17 August 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/33


Under the dry swath
a snake crawled out.
Around her the empty meadow
and one flower.
Above, two, three clouds,
a bird flying,
the sun shining.

On the road winding into the distance,
someone's song.
The lonely sound entangles itself
in the grass.
She listens, her head raised
wide-awake into the air.
The sun is shining.

Here's where they killed her mother
with the blade of a scythe.
They'll do the same to her
when she crawls out of the shrubbery.
Her clothes will rot
with their embroideries
and the glow of dew.

Even in eternity, never again
will the same snake sun itself,
nor will the same birds fly,
nor the same flower sprout.
The sun is shining.

Desanka Maksimović, translated from the Serbian by Charles Simic

There is a timeless feel about this scene, which seems like a simple description of a day in the country. The natural elements are put up in what seems an almost overly general way: a flower, two – no, make it three! – clouds, a bird, the sun shining. It's like a child's drawing, in which certain shapes stand for all flowers, all bird, all clouds, and the combination of all of them makes up a landscape. The human presence is only suggested, and in a way that could set this poem in the Middle Ages as well as in some pockets of the world today: the swath suggests that there is a harvest going on, but it (and the killing of vermin) is done with a scythe, not modern machinery. There is a song in the distance; I suppose it could come from a radio, but my first thought was that it had to be someone walking along, actually singing. It's one of those sounds that emphasizes the vastness of the surrounding silence and loneliness. When the poet looks for a description of the snake's rich scales, she compares them to embroidered clothing, which is something a prosperous farmer might have as a prize possession in a time before the mass production of clothing (or electronic goods or fancy cars).

The progression of the poem is the progression of a life: first emergence and basic awareness, then increased, wider-ranging awareness (the song in the distance), then her mother's death and the inevitability of her own. The world seems quiet and empty, but the world is hostile. The sun keeps shining. At its first appearance the shining sun might seem an emblem of cheerfulness, almost conventionally so. As it keeps re-appearing and shining to cap off what seems like the snake's increasingly death-bound life, the sun can seem relentless. And then it seems indifferent, and then we realize that everything we might think about the shining sun – the cheerfulness, the cruelty, even the indifference – is a projection. The sun is vast and far away and we keep revolving around its vastness and its heat and its distance and it doesn't know we're here.

Whenever you start contemplating your individual relationship to the universe in this way, you enter theological realms. Snakes are, to human eyes, strange and disturbing and therefore powerful creatures, and it's no coincidence that snakes slither through the world's religions. In a poem coming out of a country with a Biblical tradition, as this poem does, it's impossible to put a snake in a garden without suggesting the serpent in Eden tempting Adam and Eve to their downfall ("Now the serpent was more subtil [sic] than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made": Genesis 3:1, King James version). But you might also think of Jesus instructing his apostles: "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore as wise as serpents, and harmless as doves" (Matthew 10: 16). Making this poem about a snake suggests something about evil and wisdom, and something primal about how we sense the otherness of our world and our deep projections of our problems and mysteries onto our surroundings. This snake herself seems neither evil nor wise, but merely sentient, though perhaps it's not a case of merely so much as of utterly. She lifts her head when she hears song; she feels the sun. Her mother was killed and she too will be killed, in the same way. The poet's reference to the snake as she and the reference to her mother humanize the reptile. We start to identify with her. It's jarring when she suddenly become the impersonal it in the final stanza.

Though the poem makes us think theologically, there is no mention of any deity; the refrain-like reminder in the final line of all but one stanza that the sun is shining is the closest thing the poem suggests to eternity. In the final stanza, the universal, perhaps even generic, quality of this poem's world – the unspecified birds, the vague flowers, even the indeterminate snake that is the star of our show – are suddenly highlighted with a poignant reminder that each of these things is deeply individual and will never recur again in the history of time – a reminder that calls to our imaginations to provide the specifics omitted in the poem. So each of these things – clouds, birds, flowers, snake – both takes in an entire category and is an individual representative of that category. What is true of one of them – that it is a unique individual, that it will never recur – is true of all of them. (This is similar to Gertrude Stein's famous "a rose is a rose is a rose" which means both "roses are all roses and all fall into the category rose" and "a rose is, a rose is, a rose is" which emphasizes the individual nature of each rose.)

Maksimović gives us a contradiction of the Biblical saying that nothing is new under the sun: here, though it all looks like the same old basic country landscape, every single thing under the shining sun, and each combination of those things, is a unique and therefore new moment.

This poem is from The Horse Has Six Legs: An Anthology of Serbian Poetry, edited and translated by Charles Simic. I have an early edition, published when Maksimović was still alive (she died in 1993). It looks as if an expanded edition is now available.

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