Amanda Joy: Snake Like Charms

Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2017, 117pp.

It’s probably significant that this review is appearing the day after a Victorian mother’s photograph of her two-year-old daughter which accidentally captured a very large and nasty looking brown snake sliding past the girl’s feet appeared in substantial numbers of digitised news media at home and abroad. There are snakes everywhere in Amanda Joy’s excellent Snake Like Charms – a first book full of poems celebrating or recording such accidental meetings – and I won’t be the first critic to warn those readers who are sent into fits of the heebie-jeebies by the very idea of snakes that this may be a book they need to leave on the shelf. The poems work through all the possible significances they might have: they are there as nasty surprises, venomous threats to children, fellow-parents, Medusa’s famous locks and benevolent incarnations of the great Rainbow Serpent. Almost all the poems are intriguing and they range in complexity from fairly simple accounts of meetings (“Brown Snake, North Lake”) to challenging poems like the book’s first, “Almost Pause / Pareidolia”.

In fact, it’s the variety of approaches and kinds of poems that are an important part of the success of this book. There is an archetypical first book of poems in which a range of styles is a result of an author’s not being entirely sure what his or her true voice is though being, at the same time, quite sure that all the poems are, in their own way, “successful”. If this sounds more like a literary critic’s imagination than a practical reality, I can think of several first books which match this description. In a world where many first books come out of Creative Writing degree dissertations and thus have the unity of an argued-for project, variety might not be sign of weakness but rather of a realisation that one’s central material can be approached in a number of ways. And, on this subject, I might as well voice a fear about this kind of book, good as Snake Like Charms is: which is that one isn’t at all sure how its author can progress from here. Are there more snake poems? – probably not. Is there a unified experience as important as the snake meetings and which can be explored in all its ramifications? – probably not.

Generic doubts aside, the snakes of Snake Like Charms are usually recorded in interactions with the author in some way: they are not abstract principles (though a long and difficult sequence, “Medusa and the Taxonomic Vandal”, might be an exception here). “Gwardar Means Go the Long Way Round” has a title which derives from the literal meaning of the native name for the Western Brown snake – described chillingly in Wikipedia as “a species of very fast, highly venomous elapid snake“ – and it describes on of these accidental, usually abrupt, meetings:

. . . . . 
             I lost my footing and slid
with a barrage of rocks

in a confusion of vision and pain
kaleidoscopic flashes of what may have been
a gwardar, in panic knotting itself as
though attacked from all sides

Somehow I stopped
No sign left of any creature but myself
all torn clothes and shredded knees

In a conspiracy of senses, fragments
of snake have swallowed every other
memory of that day.

The last stanza thickens the mix a little in the same way in which the end of Judith Wright’s “The Killer” (quoted as one of the epigraphs to Snake Like Charms) suddenly opens up new complexities in what otherwise seems no more than the description of a snake-killing. A lot is happening in those last three lines in Joy’s poem. The shocking meeting obliterates all other memories (though the poem does begin with memories of a group of boys and a kookaburra, these are ancillary to the meeting with the snake) but because the perception was so fragmentary and confused, the memory is equally fragmented. But the fragmentation of snakes (their bodies, not the memories of them) is a recurring image of this book. “Quetzalcoatl” is a complex meditation on the relationship between birds and snakes but it begins with the observation, “Fossils of snakes almost never retain the skull / Bones grown for expansion stretch apart one last / time and go to ground, evade being bagged / numbered and lost again.” And “The Tiger Snake Talisman” is about a single vertebra used as a talisman:

. . . . . 
Gateway of dark tunnel waiting
to call out a dormant echo
not banished but still

an uncertain distance
from my silence

as though the snake in Judith Wright’s poem had an afterlife inside the poet in which it could speak back as part of the poet’s self. Snakes are, I suppose, because of their bodies’ construction and shape, eminently segmentable, fragmentable animals. But it isn’t only the snake which is fragmented at the end of “Gwardar” it’s memories themselves and this is a book interested in memory, language and the visual and the way in which these categories can inter-relate.

The complex first poem, “Almost Pause / Pareidolia”, is, as the last word tells us, about our tendency to misread things visually, to see patterns, shapes and resemblances which aren’t there: a man’s face on Mars or Jesus of Nazareth in the clouds, or, for that matter, his mother in a slice of pizza. So the sea slug is no more a hare than the dugong is a mermaid. But, of course, poetic language exploits technically inappropriate resemblances (between girlfriends and roses, for example) to widen its expressive power. The last part of the poem moves into the world of language and also, almost inevitably, into that of snakes:

                                    Language hesitates
to enter the concealed strand of vertebrae beneath
a dark lick of scales, uncoiling across blackened remains

of balga, racing as snake into our shared vision. Our
hands extensors and abductors gripping themselves
riven in resistance, the words “beyond regeneration”

heard again in a stand of sheoaks. We can follow
the blood red trail of uneaten zamia nuts out
of scalded wetlands. Mining mountains no longer

unmoved, even this verse cannibalises itself
remembering the feast to come. Like, when I
use the word “eternity”, when what I mean to say, is “water”.

