poem - Serpentarium by Daniel Becker


Poisonous or not a snake pops when crushed by a car,
the neighbor’s car, an SUV hybrid that scaled down still has
what it takes.  What a rednecky thing to do I say. The right thing
he says, matter of fact, not taking offense.  Rednecky,

to make it sound as if he wasn’t, quite, and right,
not Bill of Rights, e.g., 2nd Amendment, but as opposed
to wrong, as in dumb wrong.  If he’d walked up to the house,
got one of his guns, the one pre-loaded with snake shot,

I supposed, and blown the snake back to paradise, or beyond,
that’s what I’d call redneck. Either way I was enchanted. 
The snake’s narrative, like the talking frog’s in fact a prince,
or the gun’s, or the gun dog’s, had found the ideal reader. 

We went hunting once, and once was enough. Not the noise
or blood so much, but the evisceration.  His dog’s nose for quail 
quivered like a wind sock trying on a breeze.  That poor old dog—
now blind and deaf and stiff and barely able to reach

the end of the drive, cross the road, squat and do its business
in my field.   I’d watch, and relieved myself to see the deed done 
despite long odds, applaud. Good dog. I’d just waved
to the neighbor, car to car, and noticed him noticing a stick

shaped like a snake lying there in ambush at the blind dog
cross walk, but sticks don’t reflect and on reflecting I stopped, 
backed up, got out, and prepared to bear witness. Watching the tire
sneak up on the snake anyone would wonder what kind of a mess

was about to happen, what kind of noise? What part of the brain 
knows deflating a snake couldn’t be quiet?  The bubble wrap part? 
The snake was not unaware and tried to snake away.  The inside of
its S slid into the outside.  A bright day and the copper,

no misnomer, shined.  By instinct I’d have veered out of fate’s way
and by temperament then thought about it all day and the next.   
The neighborly thing might be to keep the neighborhood safe. 
A snake in the field out can end up baled, waiting to bite the hand

that stacks it.  Turns out the treatment for snake bite is, on average, 
worse than the bite.  First Aid?  Remember those kits with razor
 blades for cutting shallow X’s downstream of the fang marks
and little rubber cups for sucking venom out if you didn’t have

the stomach to suck it out yourself, even though sucking works 
better?  Forget the kits.  Stay calm.  Drive to the ER. 
They will sit you down and wait… of course that applies
to most anything in a busy ER.  If the arm or leg starts to swell

or darken or blister they’ll give you anti-venom made in horses.   
Not as easy as it sounds.  Allergy is common, and there’s more to 
that than sneezing, more like your bones cough. There you are 
snake bit in an appendage and the cure begins to kill you,

but slowly, like the rack coaxing truth out of every joint,
all your secrets and more, noisy too, but who has time to listen?   
My wife’s boss killed a snake for the lady next door.
It was coiled on her front step, waiting for her, letting her know: 

one false move.  Makes you want to sharpen the machete. 
At a new clot buster research pow-wow in Arizona,
they gave us an afternoon off to see the desert.  We drove around 
looking at cacti and walked around looking at cacti, some of which

are larger than border guards, and for the finale the guide took out a
 bag of rattlers, a bag like a pillow case, but squirmy. 
One at a time they slithered and coiled and rattled for us until
he got bit in the wrist by one of the smaller, quicker, meaner ones. 

Shit he said.  Shit we agreed.  We looked at each other
and tried hard not to remember those kits and where to cut
and how hard to suck and what if the sucker swallows
in the heat of the moment?  He put the snake back in the bag. 

