Nicholas Friedman on C.J. Allen’s ‘Snail Explains’, from New Walk 1 (autumn 2010)


Our brand new assistant editor, Nicholas Friedman, discusses a poem from the first issue of New Walk.

Snail Explains by C.J. Allen

Before the proofs of Fibonacci
was the snail that skates on foam,
inching its way through Life and Fate
like a Russian novel, setting

sail upon the wine-dark midnight
lawn. It tastes the air and creeps
along a leaf, it marches like
an army and will scale a wall

with nothing but its slimy grapples.
Snail the metaphorical
non plus ultra when it comes
to sluggish, the proverbial

exemplar: Leaving trails that sparkle
like the strung-out galaxies,
snail explains the stickiness
of time and hauls the helical

burden of its emptiness
as if it were a French horn struggled
on and off commuter trains.
Snail can navigate the blade’s edge

slickly as an acrobat
or yogi, yet it fears the starling,
salt, the sudden carelessness
of god-like footfalls in the dark.

In the old prose chestnut, ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’, Robert Frost asserts that, ‘Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting’. And indeed C.J. Allen’s ‘Snail Explains’ does just that, though the melting is more of a sliming—and the sliming slow and indefinite, like the mathematical and philosophical musings on which poem is built:

Before the proofs of Fibonacci
was the snail that skates on foam,
inching its way through Life and Fate
like a Russian novel…

At once a geometric masterpiece, a brother Karamazov, Odysseus, a lugger of French horns, et al, the snail is of course none of these things. Instead, it is that mostly blank slate upon which we impose meaning for the sake of providing order to our lives (by means of what Frost calls ‘a momentary stay against confusion’). In a sense, the poem suggests that its own meaning is contingent upon our willingness to provide it.

Poems are too often purported to be ars poetica, and yet I can’t read ‘Snail Explains’ without learning something about the poetic process. With a lame shell for a helmet, the poet rather pathetically sets out on the long slog across the ‘wine-dark midnight / lawn’ and leaves behind ‘trails that sparkle’—mere traces of extraordinary effort which last perhaps a moment longer than the poet himself, soon snatched up in a beak or shattered beneath a boot without remorse.