Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Reconsidering the Snail

With the upcoming re-release of my debut poetry collection, Little Creatures (Poetry of Insects, Small Mammals and Micro-organisms), I have been thinking back over some of the poems of others which inspired my writing.

I had never come across poems about snails until I stumbled unexpectedly on Thom Gunn’s Considering the Snail, in early 2004. Discovering the poem was a mile stone for me, and has directly affected the way I write (and not only the way I write about snails – which of course I often do.) The language, the fluency, the interesting layout of the words on the page, all combined to whisk up an impression quite unlike any other, and have remained an influence during the years I have had to dwell on the poem – re-considering Considering the Snail, you might say.

I first read it at the break of day, at the often nerve-racking period at the onset of a shift in a psychiatric hospital – not knowing what challenges awaited, sitting at the ward computer, hovering uneasily around Google in the days when the internet was still quite new to me, on the lookout for poems to print out and share with anyone, staff or patients, who might care to join me reading them. The poem’s title immediately intrigued me – conjuring an idea of the poet pausing to focus with his lexicological microscope, and a sense of the psychologist’s enquiry, or the detective’s hawk-eyed inspection. Indeed, for a piece of just 18 lines, the poem has a startlingly patient, layered nature like the plod-plod of research or field work. In three short stanzas, it creates a multi-dimensional story, and leaves us with more questions than answers.

The snail pushes through a green / night,
for the grass is heavy / with water.

We know from the first line that Gunn is telling us about an individual snail, as well as “The Snail,” and the sound of the word “pushing” – though an assertive action – is soft, cushioning the snail in a reflective world of grass and water, a nocturnal world described in terms which remind me beautifully (and which reminded me beautifully in 2004) of Leonard Cohen’s lyric, The night so dark, and thick, and green.  

Gunn’s lovely phrase heavy with water is rich in images of purity, fertility, and expectation, and yet it plays an even more radical role – and here lies the secret beauty of the poem for me, and the ingredient which so shook me to my core on that spring morning: by describing the world from the snail’s perspective, Gunn is transferring the narrative and the whole “feel” of the poem from himself as a human being, to a different animal – different biologically, different physically, different experientially.  But he doesn’t do this by means of simply “telling the tale” from the snail’s “point of view” – instead, he weaves these species-specific details as if they were normal observations – a lesser poet might explain how the grass was “heavy” only to a small creature like the snail, but Gunn invites us into the sensory world of that snail – “telling not showing,” one might say – and in doing so allows us to experience its environment through its own sensations without even noticing the switch in our brains from Anthro- to Gastro-centric!

I cannot tell what power / is at work, confesses Gunn, as his writing switches fluently between naturalistic scenes of the snail’s progress, to his own considerations.  The lines quoted in the paragraph above inspired me, as a poet eager to write about animals on their own terms, to approach nature from different sensory perspectives, while the words reprinted in this one were among the first I had encountered which made no attempt to penetrate the mysteries of nature or philosophy. It is enough to simply admit the questions, to acknowledge or even celebrate the incomprehensible or the misunderstood.

What is a snail's fury? Gunn asks. No answer is forthcoming - but we are witness to more of the snail's progress:

...the bright path he makes, where rain
has darkened the earth’s dark. He
moves in a wood of desire,

pale antlers barely stirring
as he hunts.

Gunn goes further, flatly asserting that the creature, though “drenched” with purpose, remains in a state of knowing nothing.  Divested of both the empowering riches, and the troublesome burdens, of knowledge, but like a tiny timebomb of fizzing emotions, Gunn’s snail is a creature of “desire,” “power,” and “fury” – it almost reminds me of a character out of DH Lawrence!

It’s interesting that while overlooking such attributes as the snail’s shell Gunn chooses to ascribe a gender to his snail, and opts to refer to it as “he,” but just like the sources of the animal’s inner motivations which go undefined by Gunn, so too will the thought processes and levers which led him, as a poet, to arrive at this definition remain essentially unanswered.  Whatever the reasons, I do think that the depiction of the snail as male suits his somewhat sad tale of a lonely nocturnal hunter, full of fury, in his wood of desire – images which form the suggestions of some very human sensibilities, certainly far more so than if Gunn had clearly and exclusively set out to simply compare animals with people. Again, I get the sense very strongly of a particular snail, on a particular night, rather than a species-specific overview.  In fact, so strong an impression did he make, that Gunn’s Lawrentian mollusc managed so slither his furious way into my own poetry.  It is sometimes joked that I write exclusively about slugs – but my debut collection Little Creatures – inspired in no small part by Thom Gunn’s poem – contains more poetry, line for line, about their shelled relations.  Indeed, I even name-check Thom, when I point out how:

Gunn wondered what power was at work in you,
what purposes, what fury? 

