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Reign of Snakes

Reign of Snakes

by Robert Wrigley

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Described by the late James Dickey as "one of the finest new poets to come along in years," Robert Wrigley fulfills that early promise with this, his newest collection. Reign of Snakes is a book about desire, the soul's desire as much as the body's. As Jane Hirshfield said of Wrigley's previous book, In the Bank of Beautiful Sins


Described by the late James Dickey as "one of the finest new poets to come along in years," Robert Wrigley fulfills that early promise with this, his newest collection. Reign of Snakes is a book about desire, the soul's desire as much as the body's. As Jane Hirshfield said of Wrigley's previous book, In the Bank of Beautiful Sins (Penguin, 1995), "To read it is to unpeel a little further into the human, and into the wideness that holds the human--a splendid gift." Reign of Snakes takes us to yet another level, deep into the daily devotions, "where the dark blows a kiss to night."

. . . a frigid day in February and a full-grownrattlesnake curled to a comma in the middle of the middle of the just-plowed road. Ice ghost, I think, curve of rock or stubbed-off branch. But the diamonds are there, under a dust of crystals looming, impossible, summer's tattoo, the mythical argyle of evil.

--from "Reign of Snakes"

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Memories and loves, and a knowledge of the Midwest's plants, insects and animals, combine in Wrigley's fifth collection to create an eccentric "bland, humdrum, quotidian guilt." Nature poems like those preceding each of the volume's four parts cram the landscape with highly wrought sonic and syntactic resonances (a plant is "a dessicate dump the strumpet sparrows/ spread far and wide"). But most often, the affected syntax surrounds more directly confessional moments of the hunter's peculiar agonies, as in the title poem: "And I have hacked rattlesnakes to bloody hunks,/ grunting my rage, and made with a single surgical blow/ a guillotine of the shovel's edge." By the end of poems like "Flies," "Hoarfrost," "Art" and "Prey" it doesn't much matter whether such violence is being critiqued or fetishized, as interest has long since waned. Shifting such interrogations of physicality to people, however, like the poet's wife and children, results in a bad fusion of Whitman, D. H. Lawrence and antiquarian porn: if after childbirth "her breasts, those lovely baubles, became/ mammary glands, lactate factories, unfirmed/ unto womanliness and not a bit less lovely." The results of such simplistic representations are condescending and baffling. At best, they bring one back to the piscatory eclogues and lush, self-involved phrasings of the Rhymer's Club. But unlike them, these poems don't seem to have anything to teach us about nature. (June) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
His first two books recently reprinted by the Univ. of Illinois Press, the Idaho-based Wrigley, in his fifth, again proves why he earned the imprimatur of the late James Dickey. Wrigley's harsh and raw verse exults in its masculinity, and in the toughness of nature: his wife, in one poem, smells the "testosterone" in the images of heavy equipment floating downriver after a flood. But this and other bouts of sappiness—especially in poems about his children—shouldn't distract from Wrigley's strength in poems that re-create in their sounds nature's gutturals: his compound word-hoards rely on all the non-metrical devices (assonance, consonance, alliteration, internal rhymes) to capture the brutality on display all around him in the West. Many of these poems locate him in the wilderness, as vigilist, eulogist, and even savior. Both Whitman and the Bible lurk behind his long lines, and a number of his longer narratives are printed in italics, alerting us to the heightened language: in "The Afterlife," he aspires to the stillness of the heron; in "Amazing Grace," his admitted "yawp" sounds good, but meanders like Dickey at his incoherent worst; in "Meditation at Bedrock Canyon," another self-conscious nod to Whitman, he celebrates "the forest medieval"; and the last one, "The Name," witnesses the birth of his son, exhibiting the poet's sensitivity. The most memorable sequence, though, is the title section, nine narratives with snakes in them, from a portrait of a religious snakehandler to the memory of a beautiful woman next door in his youth, who snapped a copperhead dead with one whip. The creepiest section puns on the title of the volume—a literal rain of snakesdrops down on an earthmover that hits upon a den. Ophidiphobes beware: others will tire of Wrigley's pantheistic excess, and his expansive need to embrace even bathos.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Poets, Penguin Series
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.95(h) x 0.31(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

    The Afterlife


Spring, and the first full crop of dandelions gone
to smoke, the lawn lumpish with goldfinches,
hunched in their fluffs, fattened by seed,
alight in the wind-bared peduncular forest.
Little bells, they loop and dive, bend
the delicate birch branches down.
I would enter the sky through the soil
myself, sing up the snail bowers
and go on the lam with the roots.
Licked by filaments, I would lie,
a billion love-mouths to suckle and feed.

