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Snake Like Charms by Amanda Joy
University of Western Australia Publishing, 2017.
ISBN 9781742589404
Mary Cresswell  reviews

Snake Like Charms

by Amanda Joy

These poems talk of appearance and disappearance, the phases in between, and the fear uncertainty can bring about. The first poem, ‘Almost Pause / Pareidolia’, shows shapes we create to satisfy our own narrative:

Labile wonder, no rabbit-like fear, sea hares filling the tide pools with their magenta ink are flamenco dancers as much as mermaids were dugongs. All those sailors mistaking the docile monogamists for sirens …

and later in the same poem:

                                    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.  (14)

The snake is a  powerful image; it is lethal and beautiful, and we can’t look on it without both fear and fascination. Joy describes these in various ways. Her collection reads like an assembly of four chapbooks and, to my mind, the first and last sections in particular play most effectively with the snake image.

The first section quotes Ryoko Sekiguchi 'Even the mother tongue admits of speech / only by turning us around'.  The poems in this section deal with the mystery of flesh (including the physical world): where does it stop, where does it start, what does it really look like.

'Tiger Snake, Walpole' blends people, snake, light, temperature and grasses into one, ending (without benefit of language) with:

Darkly hollow as sky before moonrise. I don’t think we spoke Our innocent fear pairing us with the snakes unseen below us Their strange lungs pressed always to the earth    (27)

Lovers’ flesh melts and blends smoothly; light and sound come together; 'Snake Woman' and snake share the darkness:

No telepathy of scent, just two live creatures in a room not so much afraid of the task ahead more, the consideration. (36)

The poems vary in style and shape, but all have in common their place in an extraordinary landscape of amazing skies, endless space, familiar and named insects, trees, birds. Casual names for plants and animals mix with Linnaean names, the latter not italicised or capitalised (as though science were somehow different from nature). The words seem to sprout from the ground, like dragons’ teeth, and like the content of the first poems, are so tightly expressed that we become part of them. We feel the terror that ends 'Sea Krait, Broome' as though we ourselves are in mid-air, falling onto a pair of sea-snakes.

Later, we are given a variety of ekphrastic poems dealing with art works that deal with snakes: instead of the intertwined consciousness and flesh of the first poems, these snakes are doubly removed – our eyes seeing through artists’ eyes. But this doesn’t make the world any safer or the pythons any smaller, though it makes the linguistic register a bit more philosophical. Nor are appearances any more guaranteed, as in the 'Antidote Drawing: Rorschach Drawing of Correction Fluid and Antivenom, after Cornelia Parker':

Lick one, then the other, blanked layer Blistered mistake amended De formed like the start of a thaw Laidlines visible beneath each singular stipple remedy in whited closeness    (88)

The poem 'Lost Dog' is a chilling account of a brush fire, seeing a panicked snake spin figure-eights in its flight:

Between my boots in double bind a black snake, underbelly all aflame, winces and flickers an outline of lemniscates Pours over my foot and off the path    (112)

The 'mysterium tremendum et fascinans' ­– the mystery which both attracts and repels us – is many things. In 'I Dream of Walpole then Drive to New Norcia Still Tired', it could be the snake for which the poet vainly searches the paintings, even though she knew when she walked in that:

Thought leaves nothing to scale Language is its residue Tremendum as the bug Suddenly trapped under your eyelid Fished out in bits …  (104)

I had thought at first this was a book about snakes – but it’s more than that: it’s about what looking at snakes, talking about them, has to say about what really worries us – ineffable as that is.

Amanda Joy, Snake Like Charms.  Crawley, WA: University of Western Australia Publishing, 2017. ISBN 9781742589404

Published: September 2023
Mary Cresswell 

is from Los Angeles and lives on New Zealand’s Kapiti Coast. She is a retired science editor and volunteers at a nature reserve and at a women’s centre. Her new book, Field Notes (a satirical miscellany) is due from Makaro Press, Wellington, in mid-2017.

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