Down where it’d be hard not to gather around and hear its side
of the story.  Bad snake you’d want to scold.  Stay calm
he advised us.  We dropped him at an ER where he knew
they do a nice job with snake bite. The amazing thing

about the dessert outside Phoenix are the subdivisions with lawns
and sprinkler systems.  Why move to Arizona if you still have
to cut the grass? My neighbor and I shared a riding mower
for years until it died, and then we shared a kid down the street

who started a lawn business and worked hard enough you knew 
someday he’ll be president of something.  When he went off
to a good college his sister took over and when she left home
the next oldest was a little too young to drive a mower

so the mother offered to fill in for the summer.
My neighbor said sure, why not, you couldn’t beat the price,
but I was not ready to let the future President’s mother
cut my grass.  I might add, although not snaky and maybe snarky

but still on the subject of primal fears and urges,
that our lawn boy liked to kill deer with a bow and arrow.
A Presidential sport for sure.  He borrowed one of my trees
for the ambush.  You climb up before dawn, stay calm,

and wait for a good shot. Then his mom rode the mower over
and dropped off some sausage, my share of the proceeds. 
You have to be polite when people offer to share what they killed
by guile and their own hands, and butchered too. 

Everyone remembers the first time they ate snake. 
My father’s rule was no cooked vegetables, so when the neighbors
 back then had us over and the dad there passed around a platter
of slimy cylinders the size of fingers snake made as much sense

as okra, which I’d never seen or heard of and hadn’t seen since
until the other day when it showed up pickled and hors d’oeuvred 
when we had some next door. We take turns hosting the sunset.   
I’ve been looking on eBay for one of those little brass cannons

to let my neighbor know come on over the sun is over the yardarm
I’d like to send over a blimp that blinks a neon invitation,
and will, once the price of drones comes down. 
His porch has the mountains.  Mine has the moon. 

I used to moonlight in the ER, and the first time my wife asked  
you sure you know what you’re doing?  I’ve seen everything
at least once my smart answer…except snake bite,
and sure enough the other hospital in town sent us over one.

We get all the uninsured stuff.  Boring to watch an arm not swell.   
People assume they ought to kill the snake and bring you the head, 
for ID, which means a head in a jar in the conference room
where doctors sit around and talk about who has what and where. 
Welcome to the clutter.  Donut crumbs. Coffee dregs.  Pizza crusts.   
Fortune cookies that might remind you, in case you’d ever forget, 
the earth is but the frozen echo of the voice of Yahweh. 
Whew, my all time favorite and one reason to eat Chinese

in Cambridge Massachusetts.  I’m the neatnik who ward attends
for a few weeks and first thing needs to straighten up.  Lesson 1: 
clean up your mess.  I know firsthand that snake heads float,
at least the eastern diamondback, in lazy circles.  Who could resist

giving one a swirl?  Experts advise not to kill the snake
that bites you. I agree, unless you can stay calm while searching 
and destroying.  Looking at a snake in a jar always reminds me
of Boyle’s Law.  He put a viper in the jar, sucked out all the air

however they did that in the 17th century, and proved
the volume of a gas expands as pressure drops. 
The volume of a snake, like the volume of a balloon, expands
only up to a point.  Who knew there were vipers still in England?

Who knew they had vacuum pumps?  When we were kids
in Miami we went to the Serpentarium near our favorite bar b-q 
place way south on Dixie Highway.  Once was enough.
A King Kong size statue of a cobra invited you to stop,

against our mother’s better judgment, to give her credit. 
At 10 AM and 2 PM you could watch a qualified herpetologist
[this was before herpes] extract venom from King Cobras
who standing up straight are almost as tall as border guards

and if grabbed by the neck and choked will drip venom,
teaspoon size drips from fangs that could puncture tires,
into glass beakers that looked scientific.  Venom isn’t gooey,
more spit than sap, and one of its constituent toxins dissolves clots,

but not as good as the leech.  This guy had forearms like Popeye, 
he was quick, and he almost made it look easy. 
He almost had a perfect record. While waiting around hoping
and not hoping to see him get bit, the tourists would watch

what happens at lunch when day old chicks were dropped
in the pit viper pit. My sister still has nightmares. 
Our mother claimed the chicks were terminal, fate sealed
regardless, but who or what isn’t and we weren’t born yesterday. 

