Yen by Susan O’Dell Underwood


In a mid-life dream I was trying to kill a blacksnake,
hacking at it with a hoe,
as wrong a thing as I would never really do.
It slithered its sleek retreat like grace itself,
winding onyx through the undergrowth,
thick as my wrist, nearly long as I am tall, and beautiful,
more beautiful than anything it might have harmed.

I woke up wanting to touch its silk skin,
follow warmth from where I’d found it in the sun.

My people raised me up with something kin to love
for what I could not understand—
a polecat’s justice, hornets’ revenge,
a terrapin hiding in its own petite pavilion.
Everything tempted me to pry and meddle,
even the heavyweight bull that cowed
me from the corner pasture.
I would stand at the fence and bellow it a serenade.

Provocations might happen any given time,
the smell of spearmint or honeysuckle
just as likely to stop me in my tracks
as the jolt of briar to my bare feet.
I pestered butterflies and toads,
the skittering birds I thought I could catch.

I couldn’t keep my hands from milkweed dander,
wondering where each silky seeded cloud
might land, altered all because
I’d tampered with the great unknown.

Don’t bother it and it won’t bother you,
they all said, as if such a thing were possible,
as if the close of a prayer, such loose ends
of wishful thinking sliding under brush.

Susan O’Dell Underwood directs the creative writing program at Carson-Newman University near Knoxville, Tennessee. Besides two chapbooks, she has published one full-length collection, The Book of Awe (Iris Press, 2018). Her poems and creative nonfiction have appeared and are forthcoming in a variety of publications, including Ecotone, Alaska Quarterly Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and Oxford American.

Image credit: A black snake ( superimposed on honeysuckle leaves (