May 28, 2013

When a Snake is Just a Snake: Emily Dickinson and A.E. Stallings

Momentary by A. E. Stallings : Poetry Magazine

A narrow fellow in the grass by Emily Dickinson : The Poetry Foundation

"Momentary" by A.E. Stallings and "  "A Narrow Fellow in the Grass" by Emily Dickinson. 
Snake Cousin??

I was unable to read A. E. Stallings’ poem, “Momentary,” without thinking of Emily Dickinson’s famous “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass.” I’m assuming Stallings was aware of the similarities and contrasts between the two poems. In fact, exploiting that difference may have been Stallings' motivation for “Momentary,” and I applaud her bold decision as well as the poem itself. At first, however, I wondered why she would mess with an icon—not only Emily Dickinson, but also that particular, widely known poem.

First, let’s address sex and gender. Anyone doubting that Dickinson’s reptile is somewhat, or completely, phallic should reread the poem with a penis in mind. This might add a (softly or firmly) comic dimension to the poem—and I do hear a primarily bemused, curious tone prior to Dickinson’s dramatic last line. Although Stallings is still more understated, Dickinson is not exactly a hysterical, Victorian old maid concerning her (unconsciously sexual) serpent.
I’m choosing the version of "A Narrow Fellow in the Grass" in Thomas Johnson’s Final Harvest--still the definitive edition of E.D.’s Selected Works, as far as I know. This is also the version at Poetry Foundation, except that they do not replicate Dickinson’s quatrains or her quirky punctuation and capitalization. In other versions of the poem, the “boy” is changed to “child,” and the time of day changes from “Noon” to early “Morn.” I don’t know who made the change or why they did it.

In the early version I’m using, Dickinson’s contrivance of a male speaker is a fascinating complication, but it probably boils down to the stereotype of young males as more likely to be barefoot and encountering snakes than girls would be in the 1860s. Even today, if I say, “A kid is fascinated by a snake,” don’t most of us hear that kid as a boy? And given Dickinson’s language, his adventure is an encounter with his own sexuality as much as the reptile itself.

Whether the boy is straight or gay is not as important as it might seem. Either way, an encounter with his sexuality is, or at least might be, a terrifying experience—a confrontation with magic and terror all at once. For that matter, girls might experience even more of that “Zero at the bone,” that freeze of terror, when they witness and unconsciously sense the snake of Eden and Freud.

If we go in that direction with Dickinson, we might wonder if A.E. Stallings, with her female speaker and lady snake, is suggesting lesbianism. Instead, I think Stallings is trying to remove the snake from the sexual and demonic components conferred upon it by the Judeo-Christian tradition. Her snake is more simply a beautiful, mysterious creature of nature, and Stallings is sharing that experience with us: the beautiful thing that flees when I appear. Sometimes a snake is just a snake. Without the comparison to Dickinson’s “A Narrow Fellow,” I don’t think I’d have considered anything sexual about Stallings’ snake, although her decision to make the animal female is counterintuitive, or at least untraditional, and thus invites speculation.

Killdeer or Quizzical Eve??

Each snake seizes its speaker’s attention and elicits compelling images. Dickinson’s narrow fellow is a “spotted shaft” and when he moves, he’s “a whip lash, / Unbraiding in the sun,” as he parts the grass like a "comb." Stallings’ snake skin is like valuable metal, “chain mail . . . / Aglint with pewter, bronze and rose.” It calls to mind a zither’s sound as well as a zithery, zigzagging motion when it “Quicksilver[s] into tall grasses” (Dickinson’s tamer “comb” of a snake might seem emasculated by comparison).

After disturbing it, Stallings can sight the snake’s movement “only by her flowing,” which strikes me as more graceful and mysterious than Dickinson’s grass-combing fellow—although the two poets’ perceptions are more alike than different. All of Stallings’ images have positive connotations: beauty, speed, grace and mystery—whereas E.D. is at least open to the argument that her snake is the “wrinkled,” terrifying, phallic, Satanic serpent of Eden.