The euthanasia argument seemed too slippery a slope. 
Speaking of slippery the place closed after the tourist
and the crocodile incident. Miami needs tourists, and a good show
would be one of those pythons taking over the Everglades

versus a full grown Florida gator.  Albino pythons,
so you’d wonder how they flourish in the Sunshine State.
One day my father brought home a baby alligator,
a red ribbon with a bow around its neck. Cute? 

You could buy them at Woolworth’s, baby turtles too,
that was before salmonella.  This was a gift from a patient,
a Seminole, before casinos and untaxed cigarettes but not before
 the roadside shows featuring full blooded Seminoles wrestling

giant alligators. We never stopped for one of those so I don’t know i
f stroking the alligator’s belly really does put it to sleep. 
I hope so.  One theory for the reduced road kill on South Florida 
highways is pythons getting to the possums and armadillos

before the cars. No proof and it may all be climate change,
like everything else.  Everyone remembers the first time they ate
armadillo. I could go on and on, like that snake that swallows
its tail.  Or the kind that flies off cliffs and makes a living

in the canopy.  They leap into the void, flatten out, except
their hearts, invoke Bernoulli’s Law, gain lift, postpone gravity,
and don’t look down.  Whether you call it flying, gliding, 
parachuting or kiting, they get from point A to B

farther than flying squirrels could. Venomous too, but weak venom
and small fangs.  Either way the trip begins with a leap of faith. 
On a similar subject the staff of Asclepius is entwined by a snake 
that reminds us to shed our skin and renew on an annual basis.

In other words invest in an annuity soon as you join the work force
otherwise lose out on the miracle of interest compounded daily. 
At the clinic where I work patients rush in to share their bites
and rashes. Life is dangerous and itchy they want me to believe,

and I do, otherwise who need deliverance? Not just deer ticks
but deer attacks, not only rabid foxes but rabid bears, not only bats 
in the attic but their guano.  Poison Ivy is the state plant.  One lady 
inhaled some at a cook-out. Her chest x ray proved lungs weep. 

One lady blames whiplash on her husband who swerved hard
to avoid something he claims was a snake trying to cross the road.   
She’s skeptical.  Why she asks, would the snake cross the road? 
A rhetorical question because she’s sure it was only a stick. 

She’ll be OK with some PT.  He smiles and doesn’t take it
personal. The art of medicine, according to Voltaire, is to entertain 
the patient while nature cures the patient.  Time cures,
but only some of the time.   If possible, give chance a chance.

Sooner or later extremes regress to the mean.  It’s not that the gods
 are whimsical.  Nor the planets or their moons.  The Greeks
let snakes wander through wards which also served as temples.   
Friendly snakes.  This was way before Hallmark or e-cards. 

Get well soon the snakes might say, speaking not only Greek
but in tongues that also taste the air. Those who speak in tongues
and handle snakes and play electric guitars at revival meetings are 
casting out the devil.  Good luck.  Allowing just a little

for poetic license, these are the same people who brought us
rock and roll. If your song argues chorus after chorus ain’t no 
grave gonna hold my body down  the rhetoric is strengthened
by the snake you dance with.  Faith comes in many packages. 

Condoms too.  And the risk that comes with pleasure. 
Back road gas stations, and not just the back road we take
through peanut country to the beach, have condom machines
in the men’s rooms. You can consider which flavor while drying

your hands.  What does this have to do with snakes? 
Once a year I go fishing with a bunch of guys, full spectrum 
rednecks almost without exception, to Cape Fear
on the Outer Banks.  We stand next to the ocean all day,

listen to it all night.  We catch the tide and gather the moon
and trust the dunes and think long and hard about how
to fool the fish.  Casting your bait to the wind is one way
of trusting fortune. The fish are lucky it’s only me

at the other end of the line because after a few wayward casts
I wander off looking for glass. I have a theory of beach glass
based on tide, picnic traffic, and the rum-sugar-slave trade
that helped make this nation what it is today.  My kids think

