EQUINOX

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The toad shook off two snowy
eyebrows with a sudden twitch.
Mud shivered in the blowy
balm, rippled the juicy ditch.
Toad popped its eyes awake,
tapped by a warm green witch
and listened for the snake
between the lines, between
the woods and the lip of the lake.

The snake wiped itself clean
against a brand new blade
of grass, and practiced looking mean.
Scales, skin newly-made,
wet with excitement and tight
on the courage of the unafraid,
tongue flapping a small red kite,
snake kept its body low
in wait, and saved its bite.

The toad, heavy and slow
with eggs, had to cross the line
between new waters and old snow.

How could a snake pine
sentimentally for what
its gut demanded by design?

Snake brain cracked like a nut.
Coiled venom, raging spit
leapt from the rut
and took the toad, near all of it
into the mouth.  But deep
the toad moan would not fit
nor drift to easy sleep
down in the snake.  It caught high
in the maw, swimming to keep

alive.  The monster that followed
was dreadful to see, as it tried
to get into, get out of, the hollow–

a birth in reverse, blaming the sky
for being unable to swallow
for being unable to die.

29 responses »

    • Thank you, Ina

      (and now, you got me going. Here’s one for you:

      DROIGHNEACH : TRIBUTE TO INA

      Holiday! Proclaim it! Name her Zesty Czarina,
      Verbena of Verses, and such sobriquets,
      for her rich résumé: haiku, sonnet, sestina,
      strict, yet never subpoena, loose but not negligée.
      Shadorma, villanelle, couplets bucolic,
      dreams symbolic–all sans peer parallel;
      poetess pimpernel, stepping systolic,
      drunk (non-alcoholic), crystallized caramel.
      Her intrepid play, often gutsy, organic
      and rarely mechanic, is right runaway.
      Not much more to say of a gifted, galvanic
      talent titanic—just this: she’s a high holiday.)

    • Have you ever seen this happen, Christine? I watched this, to my horror, one early spring evening in my back garden. I banged a metal pail against stone and frightened the snake enough to release the toad…whose body was now terribly elongated, though it regained its legs enough to get away. The snake left, too….off to wait and startle me another day. Thank you for your usual encouragement—and thank you, too for that “plug” on your site!

      • Oh gosh! You actually winessed this! I was going to ask you how your thoughts arrived at this subject! No Ive never seen it t all. And if there was a snake anywhere near my garden you wouldnt see me for dust! I love “tongue flapping a small red kite” . Im making myself shudder.

        And Im so pleased so many of my blogging friends have now met you! It’s wonderful and your poetry is just… Well, you already know what I think.

  1. Wow, this poem really carries the reader along! I was feeling terribly sad for the toad–but seems there was justice, with the snake quite stuck.

  2. I’ve not witnessed this but my sister did recently. In her case the toad wailed terribly but, like you, my sister managed to get him / her released. You poem tells the story just as my sister told it, except for the wailing which seemed to have made quite an impression on my sister.. How cruel is nature and how lovely your poetry. You immortalize an odd moment with enchanting lyrics.Thank you, Jane

    • It was very unsettling–like many a true and natural thing. My little toad didn’t wail, though…it moaned. Your sister’s story corroborates, and that’s good, because some don’t believe this . (And some don’t believe this is not just a story about a toad and a snake!) Cheerio, Jane!

  3. What an extraordinary incident you’ve captured for us here, Cynthia! I find the title most interesting too: it raises our sights from the life and death struggle on the ground (the stuck half-and-halfness of it) to the sky and the year and Nature (who never was sentimental, was she?).
    Also, I stand in awe having read your droighneach to Ina. I think I’ll stick to the limerick … !)

    • I am so delighted by your comment, John. “The stuck half-and-halfness” of it, and the matching of the struggle at ground level with the equinox is just what I was after…thank you for seeing that!

      As to the droighneach, you may have been following our discussion of this form on various blogs. I’ve always thought it sounded way too difficult to manage, but Thomas Davis said he might try it. Enter good old Ina, who dashed one off in a trice, and in my hauteur of critiquing her attempt I started to doodle with it and –mirabile dictu–created a droighneach in about an hour. The quality is a whole ‘nother story. It was fun after a while…and a rhyming dictionary helps, with the trisyllabics. Go ahead, jump in. The water’s fine. And you’re a good swimmer!

