Snake Eyes (from Poetry)
Amiri Baraka (as LeRoi Jones)
That force is lost which shaped me, spent in its image, battered, an old brown thing swept off the streets where it sucked its gentle living. And what is meat to do, that is driven to its end by words? The frailest gestures grown like skirts around breathing. We take unholy risks to prove we are what we cannot be. For instance, I am not even crazy.
As a title, “Snake Eyes” opens a world of misfortune and deception. It does not seem to bear the imprint of the everyday, but brings forth addicts, gamblers, and criminals out of dark corners. Yet Baraka immediately moves from the title to what could be a great grief, “That force is lost which shaped me.” He does not hesitate to describe that force as human:
That force is lost
which shaped me, spent
in its image, battered, an old brown thing
swept off the streets
where it sucked its
Someone made him who he is, and for that, paid a heavy price. With her force spent, now she is “spent in its image,” “battered,” “an old brown thing.” Her beauty, strength, and humanity were given to him, and now the only thing left is an “it,” “swept off the streets where it sucked its gentle living.” I’m using “her” to designate that force he has lost, but Baraka moves us to wonder. The force could be anyone who inspired him, who gave his life shape. It could be a parent or prostitute, lover or elder, brother or sister, teacher, mentor, pastor, homeless, alcoholic, junkie. (It could be himself, too. See N.B. below.) “Swept off the streets where it sucked its gentle living” is anyone who has done no harm, has given shape to the poet, and has aged with expanding misfortunes. “Snake Eyes” could be an elegy to those broken. To be broken, one had to be great before.
About that greatness: “And what is meat to do, that is driven to its end by words?” Life and its concomitant decay alone did not break the Muse. No, people and society did it too, and quietly, the poet indicts himself, as he drove meat “to its end by words.” He took, and in some crucial way, did not give back. Maybe he couldn’t give back. Somewhere, there are the words he didn’t say, as these few words only mark the end. Now it is too late to speak: “The frailest gestures grown like skirts around breathing.” If she were to communicate, it would be in feeble, frail gestures that couldn’t possibly convey her pain or acknowledge his guilt. If she were to communicate, it would mask the greater tragedy.
The guilt describes him too. He is also meat driven to its end by words. Would gratefulness – acknowledgement – have helped her? Would it have made him redeemable? Probably not: American society loves to destroy those who are deservedly proud, to turn them into an “old brown thing” or “meat” ready for its end. It destroyed her, and it can destroy him. To show gratefulness, to put away pride, is not about saving anyone but simply acknowledging kinship. Of his life, the poet declares that “We take unholy risks to prove we are what we cannot be.” “Snake Eyes,” ultimately, are his own eyes, which deceived him greatly. They let him think her larger than life, allowed him to indulge his pride. He strayed away from the Muse for what was presumably more praiseworthy. The last question, then, has to concern his own sanity. In trying to come to grips with his guilt, the reality of his situation, he has to question every motivation he’s had. This is more than a denial of innocence, as it makes one wonder if one should even use his own eyes: “We take unholy risks to prove we are what we cannot be. For instance, I am not even crazy.”
N.B. I could speak, instead of a “her” or “Muse” or “mentor,” of the poet’s split self. A force integral to his creative spirit has left him, and all that is left of him is “meat” and “words.” However, I always find it helpful to render the drama of the poem as vividly as I can. The split self does not help us imagine the situation where leaving the street is leaving people who invested in you behind. Force as an aged Baraka more than likely gives the poem a gentle humor. It fails to acknowledge that there actually are old brown things swept off the streets everyday, as if they didn’t even have the right to speak.