1542 B.C.,The Year of the Snail. It was then
they began waking everywhere like eyes.
From the very beginning they swore the earth
was round and from slow observatories
studied the bruised breast of the moon. Later,
resting on cabbage leaves, they considered
the stars. “Like barnacles attaching themselves
to the hull of night,” they said, and with little else
to say, moved on. That year Zen snails
reached their peak of eloquence, uncovering
tankas beneath pebbles and fallen leaves.
With bellied brushstrokes they spelled the most
delicate poems of grieving, which, of course,
the local peasants dismissed as scribbles.
It’s true: haiku flourished two thousand years
before Basho, and in memory of his dead daughter
Issa wrote,“The world of snails/ Is the world
of snails./ And yet . . ./ And yet . . .”
Fast forward: ash storms, Progress, Industrial
Revolution, quiet eyes clinging to factory windows
and looking in: men and women and children
undone, contorted by looms. In seasons of labor
what say do snails have, their protests too tiny
to be heard? Look: in nowhere republics they crouch
behind the ears of generals sleeping off the stink
of rum, singing lullabies, nursery rhymes only mollusks
know, though mere singing cannot pacify such men.
Mass graves, plagues multiplying their harsh fish and loaves,
the world’s fingers drawn into a fist only the smallest
singings can slip from—what joy can it possibly
bring them, the vulnerable ones, that they were
never held in true fear, and were spared?
They who walk painful on grains of salt
and pucker on windshields, believe in them
for they carry the swirl of gospel on their backs.
Maprooms of hurricanes,word of the tidal floor,
tiny shells wandering for years, like knuckles
in search of their fist—and when they find it, and assemble,
who says their knocking won’t announce some great door
all men look for and stand before always?
Yes, and only snails understand hopelessness, only they
are allowed to enter the loneliest rooms, only they
unbutton the shirts of suicides and rest a while
on the right breast listening to the heart’s slurring down,
pulse dimming to nothing, and then silence.
Listen: even now there are coils glowing, bare bulbs
swinging in the poorly furnished rooms of the dead.
Someone’s grandmother is waking there, sitting up
in bed, her hair insatiable and gray and growing.
It wraps around bedposts, doorknobs, threads
the keyhole; it climbs the walls before taking root
in the ceiling. All night hair will be growing, hair
dead as starlight, while the living turn to each other
and exchange deep living kisses. And where then
do you think the snails will be? Blessing errant blades
of grass? No. Dreaming the boot that will crush them?
No. No. Passing over the lips of the crucified:
Kyle Thompson currently teaches at The University of Louisville, where he holds an Axton Fellowship in Poetry. He has work out and forthcoming in Hotel Amerika, Antioch Review, Quarterly West, Indiana Review, Georgia Review, and elsewhere. (4/2005)