Prompted by Gunn’s questions, I offered up my own questions:

Nocturnal nibbler, do you fancy your brocaded shell
affords you higher grandeur than the slug?
Do you feel distinguished as you sloop the roadside,

the gentle greenfly dwarfed? 
Or are you, rather, burdened by your load?  Doggedly
trudging littered gutters, does your back ache,
weariness depress, do you envy those in hive or pond?

By the time I wrote those lines eleven years ago, I was already writing the poems about snails, slugs and other “little creatures” which would make up the collection – but there is no way that section would have ever been written had I not read Thom Gunn’s poem.
Equally, Gunn is very clever at playing with perspectives – as I mentioned earlier, he takes something we all know as small and soft – grass – presents it as a heavy obstacle for a tiny snail, and in having the snail “pushing through” automatically gives the creature an appearance of stoicsm and quiet, determined strength. The interchanging of contexts, and the depiction of the world from different, inter-species contexts, is an important element of any holistic, non-speciesist philosophy, and is a way of looking at the world sorely lacking in many of today’s anthro-centric conservationist programmes, not to mention agriculture, production and political systems. My attempts at recapturing this sense of changed perspectives came in the form of turning the snail’s smallness on its head – I imagined the “little” snail through the eyes of smaller animals:

To aphid eyes the swirled hulk towers…

and continued in that vein having subconciously taken at least the bones of the idea somewhere along the line from Gunn’s poem.

Yet the biggest impression the poem made on me, as I explained earlier, was where he embeds himself in the world of his subject – a skill I feel, in this modern world of virtual realities and increasingly desensitized systems, poets – and people generally – are quickly losing.  It is often said that today’s people live our lives at great distances from nature, ignorant of the background stories behind the foods we eat, the things we wear, the myriad wonders of science which make up the kaleidoscopic tapestries of wildlife.  Thom Gunn, with his talent at depicting the physical realities of a snail’s world, and at presenting a poem as if through a microscope, shows us what we are missing.  But it was the picture of the snail’s wandering, his lonely trek through heavy grass, which helped me to explore my writing with the same approach in mind.  Indeed, Gunn’s considerations of the snail also resurfaced in many other poems, such as when I present the friendly protagonists of Slug Sex:

Crackling through compost
they are fattened with desire.

My descriptions of sluggish lust were originally gleaned from watching a somewhat unusual, and certainly unexpected, segment of Gardener’s World – but looking back now on the lines above, from 2009, it is abundantly clear that the seeds of the particular wording arrived at were planted in my mind by Gunn.  His snail moving in a wood of desire morphed into my slugs, crackling through the corms and compost charged with that very same primeval urge.

We have seen how Thom Gunn expertly details the progress of an animal through its natural habitat, hints at its needs and behaviours, imbues it with a sense of identity, while somehow managing to separate the creature and its experiences from himself as an observing human.  There have been many poems written about snails – perhaps surprisingly – but to my mind, Gunn’s poem is unique in that it attempts to depict, in detail, the poet’s future observations – and crown these as the poem’s collective conclusion – a kind of poetic double-bluff whereby conjecture is plausibly presented as a kind of fact:

… All
I think is that if later
I parted the blades above
the tunnel and saw the thin
trail of broken white across
litter, I would never have
imagined the slow passion
to that deliberate progress.

Off the top of my head, the only other poem I can think of which does this so literally is Seamus Heaney’s The Tollund Man, but there the poet conveys emotions prompted by considerations of the past, by evidence of human evolution and our place within the natural history of the world. Here, Gunn is probing the unknowns of a plane of existence he will never understand.  It is brave, it is interesting, it is unorthodox.   
Considering the Snail is a poem quite unlike any I have read, and confirms Thom Gunn as a first class writer of memorable poetry.  Leaving us with a deliciously visual, yet somehow echoic, symbol of a broken white trail, he paints a mythic image, and yet one which is recognisably of the everyday world.  Re-reading the poem in depth these last few days, I have found myself once more turning to the wonders of the internet to try and unearth any other responses, and have found my appreciation mirrored many times in the views of other readers.  But perhaps the comments which most reflected my own thoughts on this short, engrossing, oddly beautiful poem, were the ones I noticed on Poemhunter – which, in an unnerving coincidence, happened to have been written exactly ten years ago to the day:

Combines Heaney-esque accuracy and attention to physical detail, with a potent symbolism (a wood of desire, antlers etc) highly illustrative of the poet’s respect for the earth. A simple but wonderful poem that always cheers me up.  

‘This is uncanny,’ I reflected, ‘for it encapsulates my own feelings on the poem completely!  Whoever thought these things was clearly moved in quite the same way by Thom Gunn and his liminal peaen to the mysterious snail as I was myself.’
Then I noticed that the author’s name was displayed beneath the comments.  It was Simon Zonenblick.

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