Stallings’ female snake is entirely pretty and never menacing. When human and snake encounter each other, the snake flees. And in the final line, the speaker seems wistful that their meeting has amounted only to a “Momentary” experience.  She’s sad to see the snake go, its shiny “glamour” fading into a shadowy motion in the grasses, until the speaker regretfully concludes that all she can do is “recognize her going,” which she caused by disturbing it. 

By contrast, and before we ever get to Dickinson’s memorable conclusion, “Zero at the Bone,” her boy-speaker is spooked by a snake that “closes at your feet / And opens further on.” There is distance between human and reptile. 

Eve with Headless Mallards
This Victorian snake likes a “bog,” which conjures swamps—dirty, messy, dank, sludgy, even sinister. Bog might also suggest the primordial ooze from which we came, but that doesn't mean we like our origins. When the boy dares to stoop for the snake, trying to “secure it,” it “wrinkled and was gone.” Compare those actions to Stalling’s more positive, even magical quicksilvering and zithering motions. Both snakes disappear into the grasses, but the two speakers’ perceptions are rather different.

I hear wonderfully understated poetry in the final lines of both poems. In Dickinson’s haunting, supra-rational conclusion, the snake creates a deathly panic, and who but Dickinson would think to name that fear “Zero at the bone”? In any case, after a brief fascination with the snake, the boy seems glad to be safely rid of it, while Stallings’ speaker is left with admiration and a sense of loss as Lady Snake avoids her and escapes. 

Bog with Barn Swallow's escape, bottom right

To return to my original point about sexuality in both poems, I think Stallings might be gently trying for a correction of Dickinson’s repressed and therefore heightened sexualization of things, including a serpentine, Puritanical demon (though, I repeat, “Zero at the bone” is the only place where Dickinson expresses dramatic fear, or fear of any significance; in fact, her overall tone seems rather bemused). One could even argue that the two poems are models of nineteenth- versus twentieth/twenty-first century apprehensions of human experience.

Many humans (not me) see the beauty of snakes that simply do what they must as a species. Whether phallic or merely reptile, scaring humans is not their primary concern. Writing more than a century after Dickinson, Stallings can more thoughtfully and aesthetically appreciate Nature and its creatures. She can calm down, holster her Freudian gun, and paint us a snake at least as exotic as Dickinson’s. But it’s a snake that conveys grace and quiet avoidance of conflict. It deserves no demonizing or over-dramatizing. 

Momentary by A. E. Stallings : Poetry Magazine

A narrow fellow in the grass by Emily Dickinson : The Poetry Foundation



Anonymous said...

"...scaring humans is not their primary concern." I know, it's true, we can't help but personalize nature. Must be part of our survival kit. And on that note, I'm very fond of snakes. As a kid we used to catch red racers and then, of course, try to race them, but they didn't recognize the finish line and would slink off in various directions.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Can't wait until you tackle e.e. cummings.

Ken Mac said...

Where's the like button?

Brenda's Arizona said...

The imagery of Hiker slinking is worthy of a poem, don't ya think?

RuneE said...

Another post that demands side-by-side reading (two separate tabs will do). Thank you for your thorough guidance! Without it I wouldn't have been able to grasp many of the points you make. I'm not sure that I agree with you on the purpose of reptiles, but I'll return to Richard Dawkins' reissue of "The Selfish Gene" with your words in mind :-)

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I don't know when snakes went from the garden of Eden into a mans pants, (maybe because they both spit?) but I'm guessing a woman was never consulted on the matter.

Maybe in the 19th century, while land was still not completely overwhelmed with concrete, snakes were more numerous - and some of them venomous. I understand "zero at the bone." I experience it every time I hear a rattle. I also marvel at their beauty, and use them in my work.

Lovers' Lane