“I never glimpse her but she goesWho had been basking in the sun,
Her links of chain mail one by one
Aglint with pewter, bronze and rose.
“I never see her lying coiledAtop the garden step, or under
A dark leaf, unless I blunder
And by some motion she is foiled.
“Too late I notice as she passesZither of chromatic scale—
I only ever see her tail
Quicksilver into tall grasses.
“I know her only by her flowing,By her glamour disappearing
Into shadow as I’m nearing—
I only recognize her going.”
What is this creature? “Links of chain mail,” “Aglint with pewter, bronze and rose,” and “lying coiled” suggest a snake and her scales. Other details seem to agree – sun basking, quicksilver, flowing. Could “Zither of chromatic scale” echo the slither of a snake through grass? “Chromatic scale” certainly has extra-musical connotations. Briefly I considered a butterfly for the iridescence of its wings (covered with scales). Prompting questions seems to be Stallings’ point. How, she asks, do we identify and describe the elusive? The poem is a riddle.
“Momentary,” especially the final line, recalls Dickinson’s poems, in which the familiar is often made gnomic, and vice versa, and common words suggest something else. One of the few poems published in her lifetime (and titled by an editor “The Snake”) is “A narrow Fellow in the Grass,” another sort of riddle. The final lines are famously, teasingly cryptic:
“Several of Nature’s People
I know and they know me –
I feel for them a transport
Of Cordiality –
“But never met this FellowAttended or alone
Without a tighter Breathing
And Zero at the Bone.”