Where the river will be next week,
a Fuddle two trout go savagely dying in.
Notice the bland, Darwinian sand: bone wrack
and tree skin, the ground clown moon bowls
of mussels, viral stones dividing like mold.
At twelve, I buried the frog because it was dead
and dug it up because I'd been dreaming—
a fish belly light, a lowly chirruped chorus
of amens. I thought my rights might smell of hell.

Bland, humdrum, quotidian guilt—
if I've killed one frog, I've killed two.
Saint Rot and the sacraments of maggots:
knowing is humus and sustenance is sex.
It accrues and accrues, it stews
tumorous with delight. Tomorrow's
a shovelful, the spit of the cosmos, one day
the baby's breath is no longer a rose.


Dumb, would-be Siddhartha, I sat, lapped still
by the snowmelt rush. I was dull
as a beard and loved here
and there by mistake. The winter's last eagle lingered,
under its favored branch a garden
of delicate ribs. Air grew ripe
around them, like hands around
the heart of a prayer, the river a mirror
I was near believing: we are angels,
blue muck engenders a heaven,
this rush toward oblivion is the afterlife of all.

Somehow the frippery the cliff swallows sounded
escaped me. I could not imagine
the vaginal moistnesses of pleasure or birth.
That was the scream of a god, I thought,
but it was only tires on the highway above:
the beaver's spine dashed and rutted,
its belly-sides blown to bloody lips.
With brawny forelegs, it pulled itself my way,
blind to me, and tumbled clown the rip rap
below the road. I wanted its yellow teeth—
it would not need them again—
so picked up a stone to smash its misery dead,
then heard the birds, their swirl and skirl,
their amorous warble in the fly-blown heights.

Festooned with their nests, the cliff
across the road looked mud-pocked. How the fissures held
and the nestlings clamored. How it goes
on and on—seed mash and the sun-blind
wings of goldfinches, swallows above
reproach, and a dying beaver writhing
on the rocks. Will my counsel have soothed it?
Did its soul come loose and lodge
in a sapling? I let fall the stone.
I sat. Where the marsh grass meets the sand,
where the wild rose kissed the season,
a hundred pink blossoms without a single want.


Plum and umber, dumb phlox spilling
from the canyon walls, its blue pinks deepened
each successive frost. An ancient rose,
a crone, sweet meat after meat for the bees.
The spirit dies a little, come spring,
each spring. Rib of trout, forgive me
my trespasses, forgive
my impatience with children, my curse
for the stinkbug and tick. I'm thinking
and thinking's a seed. The stillness
of the great blue heron is what I aspire to.
All the mud in this world is redolent
of just-cut meat, and nothing's at stake but the brain.

I am not the worst of my kind. There's succor
in that, though the beaver's gums are callused
as a ditch digger's hand and I am breaking
the laws of the state regarding game.
Slow as an hour hand the baron's leg
rises, the sun leans into its notch in the west.
My son calls from the cliff
across the river. From the drawn, distended petals
of his mother's body, he burst
into the world and began to mourn.
The spirit took root in his cry.

* * *

    Why Do the Crickets Sing?

Because it is not enough to open the door
or sit on the porch, I have to go inside
the clamor the crickets send up
after a morning's long rain. I have to climb down
from the birdsong heights, let the water
wick my clothes cold and lick spit
salsify dabble my neck and eyelids with its kisses.

The nightcrawlers' earth musk makes me dizzy;
they lie spent and glistening in the light of the clouds.
Now the bells, the bells! The succulent hell boil
clamor of their wings, singing the hearts
of the one sun deep inside the seeds.
Let us open the mud book and pray.

