Stanley Kunitz, one of our great poets, planted a spruce tree next to his house in Provincetown, Mass., and over the years that tree attracted some tenants, a family of garden snakes. I didn’t know garden snakes climb trees, especially needly ones like a spruce, but they do.
Here’s something else I didn’t know. Sometimes, when the sun is less with us in September and October, garden snakes will seek the sunny side of a tree, climb up and then hang in the sunshine. It’s their way of staying warm. Sometimes a couple of snakes will do this, one winding about the other, so they hang together like a braid.
Stanley Kunitz, who died a few years ago at almost 101, told his friend Genine Lentine in The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden, that he had a chain of garden snakes on his spruce tree, and “they got bolder and bolder, dangling from the top of the spruce to the bottom, snugly entwined,” and on sunny days, Kunitz would join them, not dangling, but parking himself nearby until “the snakes had learned they were in no danger, and allowed me to stroke them.”
Think of an old man, parked next to a tree, gently patting a tangle of snakes hanging from a branch. “What gave me particular satisfaction,” he told Genine, “was that they had become so accustomed to my stroking, they seemed to quiver in a kind of ecstasy.”
Poets must be good at imagining snaky pleasures, because Stanley Kunitz kept at it. “As the days grew cooler, and the snakes became more lethargic, I felt they were actually waiting for me to appear, that it had become part of their ritual of survival.”
Stanley imagined himself an Honorary Snake. “I imagined over the years that this awareness was bred into the family, that they had passed on the news. [“The thing by the tree is nice. Warm, too.”] Every year, just as Stanley and his wife were getting ready to head back to Manhattan in October, his snake family also packed it in and retired, all of them, to a comfortable hole in the ground where they would pass their winter in a tangle of sleep. This was their joint ritual, the snakes’ and the Kunitzes’.
No words were involved, and Stanley Kunitz liked that. Though words were his raw material, his relationship with those snakes was “wholly without language,” he told Genine. “The warmth of one’s body is a form of communication. The stroke of one’s hand is a means of communication,” he told her. The message was in the gesture, a warm blooded poet lending heat to a neighbor. That’s the simplest way to describe it, but because he was Stanley Kunitz, a two-time poet laureate, he embellished — just a little …
I should have thought them gone,
in a torpor of blood
slipped into the nether word
before the sickle frost.
Not so. In the deceptive balm
of noon, as if defiant of the curse
that spoiled another garden,
these two appear on show
through a narrow slit
in the dense green brocade
of a north-country spruce,
dangling head-down, entwined
in a brazen love-knot.
I put out my hand and stroke
the fine, dry grit of their skins.
We are partners in this land,
co-signers of a covenant.
At my touch the wild
Braid of creation,
[Excerpted from “The Snakes of September” by Stanley Kunitz]
Stanley Kunitz’s poem, “The Snakes of September,” is part of a Kunitz collection called Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected. You can hear him read it in full here. I found Genine Lentine’s conversations with Kunitz (and the poem) in her book, The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden.