The Black Snake

Oliver, Mary

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Nixon, Lois LaCivita
  • Date of entry: Aug-22-2001


Mary Oliver's six stanzas are a meditation on the processes of life and death. The narrator observes the death of a snake by a truck that "could not swerve." The occurrence of sudden death is, after all, "how it happens" and the snake now lies "looped and useless as an old bicycle tire." For most observers of this familiar sight, that would be the end. The narrator, however, stops his car and carries the cool and gleaming snake to the bushes where it is as "beautiful and quiet as a dead brother."

Upon continuing his drive, the experience generates reflection about death: its suddenness, its weight, and its certainty. At the same time the narrator notes that dying and death of others ignites a brighter fire, one of good fortune: "not me!"

The final stanza describes the innate drive and tenacity of life forces. Because life, rather than death, is at the center of each cell, unimpeded by death, the snake and all other forms of life move forward tenaciously, unimpeded by the threat of death.


The suddenness of a snake's death serves as a metaphor for the fragility of life and the certainty of death. Just as the snake glides onto the road, we too glide into rhythms of life without reflection on inherent dangers. "Life," not death, "is the light at the center of every cell." It is useful to read this poem with Death by John Stone (see this database).

Primary Source

Twelve Moons


Little, Brown

Place Published