The Snake Doctors

By Frank Stanford 1948–1978 Frank Stanford

for Nicholas Fuhrmann

I   Pig

I was in the outhouse
I heard somebody at the pump
I looked out the chink hole
It was the two fishermen
They stole fish

One man gave the other one some money
He flipped a fifty-cent piece up
I lost it in the sun
I saw the snake doctors riding each other
The other man said “You lose”
He took something else out of his pocket
It shined
They had a tow sack
I thought they were cleaning fish
I looked up
I saw the snake doctors riding each other

I took my eye away
It was dark in the outhouse
I whistled

I heard the pump again
It sounded broken
I looked out the chink hole
It wasn’t the pump
It was the pig

The guitar player cut them out
The midget helped him
“Pump me some water, midget” he said

The pig ran off

The guitar player washed off his hands
The midget washed off the nuts
He got a drink
My eye hurt

He laughed
He cleaned the blood off his knife    He wiped   
      it on his leg
He started singing
The dog tried to get the nuts
But the midget kicked him

The guitar player picked them up
He put them in his pocket
The dog went over to the pig
He licked him

I pulled my pants up
I went outside

I got the pig
I walked over to the pump
I said “Don’t you ever lay a hand   
            on this pig again”
The guitar player laughed

He asked me if I wanted the nuts back
He took them out of his pocket
He spit on them
He shook them like dice
He threw them on the ground
He said “Hah”
The midget stomped on them

I had the pig under my arm
He was bleeding on my foot    I said
“Midget, I got friends on that river”


II   The Acolyte

The men rode by

I passed them on the road
They smelled like dead fish

The one in front had a guitar on his back
The other one had a chain saw

I was riding the hog
He weighed three-hundred pounds
I called him Holy Ghost

The midget flashed a knife
He thumbed the blade
He smiled at me
He called me “Pig Rider”

I rode over to Baby Gauge’s
I was on my way to church
I had to get the red cassock
I tied the hog to the front porch
Baby Gauge was swinging in a tire
Born In The Camp With Six Toes was sleeping in the icebox

Baby Gauge said “Be at the levee at three o’clock”
I put the robe on
I said “I almost got drowned last time”
“Going to have a mighty good time” he said
“Going to be an eclipse” Born In The Camp With Six Toes said

I rode the hog to church

I took the new shoes off
I lit the candles
I changed the book
I rung the bell

I was drinking the wine
I heard Baby Gauge yell

I ran down the aisle
I saw the men at the trough
They were beating the hog over the head with sledge hammers
It was like the clock in the German pilot’s shack

One of his eyes was hanging out
And the trough was running over with blood

They held his head under the water
He was rooting in his own blood
He pumped it out in a mist
Like a buck shot in the lung
It was black

He broke loose

I ran down the road yelling
I stepped on soda bottle caps
I ran through sardine cans
I tripped on the cassock

The hog was crazy
He ran into the church
He ran into tombstones

I said “Somebody throw me something”
Chinaman threw me a knife

I ran after the hog
He was heading for the river
I jumped on his back

I rode the hog
I hugged his neck
I stabbed him seven times
I wanted the knife to go into me
He kept running
I ran the knife across his throat
And the blood came out like a bird

We ran into a sycamore tree

When the cloud passed over the moon
Like a turkey shutting its eye
I rowed out into the slew
Not allowing myself to sing gospel music

I woke up in a boat
It was full of blood
My feet were dragging through the water
A knife was sticking in the prow
And the sun was black

It was dark
But I saw the snake doctors riding each other

I saw my new shoes
I put them on
They filled up with blood

I took the surplice off
I threw it in the river
I watched it sink
There was hog blood in my hair

I knelt in the prow with the knife in my mouth
I looked at myself in the water
I heard someone singing on the levee

I was buried in a boat
I woke up
I set it afire with the taper
I watched myself burn
I reached in the ashes and found a red knife

I held my head under the water
      so I wouldn’t go crazy
It was some commotion
I rowed the boat in a circle with one oar

A hundred people were in the water
They had white robes on
Some of them had umbrellas
They jumped up and down on the bank
They rowed down the levee
They were yelling and singing
One of them saw me
I saw a horse with tassels

