The Serpent Speaks
by Robert Siegel
Soul: Look on that fire, salvation walks within.
Heart: What theme had Homer but original sin?
—William Butler Yeats
And three begot the ten thousand things.
I am another vine
in the great democracy of vines
part of the complexity that defies explanation
part of the tree you put your back to
alert, but never suspecting.
I am the cold coil around the warm trunk,
as your lungs, poor rabbits, twitch and swell.
I am a long story with lovely yellows
and dapples and shades
a beginning, middle, and end that you can get lost in
a sunny patch followed by a shadow
a green dapple and twist, the turn, the unexpected
When you come to the denouement; and the tail narrows to
you wish to go back to the beginning and start over
where the red lie flickers in the leaves
beneath eyes like mica moons.
It is the old story, the beginning of everything
but really a long divigation and excursus
in which the woman naked and trembling
complains to the man, weeping over and over,
and his voice rises in sharp jabs
while all their unborn children listen.
It is something that interrupts the afternoon, the first day
and history begins and wanders off for millennia,
missing the whole point.
It is these subtle shades on my scales
this maze of intricate lines
that lead back upon themselves in endless recursions
that fascinate you, that lead you endlessly
from my tail into my mouth.
In the moving light of the jungle I am a simple
body-stocking of shadows and weave
under a fritillary of bird cries to a sensuous music
a harmony to all your doings
promising you the ultimate knowledge in my belly
down the dark tube of years:
Light and shadow, light and shadow, the days and nights pass
with increasing speed like stations and their intervals
and you sway holding the strap
the car-lights flickering
wondering whatever was your original destination.
When fiction held out its red lie among the roses
you followed it down my dark throat.
It seemed utterly reasonable. Then you were Methuselah
carrying each of his 900 years like a brick on his back
Abraham's wild surmise with knife
Joseph starving in a hole
and Moses singeing his feet in the wilderness.
Next they hung you from two sticks and slowly
everything grew more dramatic:
Augustine heard the children in the garden
Aquinas fled from the naked peasant
and Columbus woke in a sweat, the voices still singing
of a lost world
of amber waves and alabaster
until Lord Amherst gave his blankets to the Indians
Franklin saw the flashing key
and Washington sold his horse for pasturage
until the utterly reasonable Robespierre offered up his head
Lenin popped from a boxcar
and Einstein gave you a terrible secret
which I had promised,
a man of violins and God.
Now the story has gotten out of hand
as you swarm upon yourselves like maggots
on a diminishing dung-pile
and frenzied, move toward the catastrophe
history a string of boxcars
each a century stuffed to overflowing
until the last leaps the track.
Meanwhile I who am the truth move
scintillatingly, with grace in my own shadow
telling the story: There was a man, and a woman …
and the sun rose
and they went on a long journey
and night fell and they did not know where they were.
Such is knowledge, such is the fruit I offered
without the encumbrances of love, without listening
without the tree of fire that burns
below all movement, all shining, the tree below the bones
whose flames reach through the skeleton and hover
just over the fingers
and burn away the forest where the ego
goes crying, alone—one eye balancing the other
of what it has and what it hasn't
until all shapes are shining and
fear falls way shriveling like a black net
and the wisdom of God dances freely before you
and the glowing fruit blushes for the mouth.
I see all clear and can tell you
the end of things, knowing you will not listen,
for my knowledge is cold here in the forest
and you will follow the shifting arabesque
of moonlight on my mica-glint, my scales
moving like the sequins of days, events,
the rise of stocks and the next presidential election
and the price of wheat futures in a drought.
So I go on, flowing into my own shape
into the darkness I have made, subservient
(and this is the bitterness beyond all blankness)
at the last to another purpose
which you cannot guess, which rings in these leaves
like the harps and fiddles of insects too high
for your range of hearing—a music which drives me
into the narrowing circle I have made
tail in mouth, swallowing until
and everything in this circle vanishes with me.
- Robert Siegel