Harry Owen

(Naja nivea)

Halfway along a rutted dirt track, down
to where waters meet, salt to fresh, the car
bumping and rattling slowly through dry heat
and sand, we jerk to a sudden shocked halt.

No zebra, this, but a huge snake crossing,
dust-ochre and deliberate: Cobra!

Not especially hurried, no interest
in me, he goes about his fixed business
of searching for a mate: it’s breeding time
and thicket is doubtless where he’ll find her.

No hint of threat perceived or offered,
no hood or cape, no venom load, no death,

this is exactly where he’s meant to be,
at home. It’s we who trespass, intrude,
we who meddle, yet he leaves us untouched.
Whether from respect or fear, I cannot move…

then breathe once more, relieved, quaking, creep on
in first gear, dust stirring. But wait – brake, brake!

Ten metres farther – fifteen? – she too glides
but from the other side across the path,
equally unperturbed (at least by me),
so sure of her beauty, leading him on.

Is she smiling? I could think so. Does she
watch him brave the dance floor, does she flirt?

Of course she does, as he, hapless devotee,
trails in her wake, bemused, befuddled, in thrall
to the same erotic music that I –
decades past – heard and hummed beneath the trees.

Midway along this rutted dirt road, down
to where the waters meet, all our knowledge
becomes serpent.

Originally from Liverpool, in 2008 Harry Owen moved to South Africa from UK where he had been appointed the inaugural Poet Laureate for Cheshire in 2003.
Outspoken in his commitment to the natural world and a passionate advocate of poetry for social consciousness and change, he is the author of eight collections.
He has edited three anthologies – I Write Who I Am: an anthology of Upstart poetry (2011), featuring the work of nineteen young poets from local township schools; For Rhino in a Shrinking World: an international anthology (2013), supporting efforts to save the gravely threatened rhino from extinction; and Coming Home: poems of the Grahamstown diaspora 2019).
Until the onset of Covid restrictions, for more than twelve years Harry hosted the popular monthly open floor event called Reddits Poetry in Grahamstown, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, where he currently lives.