A Snake in the Grass

A week or so ago I went to the 8th Koorie Art Show 2020 at the Koorie Heritage Trust at Federation Square. 

Lying on a low dias when you enter the first room was a fabulous, glistening sculpture of a Red-bellied black snake by Charlie Solomon, made from what looks to have been a single large twisting limb of a gum tree. 

I’ve seen red-belly black snakes a number of times when bush-walking in Victoria. Their backs are usually shiny black like patent leather although they can get a bit dusty sometimes. Their undersides are sometime bright red, as depicted in Charlie Solomon’s sculpture, but other times more as a dull pink colour.

Black snakes get a few mentions in Australian literature, for instance it is a black snake that invades the house in Henry Lawson’s famous story “The Drover’s Wife”, but the only work I know of that refers specifically to a red-belly black snake is this poem by Judith Wright:

The Killer

The day was clear as fire,
the birds sang frail as glass,
when thirsty I came to the creek
and fell by its side in the grass.

My breast on the bright moss
and shower-embroidered weeds,
my lips to the live water
I saw him turn in the reeds.

Black horror sprang from the dark
in a violent birth
and through its cloth of grass
I felt the clutch of earth.

O beat him into the ground
O strike him till he dies,
or else your life itself
drains through those colourless eyes.

I struck and struck again.
Slender in black and red 
he lies, and his icy glance 
turns outward, clear and dead.

But nimble my enemy 
as water is, or wind. 
He has slipped from his death aside
and vanished into my mind.

He has vanished whence he came,
my nimble enemy;
and the ants come out to the snake
and drink at his shallow eye.

The snake, no longer a physical threat, moves inside the poet’s mind (becoming a memory and a symbol). Wright’s poem reminds me of this haiku by Kyoshi:

The snake slid away,

But the eyes that stared at me

Remained in the grass.

Kyoshi (R. H. Blyth)

No shade on Charlie Solomon, or Judith Wright (although the Australian Museum would not approve of her destruction of the snake), or Henry Lawson, but Kyoshi on the other hand …

… the article “Forgive, but Do Not Forget: Modern Haiku and Totalitarianism” on the Haiku Foundation website discusses Kyoshi’s collaboration with Japan’s totalitarian government during the Second World War, a government that persecuted, imprisioned and tortured free verse haiku poets that it considered insufficiently patriotic.

     Didn't Basho say
go to the snake
     to learn about snakes?     🌵

References:

Red-Bellied Black Snake, Australian Museum, https://australian.museum/learn/animals/reptiles/red-bellied-black-snake/

Haiku, Blyth R. H., The Hokuseido Press, 1949-52.

The 8th Koorie Art Show 2020 (exhibition), The Koorie Heritage Trust, 5 Dec 2020 – 21 Feb 2021.

Henry Lawson’s Mates, The complete stories of Henry Lawson, Henry Lawson, Currey O’Neill, 1979.

Red-Bellied Black Snake (sculpture), Charlie Solomon, 2020.

Forgive, but Do Not Forget: Modern Haiku and Totalistarianism, Udo Wenzel interviews Ito Yuki, Juxta 1.1, March 2015, The Haiku Foundation, https://thehaikufoundation.org/juxta/juxta-1-1/forgive-but-do-not-forget-modern-haiku-and-totalitarianism/

Collected Poems, Judith Wright, Fourth Estate, 1994.