my taste in glass is something else I need to work on. If it’s glass 
and on the beach and wouldn’t cut your finger, it’s a keeper. 
Not that I don’t take pleasure if it’s foggy blue or something early 
in the rainbow. At the top of the jar, pride of place, a digit size

shard that starts red, goes orange, then yellow in the tip. 
Surely from another planet with wind and tide, beer and soda 
stored in bottles.  A fish bowl would be ideal to showcase
our collection.  Fish don’t think the way we do,

but they must wonder when shrimp appear out of nowhere, 
attached to rigs called Sputniks, a misnomer because what the rig 
resembles is a lunar landing module.  I used to spear fish. 
You do things in high school that aren’t Presidential and later on

you wonder how and why.  The eel heads and necks poking out 
from under the reefs look like the oldest men in rest homes
where they are outnumbered 10:1 by even older women.
Wrinkled eyes, jaws working on something other than a sentence. 

A diving magazine had a story about eel attacks, morays eels,
and first aid for eel bites.  Step 1:  stay calm.  Step 2:  pry open
the jaws.  I’d add with a tool not a finger.  Step 0 would be
don’t put your hand in the hole in the first place.  Fact or factoid:

a sea snake bite kills you faster than any other snake bite?
Not what most people wake up worrying about. 
Most people wake up worrying about the health of their annuity
or the mole that may be changing, the one in the eye,

way back where no one can see except the optometrist
who can only see it using mirrors. He wants me to come back 
every year for another retinal map, which brings to mind
those ancient maps when the world was flat and included sea

serpents waiting for whoever was brave or lost enough to sail over 
the horizon.  There’s always more than one mole,
but one in particular. The eye tech says look straight at the camera.   
The eye almost needs to touch the lens that’s looking in.  The tech

thinks I am not trying or not paying attention, but for anyone
with sunken eyeballs it’s embarrassing how the eye,
mind of its own, backs up out of fear or blinks at the last second.   
Talk about sunken, imagine Kafka trying to cooperate. 

There are eyeball parasites in Africa that swim in the aqueous
 humor at the front of the eye between the iris and the cornea.
They don’t look like sea horses, but they should. 
More like paisley, but that’s true for most parasites.  In our country

we just have bubbles floating by, mostly harmless bubbles. 
There are parasites in South America that swim up the urethra,
right up the appendage to the bladder, and once there are not able 
to back out due to the orientation of their spines.

Speaking of nature’s cruelty, can a snake bite you while it swims? 
Can they swim under water and surprise you from below?  No. No. 
Not in a just world.  Except for sea snakes
and that’s another hemisphere.  Sometimes snakes have corners. 

They can assume the shape of a bird house, bluebird houses
that come in kits that make nice gifts, at least people keep giving 
them to us as house gifts.  No pun. One wall is hinged and opens 
up so you can show the kids the nest with blue eggs the size

of white grapes. Sky blue, a deep sky.  A hopeful sight.
That’s when the neighbor called, this was before cell phones,
and asked me what to do, as if one day at med school
there was a lecture on extraction.  His house, from a kit,

was attached to a galvanized pipe that didn’t rust or stop the snake 
but did pull out of the ground.  Holding the house high,
like something you’d see in the revival church leading the preacher 
towards the altar, I carried the snake house across the road

and over to my field, shook it out, a rat snake, let it unkink
and de-cube and disappear in tall grass a month shy of being hay.   
Field mice don’t keep score or expect a safe world. 
Aristotle preferred spheres to other objects. Euclid who knows?

Plato wouldn’t allow poets in his perfect world. 
What do they know? Instinct takes over in lower life forms,
but humans—regardless of behavioral genetics claims
against free will—humans are the only species who know

that they know but need to kick it around, think it over,
dress it up in allusion, turn it into myth, digitize it and photoshop it 
and back it up in the reptile folder on the jump drive. 
We also have opposing thumbs and the back ache that follows

bipeds around.  Two kinds of humans:  those whose backs hurt
all the time and those only some of the time.  Snakes don’t look 
like their backs hurt. Speaking of myth:  can they hypnotize
their victims before striking?  Only if the victim has a bird brain. 

