Robert Pinsky’s “Serpent Knowledge” is a subsection of a book-length meditation, An Explanation of America, addressed to his daughter Nicole. In the larger, extended poem, Pinsky both describes and teaches about the past: his own personal past, the past of his generation, and the past particular to Americans in the mid-twentieth century. “Serpent Knowledge” is section 2 of “Part Three: Its Everlasting Possibility” and concentrates on gathering images, ideas, and events that define for Pinsky what evil means in the United States: random violence and war, with their resultant confusion, ambivalence, and distortion.
The poem opens with Pinsky’s observation of something his daughter has written in school about snakes. She has found a textbook somewhere that suggests snakes are born “already knowing/ Everything they will ever need to know,” and her father, the poet, simply does not believe it. Pinsky’s insistence that humans are “Not born already knowing all we need” reinforces the impossibility of knowing fully even oneself, much less the wider world containing evils of humanity’s own devising and of “some new stage of life.”
The poem engages the reader (and Pinsky’s daughter) in a kind of earnest, lucid conversation in which explanations from the past illuminate the meaning of the present. In the first and second stanzas Pinsky introduces a snake, loaded with biblical allusions and sinister aspects, along with his own memories of the Vietnam War, where twists and threads of American political and social history appear as labyrinthine, mysterious, and contorted as a snake’s body and the path it follows. Here readers can see distinctly Pinsky’s debt to older poet-critics, since it was Samuel Taylor Coleridge who first thought of lyric poetry as a snake doubling back on itself.
In succeeding stanzas Pinsky uses the juxtaposition of personal and universal images from television as well as from documented history,with their similarly odd side-by-side presentation of simple and complex events, to identify spots along “different overlapping stretches/ Of the same highway” that everyone travels through life. He points out, in a tone both pedagogical and fatherly, scenes of past and present encountered on the shared highway: “A family graveyard on an Indian mound” dignifies the past, while “trashy lake-towns, and the tourist-pits” exemplify the present. An extended description of a terrible event where a “teenaged girl/ From down the street” becomes the victim of random and inexplicable violence opens a digression on the forces of evil that could account for this particular horror and others like it. Pinsky is forced to admit that facts confirm a “serpent knowledge”—of evil—in the history of humankind and “in whose [serpent] body they must live.”
The final stanzas of the poem turn again to Vietnam, where “Americans descending in machines/ With wasted bravery and blood” carry out orders from unseen commanders. An elaborate analogy to ancient Saguntum, the infamous site of the Second Punic War’s near-annihilation of that Roman-occupied town in Spain, sustains Pinsky’s blistering indictment of the holocaust produced by every war in history.
Forms and Devices
The division of An Explanation of America into three parts, and those parts into subsections, permits the illusion of teaching from a text. This strategy, because it is universally familiar, comforts the reader through the appalling revelations that Pinsky makes about evil in the United States: its erotic urges, its political shrewdness, its spiritual malaise. Pinsky’s elegant conversational style in the long, discursive, blank-verse narrative of “Serpent Knowledge” contrasts dramatically with the subject matter he presents.
The poem seems to be loosely organized around graphic particulars of war and violence, but Pinsky’s rational, temperate, and civilized tone controls both the pace and presentation of these images to organize the poem...
(The entire section is 1,059 words.)