by Jack Bedell
Handling serpents doesn’t impress me.
I’ve done it too often to feel any real breath
on my neck from the act. I’ve come home
too many spring mornings from the marsh
at the back of my neighborhood with a pillow case
full of snakes snatched from the water’s edge,
thrown them on the cool concrete under the carport
to set while I ate lunch, then spilled
the slow curves out between my feet
to see what I’d caught. Snakes
of all colors and moods—copperheads, moccasins,
pygmy rattlers, angry hognoses,
I’ve held them all, fangs or not, and lived fine.
No, there’s no real trial to serpents.
They’re too easy to stun with cold
or the throb of a three-piece band
pulsing in the boards of some old church.
That row of Mason jars full of strychnine, though,
all crystal clear and lined up on the altar,
that there is a different kind of test altogether.
No matter how cold or loud the church is,
it sits there still, willing to wait for you
to work up the nerve to snatch a jar off the wood
and hoist it over the dancing crowd,
unscrew its lid and tilt it toward your lips,
knowing your muscles are going to cramp
so tight they’ll lock down your lungs,
the trismus spreading with every stomp.
And when that liquid slithers down your throat
into the cul-de-sac of your stomach,
there’s not but a couple of ways to pass
through that kind of test to the other side.
Both of them involve pain and grace,
only one offers a tomorrow.