Excerpts > Fall 2005
Christine Stewart-Nuñez reviews Year of the Snake by Lee Ann Roripaugh

Lee Ann Roripaugh, Year of the Snake, Southern Illinois University Press. Reviewed by Christine Stewart-Nuñez.

Refined. Intelligent. Fearless. Meticulous. Like the snake aspects of Japanese zodiac, poems in Lee Ann Roripaugh’s Year of the Snake embody grace and cool beauty in both impulse and gesture. Her second collection – honored with the Crab Orchard Award Series in Poetry – spirals among distilled narratives from Roripaugh’s childhood, mythological monologues, and narrative-meditations, yet these poems are united by the poet’s eye for sensuous imagery and detail.

Roripaugh grounds her poems in a sense of place, often her childhood home in Wyoming, although we don’t often see the wide vistas, wind, or mountains we may associate with that part of the country; instead, we experience the microcosms of daily life – bedroom, garden – in which we can locate ourselves. One such poem, “DDT,” captures the pre-dawn and evening rituals of her parents sealing their house against the distribution of the dangerous chemical:

The truck came
by again at dusk, and the neighborhood children
ran behind it – the sweet
spray of the pesticide
cooling the heat and dust from their bodies, settling
on the back of their tongues
like finely misted sugar

After finely tuned description, Roripaugh transitions to a comment on the parent-child relationship revealed in this scene – how the speaker longed to “inhale and be transformed” like “blind // fish with a third, wide eye” – the kind of change her parents are trying to avoid. This desire for transformation underpins many poems in subtle ways and often emerges from the particular tensions between mothers and daughters.

“Love Potion” is among the poems both grounded in the physical landscape and one that explores a mother-daughter bond. We are led to a garden where the speaker becomes a chemist, a child-witch mixing her mother’s perfume and cold cream with sour rhubarb juice, crushed mint leaves, and spider legs with which she anoints her mother’s clothing. Roripaugh skillfully mirrors the magical nature of the experience by cataloguing the intoxicating ingredients; in doing so, we become rapt. Yet underneath descriptions of flowers and herbs lies the jealousy that many of us can understand:

My mother’s plants
are like favored siblings. She cuts
back their stalks, nips

their buds with quick, ruthless snips. They grow,
bloom, and don’t talk
back. I become good at sabotage –

The range of imagery and contexts, as well as emotional depth, makes Year of the Snake remarkable. Animals figure into Roripaugh’s imagination intimately in a way that transcends our usual, limited reactions. Whether it is the monarch butterflies that the speaker of “Nostalgia” lures with a sprig of Sweet William so that she could “see it unfurl / the black wiry length / of its sinewy tongue” or the luna moth in “Instinct” whose “prickly legs grip / my fingers, antennae / question the breath I blow / across chlorined wings”, animals take on new lives (even in their deaths) because the poet can look at them with empathic curiosity. “White Butterfly,” the poem that closes the collection, is perhaps the best example. Here the speaker becomes the butterfly and visits a dying loved one:

I will flutter above the cool void
of your mouth, uncurl
the sinewy, incense-like coil of my
tongue and reach deep inside
you, as if you were a honeysuckle,
rescue your last breath
from the brittle carapace of your
body, and then fan
it with swift powerful beats of my wings
until it opens
up and breaks free – the way the cloudy heads
of dandelions
gone to seed escape the green anchors of
the stems.

Roripaugh skillfully leads us to tenderness by building up to the meditation’s drama and beauty. “Loneliness” and “Transience” are just two others that bring together observations of the natural world and those poignant or harsh moments of memory. And just as she does so, Roripaugh slips in wit. She writes “Octopus in the Freezer,” an apostrophe to an octopus her mother bought in Denver and stuck in the basement freezer, in a series of questions spun with both fresh – “frozen sold in this tightly-wound / pose, like a multi-limbed Hindu goddess / in lotus position” – and funny – “As a child, / I used to think the dull muffled thud and clunk / of the furnace firing into life at night was the sound / of your head bumping up against the freezer lid.”

Roripaugh also weaves in Japanese myth and legends whose characters’ voices speak the poems. For readers familiar with these cultural connections, these poems offer a poetic perspective/interpretation; for those of us unfamiliar, the poems become a driving force to create inquiry; either way, they add another layer to Roripaugh’s explorations of relationships. In “Snake Bridegroom,” for example, a mystery lover visits the speaker and soothes her surprise at finding him in her room by whispering

strange and lovely
things to me until my eyelids quivered,
slid shut in sleep,
and when I awoke in the morning, he was
already gone.

This happens night after night until the woman’s parents discover that she is pregnant. Because she cannot reveal her lover, her mother advises a course of action to help them track him down:

the next morning we followed the length
of thread leading
from my bedroom, tangling through the rice fields,
and unspooling
all the way up to a high mountain cave,
where a dead snake
lay, with jade-green scales and jewel-bright eyes,
his throat cruelly
pierced by the same silver embroidery
needle I pinned
into the collar of my lover’s robe
the night before.

The lover’s death at the unknowing speaker’s hand is just the type of sorrow that makes us connect with these mythological poems. In the world Roripaugh opens, there is always a slight sharpness within the lustrous images and rhythms. The voices in other mythological poems speak to different perspectives of love and loss, but all carry a pain that can easily echo our own. For the speaker of “Tongue-Cut Sparrow” who is bearing her lover’s rejection, that pain is exemplified in a gift of sparrow tongues, mouse droppings and poisonous snakes; for the woman in “Snake Wife” it is her husband’s act of betrayal.

“Snake Bridegroom” is written in a form Roripaugh uses in nearly half of the poems. Each tercet is composed in alternating syllabic lines of 4-10- 4 or variations thereof, such as 4-8-4 and 9-6-9. While not strictly Japanese in form like the haiku or tanka, they are in the spirit of such forms that prescribe syllabic arrangement. Roripaugh’s form serves to draw readers into the narrative with grace, slowing us down to savor the music of each line, the skillful enjambment tipping our ear toward the next movement. Juxtaposed with a number of free-verse poems, this form offers readers varying texture that enriches the whole collection.

Roripaugh’s accomplishment in Year of the Snake is slipping us poems that at first seem delicate and mesmerizing but that resonate so deeply they become part of our own imaginations.

About PS   What's New   Curr Iss   Subscriptions  Submissions   Archives  E-mail   PS Home   UNL Home