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Summoning The River Snake

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Summoning the river snake: a death journey in five parts
… in which the poet Dorothy Porter summons her muse and death messenger, a snake, and makes a final journey.

The poet narrates the journey; the snake (in italicised text) responds.



Serpent, show yourself.
I wait for the thin sound of your scale
against the leaf litter: it is
             the dry fall of papers
             from a desk.
I will
slash a path for us — through
dead brambles, lead you
             towards the water’s yellow edge, where
motor oil collects
in rainbow leaks.
This moon is a dollar
to pay for our passage.
whisper your permission:
             I must curl
             these arms around your neck,
             your pulse against my wrist:

we are
a woman riding a beast
in a dirty, moonlit creek,
to the river mouth
             where the dark channel
             opens —
where the sea begins.


Your code

In myth
it is always a bird —
some garnet-eyed death agent,
a quivering entrail
clutched in its dirty beak,
             a doomsday rant —
who hops and stares
with freakish, ominous
But you, poet, choose this
travelling mate:
a slider, who drifted, took
to the banks
where the Black Land and the Red Land split;
             here and there,
slept while the low-country flooded,
Friend, I yearned for you,
— memorised
your code:
A snake is an opportunity
A kiss is an anemone opening
A lover is a mystery
A cancer is a minotaur in the labyrinth of bones.




In my hands your body is
jewelled rope:
a cordon, a partition — you are
thin as an edge. Tonight,
we slip between
the reeds, slice silent murk
beside the bank — guided
by the barking frogs
See? The river gums
have pocketed the moon;
it is dark. Yet
I know you,
snake. You are
the simple line
that draws itself at the end of life;
the tube that begins here and ends here,
a problem
unknotted: head and cloaca,
the ontos and teleos of it all —
simplified. Tonight
             you are the line;
             I am crossing over.



Like me,
you spent long days in the dark,
dreaming of amusements
             that shine and
             snare the eye.
Our kind have perfected lairs:
you waited out
the southerly, sniffed the air
for the lazy ozone taint
that hints
at summer —
got your timing wrong
a hundred times; emerged
to fog and chill, accidently
            slipped a skin or
            left a tooth.
Where diamond nails have torn
             for love
you were — you are — scored. But
I am smooth to touch; each scale
stitched tight as
a lover’s pact,
             no gape
             or fingernail chink.
To hear me, drift:
swallow a dragon-stone  — and listen,
             your blue eyelid
             against my cheek.




Snake, are you awake?
This flow makes us forget:
we are not the creatures we
once were;
             nor yet the stuff
             we will become.
You were kind, before — drew from me
my proudest hours. Now,
in darkness, we
ease ourselves into
lesser shapes; seep and leach
and fill the river
with our taint.
Your death drug
makes me woozy — the brimstone stink
of old bodies rises
             from the river in
             sulfurous belches;
I should like to go properly, with
the scent of chapel incense burning
in a temple grate
or redolent figs ripening
on a plate
in the sun.


The minotaur,
             there in the heart of your heart’s maze
is death:
his beast reek rises
from bristle and flank,
sweat trickles
             into the woollen rug.
But you prepared for this:
             rolled a skein
             of words, passed
through antique towns,
saw the stone walls of a city crumble
while the minotaur waited out the years
dozing at his post
like a drunken duty judge
             for this — to prove
that mysteries, when probed
into units
of simple, mundane lore.




Hear this:
it wasn’t as you describe.
I took this life
to town — showed it off,
gadded it about,
swung it,
gave it hot kisses;
holidayed it
then rolled it lovingly
in a tomb-raider’s embalming cloth and
             tucked it
             between two sheets
then shot my pistol in the air.



You snuck, pen between your teeth
into guises — a web-handed
amphibian, a comet’s tail:
            Let me end in fire
            on a night of low smog
            bright on the horizon.
Desire strapped rockets to your feet
and you went sprawling
akimbo, staring —
rapt; saw
that longings form galaxies; that
            all one’s deaths are written
            and collude.
Apprenticed, you did magic —
            pressed your hands
            to your lover’s body, then
            raised them aloft:
strange celestial fire
trailed your fingers, filled
the room
with smoke.




Our old moon, our coin
is spent; so snake,
adieu — you are thin in my grip:
            slight as
            discarded skin.
This river grows cold. Salt
on the tongue
announces the sea. Before us
everything lies
in a single channel: time, matter, space.
If Jupiter’s Europa
is lifeless then
we should make for Io —
zoom out there,
set the place alight —
feast on the
            ice dreams
            of microlife, who
chemosynthesise to live.
Better yet, let’s fizz:
be infinite, carbon, dissembled.
            Start a fire;
            be a breath.



For you (and you only)
a backward glance:
on the sea’s surface
in phosphorescent trails,
I see the traces
of your words.
And at the shore,
a flying nightjar watches —
veers off-course,
high on your heat and light,
dreaming, perhaps:
            of a ride
            on a comet’s tail.

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