  4. What a magnificent poem, Cynthia! There are so many good things about it that I won’t come close to mentioning all of them. First, some of the language!
    “The toad shook off two snowy
    eyebrows with a sudden twitch.”
    “tongue flapping a small red kite”
    “…But deep
    the toad moan would not fit…”
    Part of the magic, though certainly not the whole part, of poetry is when descriptions are unusual enough, or the use of language is unusual enough, to startle the reader into awareness. Hey, this is not usual! Most of the poets I know, with some exceptions, do not work at that aspect of poetry, delighted when they stumble onto a phrase that is unique or startling, but your poetry sometimes slides down rainbows of words that dance in the colored light. It helps make it memorable.
    Second, the story itself is so memorable, married so powerfully with the toad half-in, half-out of the snake with the new skin’s mouth, that it startles even more than the language does. This is high art in my estimation. Without the image of the toad in the snake’s mouth
    “…But deep
    the toad moan would not fit
    nor drift to easy sleep
    down in the snake. It caught high
    in the maw, swimming to keep

    alive. The monster that followed
    was dreadful to see, as it tried
    to get into, get out of, the hollow–,”
    created as much through indirection as through graphic description, this would not be half the poem. That the image-the-reader-is-forced-to-create-in-their-own-mind occurs just where it should in a skeleton plot in modern storytelling, even adding the element of foreshortened time to the tale, creating tension before denouement. This shows not only careful craftsmanship, but also the sense that this is a poet who actually knows their craft and what they are doing. There a few poets with that ability on wordpress, but only a few.
    The third good thing is the symbolism in the poem. The new skinned snake, pleased with himself in his revolt from heaven, has obvious connotations:
    “wet with excitement and tight
    on the courage of the unafraid…”
    Ah yes! But in swallowing the toad, the object of his desire, in this case the whole of another life,
    “The monster that followed
    was dreadful to see…”
    “How could a snake pine
    sentimentally for what
    its gut demanded by design?”
    The snake is who he is, of course, determined to swallow the toad (life as I read this), the creation of God in spite of its lack of angelic beauty. But in doing so, what happens?
    “…a birth in reverse, blaming the sky
    for being unable to swallow
    for being unable to die.”
    Satan, evil, whatever, has trouble swallowing the desire made corporeal inside its nature, and so blames the sky for not being able to swallow the prize or to die even though the snake has become a monster made of two lives, neither of which, reflecting on our own situation within the zoo, is whole.
    Equinox, the time between, lives between, the timeless moment before one thing ends and another begins.
    Have you published a lot?

    • I recently re-read T.S. Eliot’s “The Use of Poetry and The Use of Criticism” and was struck this time by how generous and relativist he really was in his assessment of other poets and poetry. (Maybe it was those who followed him who turned him into a dogmatic guru, as so often happens.) I mention this because your comment on this poem reminds me of that realization, and of what really good “explication de texte” can be. You judge and assess– as we all inevitably do–but you don’t apply a prescribed, abstract template. You carefully wend your way through the work itself, finding all the goods your own experience tells you are there–no preach, no teach, no strict measure against obscure absolutes Your gift for critical reading seems to me a rare one, and that you take the time to spend some of it on my poem is honoring and humbling. You’ve hinted at things here that I did not consciously intend or see until you found them. That’s priceless, in a reader. Thank you so much for your kind attention.

      ( Do I publish a lot? No, not yet)

      • Interestingly enough, I have been reading Eliot’s “Essays on Elizabethan Drama.” He truly is a great critic. He does render judgment, of course, but those judgments are often generous in tone and substance and educating even for someone who dips into criticism and enjoys reading it. I have not read “The Use of Poetry and The Use of Criticism” for a long time. I need to go back and do so.

  5. Reminds me of something you wrote many years ago–I love the ending couplet. Speaking of le petit prince: designe moi un elephant dans un boa . . . How could a snake pine sentimentally for what its gut demanded by design? Those are also great lines–the intrusion of intellect into the most bestial of contexts. Nothing that public tv would use, would it? on one of its condescending shows about dog-eat- dog nature? You would not believe the week I had between two crashed computers, a Mac and a PC. I made a friend, a geek in high places, who says I can call his extension whenever I want to. That’s because it was their friggin’ update that crashed the friggin’ machine. I wasn’t the only victim. Or else it was hacking by an even higher level geek who got mad when I didn’t want to have cybersex with him. I should have paid more attention to his professional attributes before engaging in conversation with him at all. So I took Saturday night off to work a few hours on the book. Not that social engagements are piling up that high, but I spent all day making a dvd of family videos. My mother is a mess and staying at my brother’s for a month. She can’t part with her solitude because she loves her house but she is such a social animal that she will have to or sleep herself to death. I don’t suppose the crocuses have dared look above the snow yet? The edelweiss? I have a photo of them I took in der Schweitz. The real thing. You should see how big and ratty and hideous my knitted thing is getting. I’d take a photo of it if I had the energy. So spring should reach there one of these months. It was 70 out today. Tralala. I stayed in, exhausted, draped over my computers, those spoiled brats. Think flowers, not snakes choking on frogs or frogs choking on spaghetti or stuck in tin cans, croaking in an echo chamber. I could go on forever. When I hit the sack I will instantly fall fast asleep. I don’t hear any drunken jackasses out tonight in front of the bar next door smoking. I just stuff my ears with cotton when I do. comme toujours, moi

    Date: Wed, 19 Mar 2014 16:05:04 +0000 To: steelemarta@hotmail.com

    • Were I anywhere nearby, I’d softly sing you a soothing lullabye …perhaps “Edelweiss”….but as it is I’m voiceless at the moment beyond wishing you goodnight, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite…

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