A Rattlesnake Story

Paulann Petersen

Kim Matthews Wheaton,

The Far Ridge in Winter




                    — for Mabel McKay, Pomo medicine woman, 

                                                                      master basket-maker, last Cache Creek Pomo speaker




 she has an ancestor     her mother’s uncle died long ago

     who comes to her in dreams               years before she was born 

       while she sleeps he gives her songs                she thinks about him anyway

          one night he gives her a rattlesnake song              awake she recalls dreaming of him

            he says the song will bring snakes to her             that morning she hears whirring

                  but the rattlers will never harm her             a faint thrum is in her ears

            she sees one rattlesnake then another             she thinks about her dream

             then a third    she thinks it strange             how a dream can twist and sidle

             so many snakes are in one spot             she remembers the dream-thing

             how can so many be so near             a creature glinting as it moves

          they appear inside her house            with a luster fine as beadwork

        she asks her uncle about them             the next day she’s outside

     why are these snakes now inside            where she gathers sedge roots

        when she isn’t singing the song             for making her baskets

            he says it makes no difference             her mind isn’t on her dream 

                they’ll be with her if she sings             the gathering goes quickly 

               if she doesn’t they’ll still be there             she loops the supple roots

                   the song will be with her always             in a bundle she can carry home

                     soon rattlers are everywhere             she begins weaving with a one-rod coil

                 snakes slithering in her house            working on her porch she can hear

              two wound around a table leg             a rustling coming from under the oaks

    a snake meanders under her bed             the start on her first basket goes awry

     people stop coming to see her            again she attempts the tiny first coil

    even friends are staying away            without that spiral she has nothing

   she talks to her uncle saying            she’s been working for several days

    snakes are all well and good             not ever leaving her house

        but these are different times            time to add quail plumes

              her friends are all afraid             to finish with bits of shell

              the snakes make them jumpy             she pauses     distracted 

                her uncle asks what she wants            under an oak out front 

                 does she want the song taken away             wisps of grass waver   

                she says yes take the snake song back             a rattlesnake rivers itself

               so the dream-snakes begin to retreat             through yellowed blades

                 in their own way they disappear             cooler weather will come

      the song coils tight inside her                     sending snakes back home

    farther within her                                the heat does break

       the snakes stay                         those rattlers soon go 

                            where they belong

                              deep inside her  

                                they belong






Paulann Petersen, Oregon Poet Laureate Emerita, has six full-length books of poetry, with a seventh, One Small Sun, scheduled to be published by Salmon Press of Ireland in March, 2019. The Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds chose a poem from her book The Voluptuary as the lyric for a choral composition that’s now part of the repertoire of the Choir at Trinity College Cambridge.

Photo by Rose Lefebvre​

Editor's Note: "A Rattlesnake Story" is a concrete poem. To read it in its proper form please view it on a desktop or laptop.