Dangerous Compassions

snail poem

There’s a poem I taught long ago, when I taught university, that blew the minds of my poetry students.  Was I a jerk, to assign this poem?  Who knows.  Well, you couldn’t say it was boring.  I think of it as the snail poem, but it’s actually “The Connoisseuse of Slugs” by Sharon Olds.

If students did well enough in early composition classes, they could take poetry or fiction to finish meeting the writing requirement.  They had to write essays about the poems, but we had a lot of fun in that class.

In general, my students could be bored at times.  They had an attitude like, “Nothing could shock me.  Oh, I am weary!  I’ve seen everything, in my long 18 years of life!”  I would not do a song and dance for them; I was serious.  It was more than 20 years ago, we read this poem in the poetry class I taught, and it would wake them up.

Yes, I really enjoyed parts of being a teacher.  The teaching parts.  I almost miss it, sometimes.  I have a friend who says I’m still a teacher, just in another way.  How lucky I am, to have smart, kind friends like her.


snail poem

The reason I think of it as the snail poem is that I spent a lot of time playing with snails, when I was a little girl.  I am totally familiar with the experience described by the speaker of the poem.  I have done that exact thing with snails that she did with slugs.  For me it was in calla lilies, not ivy.  At that house in Tanglewood, by the toxic waste dump Casmalia.

Yes, snails are nervous when you bother them.  But if you wait, they will calm down and send their eyes out again.

The surprise at the end of the poem is so nice.  The description that most of the poem consists of is beautiful in and of itself, but it’s also a setup for the comparison at the end.   Thank you, Sharon Olds.  You’re freaking brilliant.

content warning: brief mention of sexual assault

I envy the speaker, that her first experience with a naked man was filled with pleasure and awe.  Wow, how many people experience that?  I long to have not been violated at a young age.  I wish with my entire being, that my first such encounter was happy.  I’m so tired of carrying the burden of patriarchy and violation trauma.

Joy to the people who have been well-loved by penises, and were not violated as children.  Love to you, lucky friends who could cherish your first encounter with someone else’s erection.

I have good experiences with erections nowadays.  I’m in a safe place working to build a world with more honest safety through radical mental health.  Not banal denial safety, based on avoidance, but real safety of active nonviolence and honest communication.

Happier ways of relating are possible–I’ll meet you there.  And here’s the snail poem.

The Connoisseuse of Slugs by Sharon Olds

When I was a connoisseuse of slugs
I would part the ivy leaves, and look for the
naked jelly of those gold bodies,
translucent strangers glistening along the
stones, slowly, their gelatinous bodies
at my mercy. Made mostly of water, they would shrivel
to nothing if they were sprinkled with salt,
but I was not interested in that. What I liked
was to draw aside the ivy, breathe the
odor of the wall, and stand there in silence
until the slug forgot I was there
and sent its antennae up out of its
head, the glimmering umber horns
rising like telescopes, until finally the
sensitive knobs would pop out the ends,
delicate and intimate. Years later,
when I first saw a naked man,
I gasped with pleasure to see that quiet
mystery reenacted, the slow
elegant being coming out of hiding and
gleaming in the dark air, eager and so
trusting you could weep.

By Laura-Marie

Good at listening to the noise until it makes sense.

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