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By Charles Matthews

Friday, April 23, 2010

Poem of the Day: William Plomer

In the Snake Park 

A white-hot midday in the Snake Park.
Lethargy lay here and there in coils,
And here and there a neat obsidian head
Lay dreaming on a plaited pillow of its own
Loops like a pretzel or a true-love-knot.

A giant Python seemed a heap of tyres;
Two Nielsen's Vipers looked for a way out, 
Sick of their cage and one another's curves;
And the long Ringsnake brought from Lembuland
Poured softly through an opening like smoke.

Leaning intently forward a young girl
Discerned in stagnant water on a rock
A dark brown shoestring or discarded whiplash,
Then read the label to find out the name,
Then stared again: it moved. She screamed.

Old Piet Vander leant with us that day
On the low wall around the rocky spacee
Where amid broken quartz that cast no shade
Snakes twitched or slithered, or appeared to sleep,
Or lay invisible in the singing glare.

The sun throbbed like a fever as he spoke:
"Look carefully at this shrub with glossy leaves."
Leaves bright as brass. "That leaf on top
Just there, do you see that it has eyes?
That's a Green Mamba, and it's watching you.

"A man I once knew did survive the bite,
Saved by a doctor running with a knife,
Serum and all. He was never the same again.
Vomiting blackness, agonizing, passing blood,
Part paralysed, near gone, he felt

"(He told me later) he would burst apart;
But the worst agony was in his mind --
Unbearable nightmare, worse than total grief
Or final loss of hope, impossibly magnified
To a blind passion of panic and extreme distress."

"Why should that little head have power
To inject all horror for no reason at all?"
"Ask me another -- and beware of snakes."
The sun was like a burning-glass. Face down
The girl who screamed had fallen in a faint.
--William Plomer

Perhaps Plomer oversensationalizes the otherness of snakes here, but they do seem to inspire a primal fear, as D.H. Lawrence suggested in a somewhat more subtle poem.

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