Do not make direct eye contact with the snake. Stay at least five feet from the bars of the cage. Approach, if you must approach at all, cautiously, as one does a difficult question. That snakes consist mostly of a single, continuous stomach is a myth; intestines actually make up most of the snake’s innards, which is why snakes are so good at things like digesting large game and literary hermeneutics. Some snakes use quick, rhythmic flicks of their tongue to hypnotize potential prey, nestling such words as “ankle” and “ache” between their tiny fangs. For this reason, never apply pressure to what he says. Never walk with him to the end of the cage, or consider the subtext of a trail. Snakes use their elaborately colored scales to further their art. He’ll wonder out loud why the builder of the cage thought to use iron bars instead of Plexiglas. Do not think about that question. He’ll slither out from the previous sentence as from a discarded skin. He’ll ask you if the allegorical nature of this poem is perhaps a bit heavy-handed. If it doesn’t all seem a bit too intentional. Perhaps, he’ll whisper, drawing you close, you’re doing exactly what the poem wants by keeping all your attention on me. Never mind these arbitrary rules casually euphemized as “guidelines.” Never mind what the poem insinuates about being your own person. Or about how all this works against your assumptions about how a poem should sound. Do not climb into the snake’s mouth. Whatever you do, do not. For it is dimly lit, and extends far back in time.
(winner of the Editors Prize in Poetry for issue 23)