Can snakes bite after they die, instinct lingering in the puddle
of cold blood, that first gasp of mortality turn vicious?  Linger
the operative word.  It may be grasping at straws to see the spark 
of life as an ember.  It may also be mixing metaphors. 

If the dunes where we go fishing know where and how to shift
and guard the island from the storm tides that arrive on full moons 
and won’t stop at anything man made but get soaked up or worn 
out or something by dunes [it’s not just the sand, it’s the grass too]

then you’d think anything is possible, even Ouija spelling. 
In some dimension dunes have to be endless.  Chances are
there are five dimensions at least.  You’d wonder at least. 
When I let the dogs out of the laundry room in the morning

and it’s still dark out and no moon, there’s a flash of green
that I can only see when I’m not looking. No one else can see it.   
Hello?  Stuff like that you can’t plan ahead.  Near the dog food can 
in the garage a snake has draped its skin.  The dog food

brings mice and the mice bring snakes.  They are tiny,
necklaces small and clever enough to move in and out the gap 
between the inside and the outside, under the gasket and over
the ramp, or disappear from the corner of your eye

through the crack between the garage and the crawl space
and at that moment and only at a glance they are in two spaces
at once.  Pretty quantum for something that exists
outside Schrodinger’s Box. There’s the wave theory of light

and the particle theory of light, at least there used to be back when 
I took Physics for Poets, and there’s the squiggly theory
of reconciliation that I made up and didn’t help my grade. 
Where I work I submit a budget that the dean’s money people

question and their questions are like those word problems
asking if train A leaves the station at 8 AM heading south
at 40 MPH and then train B down the track starts north at 30 MPH 
an hour later, the question is when and where they meet

and what then?  My question is couldn’t we call train A
something else?  The Orange Blossom Special with fiddles
for locomotion? Something with heartbreak and biorhythm. 
What if a neighbor’s son was on the trestle and had nowhere

to leap but down?  There was a river down there
with a current and there are word problems involving rowboats
in rivers with currents. The last time I saw him
he and his girlfriend were in full bloom sitting on a bale of hay

in our field and making out as if all the world’s doors were closed, 
curtains drawn, oblivious to oblivion, a moment
that still breaks the collective neighborhood heart into pieces 
smaller than grains of sand that were already too small

even for the other worlds you mainly find in poems. 
His dad used to come fishing but then he moved away
and started over.  What scared me as a kid
were not the monster sized monsters but the small ones,

not the beasts that roared but the ones that spoke,
not dinosaurs but snakes, not the snakes with fangs
but the ones who needed you to move close and listen,
not the lies but the truth.  Its hiss.

I came upon this poem in the latest issue of Nimrod International Journal which
is produced by The University of Tulsa, and what a joy it is to come upon a poet
who you have never heard of before, whose work you like so much it makes you
leap about and shout for joy! (I did google, thinking - hmm, maybe he is a one
poem poet, but no. I found another delightful poem out there in cyberspace.)

I got in touch with Daniel Becker to ask if I could post his poem and he
presented me with a conundrum. Nimrod had asked him to reconfigure his
original draft to make the lines shorter. That was the version I read. But
Daniel sent me the original version, which he said he preferred. I saw nothing
at all wrong with the poem I read in Nimrod, (I was enchanted by it) but as
Daniel prefers his original, I am going with that one.

Daniel Becker practises and teaches internal medicine at the University Of
Virginia School of Medicine in Charlottesville, Virginia.     


  1. Phenomenal poem - thanks Jennifer! Will be coming back & back to it. I think it needs several readings. I love the lines with bubble wrap part of the brain knowing that a snake deflating won't be quiet. Just awesome.

  2. I'm only half-way through and love it. Thanks Jennifer.