Even the slug glister looms: perfect firmaments,
polestar and moon, only now
my eyes too focus on. the blur of the bells,
fingertip whorls spin sudden into music.
It is like drowning, chorus and string,
a billion breath-moaned horns breaking like waves.

Taproot is thunder and moss is rain,
the drum of it what finally wakes me,
or brings me back from some brink,
some light that held me down to pull me up:
or else it is the kettledrum rumble of the field mouse—
a shriek of terror, soar of the hawk descending.

    Dark Forest

... and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.


I love the way the woods arrange themselves
for my convenience: here's the stob

I hang my pants on and here
the shrub I nestle my still-warm

underwear over, out of each leg hole
a leaf like an almond eye, one black

fly strolling the vent like a big city boardwalk.
And see how my shirt flung up

is the residue of flame,
a long smoke fading in the weeds.

I hear my boots go running,
though they will not go far down that ravine:

they miss my socks, one fist-sized stone
in the toes and thrown.

I'm ready now, dark forest.
Bring on your snakes and bears,

your coyotes singing praises
to my pink and almost hairless flanks.

Bring on the icy night, the cocktail stars,
the flamboyant, androgynous sun going down.

Let my soles go bloody
through the puncture weeds and shards,

let my legs be slashed by thorns:
I will follow my old compass, slouching

toward the north. I will paint myself
in the mud wallows of elk and make my skin

a new brown thing. Give my eyes to the ravens,
my heart to the ungainly buzzard, its head

gone red over all the earth's
uncountable cadavers, liberator of the dust.

I bequeath my clothes to the unraveling jays
and I will, if I should survive the night,

rise reborn, my opposable thumbs
surrendered to the palms, to find

in a snowmelt puddle a draught
of the same old wretched light,

seeing as the water stills at last
the man I refuse to be.


This morning the swing set's a confection,
even its chains flocked thick
as crustless loaves, the painted steel frame
diaphanous with light but gargantuan.
Lace of ice, vapor blades,
the heat of my one gloved hand
would ease you back to water,
and there, where the plain tubular rung
supports the spraddled legs, a dangling
growth I breathe on
to clarify, to half-thaw and see inside.
It's a small bird, a sparrow, I think,
frozen by its foot and swaddled in a headdress
of flightless feathers—a little chief,
a venerable elder, savior of the tribe of winter.
But no, it's just a bird, gray and indistinct,
winter-killed but statistically irrelevant,
though I see now through the fading,
breathed-away frost its eyes were open
when it died. It might have been
like flight then, the last feeble
electric spasm in its brain seeing
the earth turned over from the air.
What wings there, in the final dream light
of a dying bird. What a vista,
as the sun went down and it soared
into the vast, geometrical whiteness
of ice.


They come from the walls, from the house
logs stacked green and cracked along the grain,
from the gapped, inadequate joinery,
from their lairs to ours, from the larval slops
at the mild outer edges of the compost pile.
Wings pure plasticine and calcite
veined black, they back in
toward the very rot they came from,
until, by midwinter, the unused troughs
where the windows slide are furrows
of that glad disassembly—black shards
of carapace and thorax, whole heads
and whole heads of hairlike legs.
For now, however, late fall, they remain aloft,
battering their eye-faceted, boneless skulls
against glass or spinning periodic and dervish
on sills, floors, desks, and tables,
a million living jewels enacting
the curse of a god of an unearthed pharaoh.
I go room to room, sweeping them up
with a broom and pan, or pulling them off
with the long wand of the vacuum, sometimes
still aspin, sometimes still flying,
a hill of them daily accruing, dark
with shimmers, a confetti of husks in the shop vac,
a wing-shatter lace I will remember come spring
and dump atop the thinning snow
mounded over last year's leaves—the leaves
I have yet to rake, the snow that has not yet
fallen, the flies, like this one,
just a moment ago come down before me,

Meet the Author

Robert Wrigley is a recipient of numerous grants and fellowships. His sixth and most recent book, Lives of the Animals, won the 2004 Poets’ Prize.

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