It’s not a conclusion that I feel comfortable in providing a reading for but I can recognise many of the things it seems to be saying about language and the way they mirror what the first part of the poem says about our visual apprehension of the world. And then, of course, there is the inevitable snake. It cannot speak or be spoken for but it can be metaphorically described (as a “concealed strand of vertebrae beneath / a dark lick of scales”) and the snake, as so often in this book, is, of all animals, the one that may seem at first to be a visual misreading of reality: “Could what we just saw have been a snake?”

This concern with the information of the senses and the pre-existing templates for rapid interpretation (“Married to what / we intuit as signatures . . .”) persists. In “On Warmth” the rigid interpretive frame of syntax is removed by sitting far enough away from a speaker so that the words themselves are only vaguely apprehended in the total experience of the act of communication. The metaphor for this alternative kind of interpretation is the bee swarm which contains a map in a “hive’s song of wings”:

. . . . . 
The sun throbs behind my lobes. I am too far for
your words, just outside their reach, I imagine
skeins, some transparent consonants, stretching
towards me,

divest of their meaning, I could touch them, just
the sensation of an S whistled through the abacus
of your teeth, resting on my fingertips. I spread
my hands upwards

on my knees to catch them, the mathematics of
your sound. Later in bed, when you ask me what
I thought, I touch your lips, lean forward to push
my tongue into your mouth.
Into the swarm.

Alongside the world of the snake (and bees too, I suppose) is the affective life of the author. It’s rarely the central issue of poems and I think this is another of the book’s successes: the author’s complex relationship to both the natural world and the social world of human interaction – intimate or otherwise – is always present colouring each of the poems but never being dominant. There is something about the current situation of the world and its arts that means that poetry as bildungsroman or even livre compose seems inappropriately self-obsessed. The external world suddenly seems to need as much exploring as the inner world, especially when that external world is the snake-filled landscape of north-western Australia. But behind the personal elements of the poems in this book is a shadowy suggestion that alchemical imagery may be being used as a framing device. Poems called “Nigredo”, “Rubedo” and “Albedo” are warning enough that we are entering the territory of the Magnum Opus, but I don’t think that, in the poems as they are, they are used as an extended structural device. In the first of these three poems, the emphasis is on black as the colour of the snake’s “base matter”, its “blood-black” scats “jewelled / with tiny bones”, and in the last of them – a strong poem to my mind – the focus is on the white object which recalls to the observer the bleached debris of an earlier life:

. . . . .
To me it exhaled pale silt
and swamp rushes, unearthed chert
a calenture, also

in lingering base
note as I brushed
it to my cheek, the bleached thread
my grandfather repaired
his last nets with.

This is from the fourth part of Snake Like Charms which begins with a number of poems about paintings. Although this might be dismissed as merely fashionable, their interest is legitimate in the context of this book because almost all the artworks contain snakes in one form or another and, perhaps more importantly, because they are, in a way, extensions of that first poem which explored how we process visual clues or, to put it more memorably, as Amanda Joy does, “how often we graze / our hulls on rocks of clear vision”. The two drawings by Cornelia Parker are Rorschach (ie freely interpretable) shapes, the first made from snake venom the second from antivenene. “The Gigantomachy Pediment of the Old Temple of Athena Polias” – a celebration of the fragments of statuary from the original temple on the Acropolis destroyed in the Persian invasion – is not a mere gloss on the magnificent (and terrifying) image of Athena holding out her aegis towards an enemy with snakes looped through circles in the hem but a complex response in its own right:

Another dead language, revived tongue first
into battle, head bowed, snake drooped
through each loop of aegis, the latent
flare of muscled effigy

(Exhume the awe, the lifting chorus
of breathlessness and dig the words in)

Eyes, empty as stone, lidded by stone
Unswayable, what’s left of a foot stepped
warily in her path, leaving a world of giants
unguarded, black air towering above

I read this as emphasising that the “dead language” of this art and its conception of the gods and their war with the giants reproduces the situation in which visual clues can play us false, but I suspect that it’s a more complex piece than that suggests and seems also to want to speak of the act of uncovering old foundations. This section also contains “Atlas Moth”, not an artwork as such but an animal that looks suspiciously like one when its wings are opened, and “Caduceus” in which the twinned snake symbol of Hermes in his function as messenger and leader of traders is, by a misprision of the medical profession in which they grazed their hulls on the rocks of clear vision, converted into a symbol for Aesculapius the Healer.

Towards the end of the book is “Your Ground”, another snake confrontation poem in which an upreared snake matches the pose of the shocked observer. The poem talks about the experience (“The luminous trance stays / for more than months / (you still can’t remember / standing”) and the way different people – a psychologist, an elder from Broome – interpret it for the author. But the author stumbles on a different reading:

Then one morning you get it - 
                That paired wisdom
                   your bodies made

                              Snake says
                                     Be still
                 Stand your ground
           It’s the only protection
                                    we have

It’s an attractive and simple message and one fears that it’s a passage which readers (and reviewers) will highlight and remember. But it is, at bottom, just a piece of advice about living one’s life. I think it’s a long way from the kind of knowledge that the interactions with the other snakes of the book provide. Individuals of a species nearly as alien to us as William James’s octopus, they have profounder messages in those poems where the poet is tempted to try to move across the uncrossable boundary that separates species.