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Etna

Poetry: Words Painting Pictures

 

 

Words have always fascinated me.  The way they march across a page creating people, places, and life stories, or laying down facts and information, excites me to the core.  I curl up with pleasure at the sight or sound of certain words while others have the power to chill me to the bone.

Words can be kind and compassionate, soft and gentle.  Words can cause love or anger to burst forth in an eruption of passion more impressive than the best orchestrated firework display.  They can soothe the soul and warm the heart or they can cut sharper than any well honed knife.

Words light up my own imagination and set my soul on fire.  Perhaps for this reason I am always reading.  As I already mentioned in my previous posting Musings-  Relationships, I devoured books as I child.  In elementary school they couldn’t keep enough books on the classroom library shelves for me.

Even poetry pleased me from an early age.  Perhaps that is why I began writing my own poetry as I emerged from my painful “past life”.  In High School, perhaps my sophomore or junior year, we held a poetry reading contest.  One of my class mates, Mary Griswell, read a poem called Snake written by the somewhat controversial author D.H. Lawrence. 

I was mesmerized by the second line.  I was there, a few yards from the water-trough, in my own pajamas and I could feel the heat all around me.  As the poem unfolded I was transported to this hot place in Italy (strange that it was in my beloved Italy!), and I could see the snake, his colors, the texture of his skin, and the slow movement of his body.  Let me share the poem with you.

Snake         

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,
Silently.

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.

Taormina, 1923

This poem made such an impression on my heart and mind that some years later I was inspired to make a pen and ink drawing of the snake.  It sits in my dining room to this day.  Whenever I look at it I can picture Mary in the library of the Ursuline High School, and if I close my eyes I can still hear her reciting the poem.   

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