Fish bones walked the waves off Hatteras.
And there were other signs
That Death wooed us, by water, wooed us
By land: among the pines
An uncurled cottonmouth that rolled on moss
Reared in the polluted air.
Birth, not death, is the hard loss.
I know. I also left a skin there.
When I first read this poem, I stupidly confused "cottonmouth" with "cottonwood." You can imagine my confusion as I tried to figure out what an "uncurled" tree had to do with anything. However, some quick research quickly told me that a cottonmouth is not a harmless plant as I had assumed, but a notorious, venomous snake, which change the meaning of the poem for me drastically. I also learned that Hatteras is a small island off the coast of North Carolina. Apparently, it saw some action in the Civil War, but for all I could tell, it's just a collection of small towns trying to attract tourists.
"Cottonmouth Country" has a large amount of strange irony. From fish bones walking -- which should be impossible both because they're dead and because they're fish -- to Death wooing to polluted nature, the poem has strong, jarring juxtaposition. It adds a sense of dry humor to the poem about death, pollution, and other unpleasant topics. It this way, the poem leaves the reader with a more open mind than might have been possible if the descriptions had been all dark.
Gluck uses ironic comparisons to lighten dark topics and darken light ones. The poem is set on a beach, but it is not the pretty beach of California or Hawaii. Instead of turtles, there are fish bones. It is also an East Coast beach, and I have to admit that I don't think of those beaches as exactly clean. Mostly, I just think of all the trash New York used to dump into the ocean. This marred paradise leads exactly into the idea of Death that "wooded us, by water, wooed us/ By land." If life is the beach, death is its trash. The fish bones litter the sand, and death tries to pull you away from every direction. It even sneaks up in the form of a cottonmouth.
This snake seems particularly important. It not only names the poem, but gains more "time" in the poem that anything else. Because of the colon after "By land," it seems likely that the cottonmouth is either one of the signs of Death or Death itself. It makes sense, seeing as cottonmouths are poisonous. They are also sneaky and easy to miss, just has death may be where we would never expect to find it. An interesting thing about death in this poem is that it's capitalized. This indicates that Gluck is referring to it either as a place or a person -- or just something to be respected. I think of it as some sort of person, represented by the cottonmouth.
The last two lines of the poem are the most confusing. "Birth, not death, is the hard loss./ I know. I also left a skin there." The last line seems easier to understand. Loosing skin automatically made me think of snakes (even when I thought a cottonmouth was a tree). They shed skin in order to grow, something I don't think any other animal does. So somehow the speaker is like a snake -- or the cottonmouth. As I thought about how in the world a human could lose skin, I thought of birth. After all, weren't we within our mother's skin before? So when we were born, we essentially "left a skin." We left a protection.
Before we were born, we were protected, safe. But just after, we were introduced to a world of sorrow, suffering, and imperfection, just like the dirty beach in the poem. Death is all around, like a sneaking, venomous snake, and we never know when we will get bit. Death is not hard. It is only an end, the poem seems to say. It is living, with its uncertainty and its pain, that's hard. Losing the security of the womb is far harder than losing life.