“Venom” by Ryan G. Van Cleave

Ryan G. Van Cleave


God knows what I was thinking when I agreed one day
to trek up to Whigham, GA, with my cousin Beth
for the annual Rattlesnake Roundup, because I’m 100% afraid
of snakes (saw Conan the Barbarian too early, perhaps),
ophiophobic to the max, but good sport I was, I said Sure thing.

On the three-hour drive from Tallahassee, she gabbed
about her last boyfriend, how this Phi Beta Loser liked it rough,
how he wanted their lovemaking to last until a lake
of sweat shone on his forehead; I said well, okey-dokey now,
awkward by this brutal honesty, but she didn’t care,

so as she described how she liked to bite his hairy nipples nightly,
I thought of the Classical Mythology class I taught last spring,
how the ample murmur of those foreboding legends should’ve been
enough to warn me off this trip, not to mention Beth’s savage
vulnerability. I envisioned Python, the hulking serpent produced

by Gaea, how this silver-plated monstrosity haunted the caves of Parnassus,
and I wondered if the roundup would be anything like that,
a torrent of scales and forked tongues waiting to get me like
scavenger birds gobble the night. You know? Beth said,
referring to something about the secret passions of some people,

those hidden mysteries that have small, hard hooves, and I thought
of my father laughing somewhere, saying let a woman
unload their feelings and they’ll gallop away, dragging you by the heels.
Thankfully, we reached the roundup and immediately, Beth
wanted to see the giant plastic tubs of already-caught snakes, huge

black wading pools where they hissed and seethed, a living blanket
of poisonous brown and gold. One of the snake-milkers
asked, Ya wanna see the winner? meaning the biggest one
caught so far, an ankle-thick beast some six feet long, coiled now
in a Pyrex-type of bowl atop a table near where the milkers

corralled rattlers by the throat, then stuck the fangs into rubber hoods atop
clear jars, letting the yellowish fluid drip, burn, sizzle
down the side of the glass. Beth said yeah, it’d be great, and not
wanting to hear more about Bobby the Porno-Loving, Nipple-Bitten,
Likes-it-Rough Frat Boy, I said sure, let’s go, but this snake

had zeroed on me, his shovel head swiveling like a missile turret atop
a navy ship to follow me as I circled the container. Lemme snap
a photo, Beth said, then yanked out a disposable camera just as
the prize rattler opened wide and went for me, two inch fangs
oozing poison as it slammed face-first into the plastic between us, leaving

smear of venom on the glass. I jumped back and bumped
the milker, who dropped the snake he had, and just like that, one was free
and in some kind of psychic link with its leader, the huge one
in the tank who’d already lunged at me, this now-loose one coiled,
then RTTT-tttt-TTTTT-tttttt-TTTTTT went the tail, warning

me, mocking me, and even as the milker slammed it to the earth
by the neck with a pronged wooden shaft, it eyed me
unflinchingly, daring me to come just a little closer. The milker,
a squalid skinny guy in overalls, gave me a disgusted look,
then said, You be more careful or this fella’ll have you right quick.

And I believed it, too, the way this snake thrashed and spat,
pinned to the ground by the wooden V of the shaft. I let Beth
snap a few pictures, then convinced her to go, blaming
a bad stomach, though, in reality, I knew these snakes had it in
for me, each a piece of hard undersea rubber I couldn’t

hack apart even with Hercules’s sword or the Minotaur’s golden axe.
As we drove south towards the cloth of growing twilight,
Beth reached over, saying Kind of funny about that snake, huh?
as her hand came to a rest on my knee; kinetic energy zipped
through jeans to skin sure as sea-sailors dreamed of mermaids, and I

could but nod, afraid of her fingers, the bite of those dark teeth
on my too-fragile flesh. She smiled, I cringed—an Apollo without arrows,
a rabbit too afraid to move, stunned powerless, senseless
by the latent power in each coiled slither, the shake of brown horny rings.

from Rattle #25, Summer 2006
Tribute to the Best of Rattle


Ryan Van Cleave: “What I like about ‘Venom’ is the juxtaposition of elements and the strong narrative feel, the long, luxurious lines that pull the reader ahead. I got tired of seeing so many blocky-looking poems, rectangles of language on a page. Why not strive for a more elegant physicality to poems? I tried about two dozens variations and ended up with this simple form, and I like the five-line stanzas which, to me, drive the poem forward nicely, give it an awkward nudge at each stanza end that keeps the reader moving. I truly labored over the lines here more than I do in most poems, and oddly enough, with the paragraphical look to the stanzas, most readers assume it’s kind of a rambling, one-shot deal. Anything but. It’s a challenge to keep up the forward momentum without having fluff, or as A.R. Ammons once called it, ‘dead air.’ A number of writers have written poems that operate like this one does (C.K. Williams, Barbara Hamby, Tony Hoagland, Campbell McGrath, and many others), so I think of this poem as having a good pedigree. This was a poem that took weeks to write. A bit here. A few lines there. But once I had all the component parts, it took only thirty minutes or so to cement it all together nicely. I briefly considered swapping out the title for something long and wild since I’m a sucker for oddball, eye-catching titles, but I finally thought this one-word title would snare (bite?) more readers. Sometimes that’s all the rationale you need to make one choice over another. Am I really afraid of snakes? Does it really matter?”

Rattle Logo