"SNAKE (OBJECT LESSONS)" by Erica Wright (Bloomsbury Academic, 160 pages, $15).
Bloomsbury's Object Lessons series, which promises to deliver "concise, collectable and beautifully designed books about the hidden lives of ordinary things," returns with its latest offering in "Snake," Erica Wright's deeply personal and highly readable essay collection.
"Snake," much like the titular creature itself, takes many shapes, shifting fluidly from memoir to pop-culture criticism to academic insight. One of its 11 essays, for example, delves into the sexual symbolism associated with the snake by first taking a look at various fashions and then at the famous (or infamous) MTV Video Music Awards performance in which pop icon Britney Spears draped a python over her shoulders. The next essay marks a stark contrast, opening with a quick anecdote about the author and her family preparing for a camping trip (as a cat and a snake are in a standoff) before the piece turns its attention to the medicinal history of venom. The navigation among such disparate topics, often at a rapid pace, is decidedly easygoing, which has to be attributed to Wright's accessible and captivating voice.
Wright, a Wartrace, Tennessee, native and the current poetry editor at Guernica magazine, is an accomplished poet and writer of mystery novels, but she seems strangely destined to pen a book exploring the complexities of the much-maligned reptile. In the preface to "Snake," she recounts one of her earliest childhood memories of moving into an old Victorian house and finding a snake draped across a doorframe. Of that experience, she writes, "It was sort of a sign. Snakes would continue to be, if not quite a problem, definitely a nuisance for us." That sign, though, seems to have a dual purpose. It's hard to imagine another writer showing the snake as much respect — and dare I say love — as Wright does within these pages.
The 32nd Southern Festival of Books, presented this year as a virtual celebration of the written word, continues through Oct. 11. Find a list of participating authors and scheduled events at https://www.humanitiestennessee.org/sfb2020-main/.
It's important to note that Wright isn't someone who grew up with a deep attraction to snakes. In fact, like so many other people, she grew up with a fear of snakes, and she describes how her fear increased as she went through childhood: "I saw the occasional cottonmouth, but it was always in the neighbor's creek and never seemed too interested in me. And yet I developed a deep fear of snakes. I would have nightmares about them hiding under my bed. I would run at the sight of a gnarled branch. I would change the channel if 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' came on late-late television."
This fear does not consume Wright, though. Rather, it challenges her, inspires her: "The more reptile facilities I've visited and festivals I've attended, the more photos I've browsed online, the more I've become fascinated rather than afraid."
Throughout this slim collection, Wright works to ease her readers' potential fear of the snake just as her own slowly dissipates. Certainly, she achieves this on one level by mentioning the ecological and medical good snakes do, but she's most effective in this regard when she highlights the snake's relationship with one of its deadliest predators: humans.
Whether in "Kingsnakes and Beauty Queens," an essay that details a rattlesnake roundup where "wranglers capture thousands of rattlers and bring them to an arena where they are brandished, mutilated, milked, sold, slaughtered and skinned" or "Python Pocketbooks," which touches on the cruelties of the python trade, Wright's essential point seems to be that the creature we should fear most is not slithering in the grass but looking back at us in the mirror.
"Snake" is full of power, packed with sobering reminders about the human-animal relationship and our responsibility in maintaining it. After all, as Wright reminds us, just because we don't understand something doesn't mean we have to fear it.
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