I put my head under the water
I thought I was dead
I hit it on a cypress knee

Two Negroes came riding through the river
They rode towards me on the moon-blind horse

One of them was drinking soda water
“Where are you going, boy” Baby Gauge said

The horse swam back to the levee
I was with them
The boat drifted away
A man said “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego”



III   Hambone

They tied his hind legs together
And hung him in a tree with a log chain

I saw them
I was on Baby Gauge’s horse
I threw a knife at the midget
So they hung me up by the feet too

I saw them break his neck
I saw them pull his legs apart
    like a wishbone
I wished the dead came back

The midget stood on a bucket
He reached up in the hog’s throat
And pulled the heart out

The dog was lying on the ground
With his mouth open

It took all day to butcher the hog
I got dizzy
I saw the snake doctors riding each other

They turned the bucket over
It filled up with blood

They made a fire

The guitar player beat his hand over his leg
He put some meat on the fire

They tried to make me eat it

The midget spit a bone on the ground

The other one picked it up
He put it on his finger

He went over and got his guitar
He tried to play it like a Negro
There was too much grease on his hands
He got blood on the guitar

The midget danced around the campfire
I wanted to cut his throat

The dog bayed at the moon
And the blue Andalusian rooster played with a snake
I was bleeding out my nose

The fish bandits loaded the hog on Baby Gauge’s horse
They threw blood on the fire
And filled the bucket up with guts for fish bait
When they rode off I yelled “Peckerwoods”

I dreamed I saw Holy Ghost walking around the campfire
He was a wild hog with blood on his tushes

Along about midnight I heard a boat
    but no rowing
Somebody short came walking out of the woods
With a light on his head
The light went out I couldn’t see
He drew something out of his boot
He grabbed me by the hair
I saw a knife in the moonlight
“Sweet Jesus” I said

Born In The Camp With Six Toes cut me down


IV   Chainsaw

The man cut his hand off at dawn
I heard him yell
I set up in bed

He ran past the window
“Don’t let the dog get it” he said

I got out of bed
I had the long handles on
It was cold
I threw some wood on the fire
I put the dime around my ankle
I put my boots on
I put a knife in the boot

I walked out to the road
The blue Andalusian rooster followed me
It was dark

I heard the chainsaw in the woods
I heard him singing all night
He was cutting firewood
He was drunk

The dog quit barking

I drew the knife out of my boot
I looked for the midget
I saw the blood and I tracked it
I saw the sun and the moon
I saw the snake doctors riding each other

The hand was in the sawdust
It was moving

The hambone was on the finger
It was morning
The dog didn’t get it
I did

There was blood on the chainsaw
I told the blue rooster
“He thought it was a guitar”

I walked around the hand seven times
I poked it with a stick
I sung to it
I picked it up like a snake
I took the hambone off the finger
I put Holy Ghost’s bone in my boot
I put the hand on a stump

I danced on the hand
I peed on it
I broke a wine bottle over it
I threw it up in the air and a hawk
    hit it
The dog licked the blood out of the dust

I saw the fish bandit’s guitar
The blue rooster pecked it
I beat the hand with it
I threw the guitar in the river
The snake doctors lit on it
It floated away

I went down to the bank
I got a pole
I put a hook through the hand
I washed it off
When I touched the wound with my knife
    it rolled up in a fist

Somebody came by in a boat
They held up a big fish
So I held up the hand

They jumped out of the boat
They thought I crossed them
One of them said “That wasn’t no hoodoo, was it”
It was Baby Gauge
I said “No, it was the guitar player’s hand”
They swam to the bank
I told them how I came by it
Born In The Camp With Six Toes said “It won’t
Take another fish off my lines”

I asked them “You want to shake it”
Baby Gauge said “No, I want to spit on it”
We spit on the hand

They left

I wrapped it up in newspaper like fish
I took it home

I put it under Jimmy’s pillow
and he knocked my teeth out
I put it in a cigar box with a picture
      of Elvis Presley
I took it to town

