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©2019 by Prometheus Dreaming

Snakes and Ladders

by Andre Bagoo

In the days when children played board games, everyone in Trinidad played Snakes and Ladders. Those were simple times, and it was a simple game. You raced along a grid of squares to a finish line. But with the roll of the dice, you might end up on a snake and would have to slide down, back along the path from which you had progressed. Or you might end up on a ladder, and get to climb up, inching closer to heaven. The game was everywhere: in stores on Charlotte Street or in the big malls to the west. For many of us it seemed part and parcel of growing up. And for a long time, the snakes on the version we had at home in Belmont were the only snakes I ever saw. 

Belmont was a place where it was relatively hard to encounter wild animals. There might be a stray iguana every now and then, maybe an agouti, a few birds. Although we were walled in by verdant hills to the north, the narrow lanes, densely packed concrete houses and busy streets had more of an urban feel. Not like nearby places like Cascade, where the line between suburb and jungle could suddenly evaporate. Or parts of Morvant, where you could think you were in the country and had gone back in time. Maybe other children, perhaps along the Belmont Valley Road or up Belle Eau Road, had better luck finding reptiles. But for the most part, I felt lucky if I found a lizard in our concrete yard. Snakes were limited to the fat, dangling things on the board game, made ever more memorable because they had black and white stripes as though they were in prison.

It was only years later that I discovered where Snakes and Ladders came from, that it was an ancient Indian game called Moksha Patam, that some say the Marathi poet saint Gyandev created it in the 13th century, that it was meant to be a morality lesson, that the original game had one-hundred squares, the 12th square was faith, the 51st square reliability, the 57th square generosity, the 76th square knowledge, and the 78th square asceticism. These were the ladders. The snakes were the 41st square for disobedience, the 44th square arrogance, the 49th square vulgarity, the 52nd square theft, the 58th square lying, the 62nd square drunkenness, the 69th square debt, the 84th square anger, the 92nd square greed, the 95th square pride, the 73rd square murder and the 99th square lust. The 100th square was Nirvana. 

How Snakes and Ladders came to Trinidad is a fascinating question. Did East Indian labourers bring the game during the time of colonial indentureship? Or did it come in a more roundabout way, first being transported to England from India, then returning via the colonial power to British Trinidad? Or did it come from America, having been introduced there in 1943 under the name Chutes and Ladders? 

I can still see the green squares of the version we played over the years, unconscious of the long, complex history that brought it to our house, the thinking that lay just beneath its surface, its message of the balance between karma and kama, destiny and desire, and the strange certainty that the game presents us with a Markov chain—from any square on the board the odds of moving to another square are fixed and independent of any previous game history, absorbing all the movements in a dance to one end. 

“That which is pure consciousness itself, without the quality of being conscious is not conscious of itself,” Gyandev wrote. “Can the eyeball perceive itself? Can the sky enter into itself? Can the fire burn itself?” If a long, complicated history brought Snakes and Ladders to my trough, then pure luck brought me DH Lawrence’s poem ‘Snake’. 

It was a rainy day in Port of Spain and I was at the school Mayfair. I was in an all-boys Catholic secondary school. The Mayfair was the annual fundraising event. The cool boys looked forward to the disco at which reggae, dub, and hip hop would reportedly be played, while the rest of us had to contend with food stalls, a book sale, and a lucky dip. I dipped my hand into the bran tub, which was an empty oil drum filled with wood shavings, and pulled out something disappointing like a soft drink or an item of tinned food. Among the books at the book sale I saw it, A Choice of Poets. I liked its blue spine, its cover. A woman stood next to a bridge, staring thoughtfully at a river as though she had come to the Mayfair and was bored. For a long time I liked the idea of possessing this book more than the book itself. The cleanness of the font on the cover, the brightness of the blue spine, the weight of its smooth paper. 

In those days I liked building things and re-arranging the furniture in my room. I had just installed a new desk, made with concrete bricks and some leftover planks of wood from one of my father’s handyman projects, when I realised I would require something to read on this new desk. Luckily, I had just the thing. I opened A Choice of Poets, and came upon the poem:

 

A snake came to my water-trough

On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,

To drink there.

 

Here’s the thing. This poem is one of the most anthologized in the world. School children everywhere are made to read it. But as a boy growing up in Belmont it felt shocking. I had a reaction no one else could have. For the first time I saw language bend to its subject matter. Something pulsed. The arrangement of the words, their sounds and ideas, the conflict of the narrator, the fragmented free verse that still seemed to fall into place, like a piece of broken pottery being slowly unearthed. 

The first line runs on to the second, as though in prelude to some action about to be taken, some event. The conjunction “and” followed by the subject “I” makes us think a verb will follow, such as, “and I screamed” or “and I looked”. But then, a defiance in the line sets in. The narrator is now “in pyjamas”, wrapped, swaddled, passive. An explanation given for the garb, it’s “for the heat”. In Trinidad we are accustomed to heat so the idea of dressing for it seemed oddly ritualistic. At this stage, a verb is still possible after this digression, such as “and I in pyjamas for the heat, / ran away”. But when the verb comes, it applies to the snake, not the pyjama-wearing narrator. Or does it?

It’s a stunning elision that asks us to question the difference between animal and man, between states of knowledge or self-consciousness, between good and bad, chastity and lust. In the next stanza, this merger of the snake with the I continues.  

 

In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob tree

I came down the steps with my pitcher

And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough

            before me.

 

The assignment of a gender to the snake raises questions of sexuality. The carob tree is notable for its phallic pods. There is a sensual description of the snake drinking, before Lawrence declares:

 

Someone was before me at my water-trough,

And I, like a second-comer, waiting. 

 

It feels explosive. The encounter with the snake makes the narrator come into being. The mirror image forces a confrontation with the self. A kind of rationality is given to the snake, who drinks and lifts his head “as cattle do”, yet he seems an elemental being, wrought from the “burning bowels of the earth”. Hell is implied, but at the same time Lawrence grounds things in a geographic reality. The events are happening, “On the day of Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.” The snake, thus, is both a mystical creature and the organic expression of bigger forces.

The sexual symbolism of the snake, who returns to “the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front” is clear. As is the poem’s questioning of the place of human beings in the animal kingdom. And its examination of the interplay between temptation and taboo, right and wrong, the free and the imprisoned. Less noticeable is the poem’s subtle argument for its own sinuosity, for the slowing down of time through language, for mantras that echo and question volition, cause, and effect.

Snakes and Ladders is a game that teaches you binaries. You land on a snake, you go down. You land on a ladder, you go up. There are only two options and it all depends on fate. But DH Lawrence’s ‘Snake’ blurs the forked path that Robert Frost sets in front of us. Choice and fate confront the narrator. His ambivalence, his passive aggressiveness, his simultaneous attraction and repulsion, places him between action against the snake and surrender to the animal, and what the animal represents: secret self. That he comes to strike the animal is a moment of parapraxis, an accident revealing the currents within him. Discovering this poem was discovering, in art and in the simple arrangement of words and facts, a new game entirely. 

About the Author

Andre Bagoo is a Trinidadian poet and writer, the author of four books of poetry, Trick Vessels (2012), BURN (2015), Pitch Lake (2017) and The City of Dreadful Night (2018). His poems have appeared in journals such as Boston Review, Cincinnati Review, St Petersburg Review, POETRY, and The Poetry Review. He was awarded The Charlotte and Isidor Paiewonsky Prize by The Caribbean Writer in 2017. Bagoo’s collection of essays, The Undiscovered Country, is forthcoming from Peepal Tree Press.