Primal Matter: Nadine Dalton Speidel on Snaketown by Kathleen Wakefield


Snaketown, Kathleen Wakefield, Cleveland State University Poetry Center

Modern religion has done us a great disservice in that, over the years, the mythic components of belief have been eroded. We forget that we are connected to nature in a very primal manner; we forget that which is bigger than ourselves; we forget the one who conjures all, and we forget and diminish the great battle. Wakefield digs deep to resuscitate ancient myth in all of its complexities, a portrayal of good and evil which refuses to be watered down. Snaketown is a meditation on symbol. It is the world thrown into 180 degree contrasts so that the mind’s eye can see these polar opposites engaged in a dance across the frightfully beautiful landscape Wakefield creates. Snaketown is a “… ghost world where clouds go in and out of your doors with white beards and eyes.” (24) Yet, its is also a very real world, one that the reader can identify, where “…The river flowed softly, although there were rain clouds in the distance over the red mesas, over the Little Colorado River, Sacred Mountain, Canyon de Chelly…” (4) Have we traveled here? It is familiar, and yet we pause to reconsider.

Wakefield is a master of metaphor as she conjures setting for an allegory/parable in which the story of an insular family centers around the events and actions of two main characters on a Sunday afternoon. Orin, whose name means pine tree in Hebrew, pale green in Celtic, and refers to a saint in Catholicism, grows up in the land of pinyon pines. This type of pine tree needs a taproot as well as a spread of lateral roots in order to thrive, and the scruffy short trees are usually found standing singly in dry rocky soil. Wakefield shows us that Orin never developed a “taproot”, leaving him exposed to malady. He has a foot deformity rendering him physically weak and ungrounded. But, he also has a lack of spiritual roots, probably created by an absence of parental love, and we see him trying to stand in his own “rocky soil” as best he can. In spite of family, he stands alone. Or does he? Caytas (a bastardization of the Latin cariats, perhaps? This reviewer is uncertain, but knows that no word is wasted here) is a beautiful sprite of a girl who is usually alone and looking for something smaller than herself (20) After capturing and portraying with words a sepia photograph defining the boundaries of the family and working inward to the glint of copper in one member’s eyes (18), the author draws the reader out to see what happens when evil in the form of a voice, almost a whisper “…jumped in on all fours, and come sitting at his (Orin’s) bed, telling him it had been waiting a long time.” (38) Orin fights the great battle, but succumbs to evil, as it slithers down into his very soul.

The story unfolds as a snake writhing upon itself, a snake eating its own tail. That old friend who tempted Eve, who sheltered the Buddha as he sat beneath the Bodhi tree, who brings vision to the Mayans, who carryies the planets on his hood as he sings praise to Vishnu, who is displayed on the caduceus, is represented (re-presented) here in all of his ancient and splendid forms. Does the reader recognize them? “You drop down into Snaketown as if you had been in one existence, and suddenly fall into another, as if Snaketown did not exist without someone willing it, an imagination either yours or someone else’s, a wearied vision someone had that included you.” (33) Is the reader dreaming Snaketown? Is the author dreaming the reader into the landscape? What is the reader’s relationship to these characters? “In nature…the saguaro cactus needs a ‘nurse’ tree on which to establish its existence…” (87) “…the host tree becomes weak and the saguaro becomes strong… Orin…would not stand up for himself, waiting always for someone else…to stand up for him… he grew stronger in their presence … without them he may not have survived.” (99) With the deftness of Faulker or Steinbeck, Wakefield throws us right into the middle of the ancient battle between good and evil and makes us acknowledge our symbiotic part in all of this, as evils’ very presence wriggles up beside us. This is old-time religion at its best, ancients stories retold brilliantly.

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One response to “Primal Matter: Nadine Dalton Speidel on Snaketown by Kathleen Wakefield

  1. I am not a reviewer, but after reading the author’s synopsis, there is a strong message in this book. I would love to read more.

    Starting with comments like “the erosion of mythic beliefs in our understanding of connectivity with religious beliefs is a strong statement. And what of the “battle”. I would dare say that the message is not a battle with self, but of the world, maybe to say even how we embrace it personally.

    A “meditation on symbol” and “as the landscape is created”, we have to go within the mind, our own world of perplexity; our own mind of polar opposites – looking through life through marred lens.

    Just as the title highlights, the “snake” evokes fears of
    man, and invokes creatures of life that we all dread.

    The author asks the question – “is the author dreaming of
    another landscape – “the saguaro cactus needs a nurse tree”. Is this what we need to embrace – dry desolation and isolation from life searching for a quenching? What is the “nurse” tree?

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