I walked over to the dance hall
The guitar player was bleeding in the back of the pickup

I gave him the cigar box
He passed out

The midget pulled a knife on me
I picked up the hand
He ran off

On the way home I ran folks off the road
When the truck came by the house
The guitar player raised up in the bed
He said “Give me my hand back”

When it was dark
I tied fish line to it and hung it
    in the outhouse
I sung to it
The moon shined through the chink hole
on the hand

I took it down
I threw it in a yellow jacket nest
I stomped on it

I took it to the palm reader
I said “Sister, read this”

A lot of evenings I listened for them
I knew they would come back

When a stranger got a drink at night
I thought it was the Holy Ghost
And sometimes a cloud went by like a three-legged dog
And the thunder was someone with a shotgun
Letting him have it

Now the moon was a fifty-cent piece
It was a belly I wanted
      to cut open

When the flies got bad
I kept the hand in the smokehouse






V   Swimming at Night

The midget ran his finger across his neck
The other one said “Give it back”

I waited in the outhouse
I had a sawed-off shotgun
The men rode off

In the afternoon they sold fish
They cleaned them at the pump
The scales dried up on their faces
They loaded the meat on stolen horses

At night they rode up shooting pistols
I slept with an ice pick under my pillow

One night they rode up drunk
The midget was sitting in the guitar player’s lap
He said “Come on out”

They tied a bale of hay to Baby Gauge’s horse
They poured coal oil on it
They set it on fire
They laughed

The horse with the moon eye pranced around them
He galloped home

I carved wild hog out of a cypress knee
I made it the handle
I made four tushes out of the hambone
I used the blade I brought out of the fire
And sealed the pig with
It was the blade I put the burning horse to sleep with
I called the knife the Holy Ghost

To make me go crazy
I took all my clothes off
And jumped down the hole in the outhouse
I grabbed the yellow jacket nest
And held it over my heart
I pumped cold water over myself
And wallowed in the mud
I walked through the snake den barefooted
I swam the river at midnight
With the hand and a blue feather in my mouth
And the Holy Ghost around my neck

And the hooks caught in my arms    they caught in my legs
I cut the trot lines in two
I saw the guitar player stealing the fish

I was swimming beneath the shack
Under the sleeping midget
With the fish bandit’s hand in my mouth

I climbed through the trap door
I crawled under the bed
I cut the hooks out
I believe I was snake bit
I put the hand in the slop jar
I reached up and tickled his nose with the feather

He got out of bed
He turned the lights on
He let down his pants
He reached under the bed for the slop jar
He took the lid off
He screamed
I brought the knife across his leg
I hamstrung the midget

I swam under the water
With the hand in my mouth

I came up near the guitar player’s boat
He was running the lines

I swam to the other end of the trot line
I put the hand on a hook
I jerked the lines like a big fish

The guitar player worked his way down
He thought he had a good one

I let go of the line
He saw his left hand
He screamed
He fell out of the boat

I swam back through the river
I buried the knife in the levee

I was sleeping in the Negro’s lap
He was spitting snuff on my wounds

Born In The Camp With Six Toes cut me with a knife
Baby Gauge sucked the poison out
Oh Sweet Jesus the levees that break in my heart

Estate of Frank Stanford © C.D. Wright

Source: The Singing Knives (Lost Road Publishers, 1979)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Frank Stanford 1948–1978

POET’S REGION U.S., Southern

Subjects Activities, Travels & Journeys, Social Commentaries, Crime & Punishment, Mythology & Folklore, Horror

Poetic Terms Free Verse

Biography

Born in 1948, Stanford was a prolific poet known for his originality and ingenuity. He has been dubbed “a swamprat Rimbaud” by Lorenzo Thomas and “one of the great voices of death” by Franz Wright. He grew up in Mississippi, Tennessee, and then Arkansas, where he lived for most of his life and wrote many of his most powerful poems. He attended the University of Arkansas from 1967-9 and studied engineering while continuing to . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Activities, Travels & Journeys, Social Commentaries, Crime & Punishment, Mythology & Folklore, Horror

POET’S REGION U.S., Southern

Poetic Terms Free Verse

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.