Toward evening we find snails stuck on the large front window, at varying distances from the ground, as though the slow race to the top is invariably fatal. Too weak or single-minded to turn around, they dry up in place. The largest has a shell the diameter of a nickel; the smallest, a collar button. Removing them is like peeling scabs off your knee. I tuck them into the leafy duff on the ground, ashes to ashes, and await the next day’s migration.
Nige’s evolving reader’s history with the poetry of Thom Gunn mirrors my own. Bafflingly, I found him stuffy at first, too stiff and formal for my advanced tastes. Like Nige, I was a “young idiot poseur.” A fine early Gunn poem, “Considering the Snail” (My Sad Captains, 1961), carries traces of the lessons taught by his former teacher, Yvor Winters:
“The snail pushes through a green
night, for the grass is heavy
with water and meets over
the bright path he makes, where rain
has darkened the earth’s dark. He
moves in a wood of desire,
“pale antlers barely stirring
as he hunts. I cannot tell
what power is at work, drenched there
with purpose, knowing nothing.
What is a snail’s fury? All
I think is that if later
“I parted the blades above
the tunnel and saw the thin
trail of broken white across
litter, I would never have
imagined the slow passion
to that deliberate progress.”
Gunn admires this tough little beauty but never mentions the shell, the obvious focus for most observers. Instead, memorably, he gives us “pale antlers” and “What is a snail’s fury?” Who ever thought a snail capable of fury and passion? Gunn sees a human analog in the gastropod: “I cannot tell / what power is at work, drenched there / with purpose, knowing nothing.” Janet Lewis, a friend to Gunn and widow of Winters, takes note of the shell, “cunningly arched, and strong / Against the hazards of the grassy world,” in “Snail Garden” (Poems Old and New 1918-1978, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 1981). Lewis, a dedicated gardener with plants to protect,
“But I have taken sides in the universe.
I have killed the snail that lay on the morning leaf,
Not grudging greatly the nourishment it took
Out of my abundance,
Chard, periwinkle, capucine,
Occasional lily bud,
But I have begun my day with death,
Death given, death to be received.
I have stepped into the dance;
I have greeted at daybreak
That necessary angel, that other.”
A garden idyll turns dark, and death remains undaunted. Sentiment and good intentions count for nothing: “I have stepped into the dance.” In “To a Snail” (Observations, 1924), Marianne Moore likens snails to poets, punning nicely on “feet.” Moore favored uncuddly creatures, the armored and quilled. She admired (and embodied) toughness, adaptability, resourcefulness, self-reliance, technical aplomb and ingenuity—survival skills, poet skills: “Contractility is a virtue / as modesty is a virtue.”