Lessons from The Black Snake

While some English teachers shy away from it, I love poetry. Every year I teach two of my favorites, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. I never lose interest in them, and while teaching, of course, I become the student, too, seeing these poets and their work through the eyes of my high schoolers. I practice beginner’s mind, according to Zen, coming back to these poems with a fresh perspective that deepens my understanding.

Most recently, I’ve come back to Mary Oliver’s “The Black Snake,” a poem included my textbook for English 9. This was my introduction to Oliver, the first poem I ever read by her. When she died this past January, the language and imagery of this poem flooded my thoughts, and rightly so, because it’s a poem about death. Its suddenness. Its terrible weight. Its certain coming. Those are the words, especially, that I couldn’t shake.

a black snake on the road

To summarize, the poem relates finding a dead snake killed in the road by a truck. The poet uses some interesting and ironic imagery, describing the snake as both “beautiful as a dead brother” and “useless as an old bicycle tire.” The speaker, who is moved by the snake’s death, going so far as to place it at the edge of the road, uses the snake to reflect on the nature of death. “Its suddenness. Its terrible weight. Its certain coming.” It’s heavy stuff. But she also writes about that instinct, that something deep inside us, keeping our thoughts of impending death at bay. In the poem, she calls it the “light at the center of every cell.”

When I taught this poem a couple weeks ago, the students seemed captivated. Maybe it was the topic, since the day before we were discussing a rather innocent poem, Vachel Lindsay’s “An Indian Summer Day on the Prairie,” and now we had moved on to something more serious. Or maybe I simply lucked out, chancing upon the right words to draw them into the lesson. I spoke about the likelihood of dying in a car crash versus a plane crash—how driving is probably the most dangerous thing we do—and statistically far and away more dangerous. Yet, we all showed up to school, most likely without giving a second thought to our possible death that morning. And yet again, statistically speaking, there were probably several people who didn’t make it to their destinations and already died that day. But all of us, everyone in the classroom that morning, we safely “crossed the road,” unlike the snake in the poem.

At the time, although my students didn’t know it, my beginner’s mind was in overdrive, because I hadn’t preplanned these remarks. Sure, I had written “discuss the poem” into my lesson plans, but I hadn’t worked out my comments or the connections I wanted to make with my students. It was happening in the moment, as I read the body language of my classroom full of students. At least one student, too, had recently been affected by the sudden death of her grandmother. She had missed an entire week of school, and as I spoke, that consideration twined itself around my thoughts. When I taught the poem in the afternoon class, some of the magic of the earlier class had already faded, because now I had hoped to recreate the script from earlier, expecting a certain outcome that would either fail or succeed. That afternoon class was good, but it was different, having become a more deliberate act by then. The beginner’s mind had passed.

The next day we moved on to more poetry, but the lessons from the black snake don’t end there. This past week, when the Notre Dame cathedral burned, the poem was on my mind again. This time, as a reminder, of the things we often take for granted, the things we assume will be around generation after generation, but then suddenly disappear. The Twin Towers obviously come to mind, but Notre Dame seemed immortal, having been around for so many centuries. It’s easy to assume, like the black snake, that crossing the road, that moving forward, there’s nothing to worry about. But then a fire brings sudden and certain devastation, reminding us once again of the true nature of our world. As Robert Frost has said, nothing gold can stay. That’s the dark reality of the black snake, but the other lesson is that our indomitable spirit, the light at the center of every cell says, no matter that reality, we cannot remain curled up, hidden away from the world. We continue to move forward, and most of us, maybe with a little more caution, always cross the road again.

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