Orenoque,Wetumka, and Other Poems

By Robert Bensen

Blacksnake at the Iroquois Festival                                    

We set three paper plates in the grass
between the picnic tents and ravine at the wood's edge.
I broke our daughter's fried bread, murmuring thanks.
Steam uncoiled, brushed my hand
and branched along some shifty breeze.
A handful of Mohawk kids scooped polliwogs
in cups from the concession, their family's current stand.
They flocked around a lean, sweat-beaded young man,
who drew a hoop of writhing snake from the reeds,
a red blossom where he'd sliced the head off. 
"You know this snake?" he called across the ravine. 
"Can't say I do," I said.  "But why risk it with them?" 

Past the woods we couldn't see a lumbering freight
shake the trees and hoot some vestige of its victory. 
Our girl asked to touch the snake.  I carried her over.
She smoothed its patches of tweedy, irridescent black. 
"She's more brave than you," the boy in a Barney shirt
needled his brother.  "You were right," I said again,
"not to take a chance.  Not with them." 
But he, astonished at the drive in that headless spine,
roped it over his arm again and again.

The kids packed behind him when he crossed the knoll
to find the museum's naturalist.  He scanned the faces
of milling visitors suddenly hushed at this apparition
from some world where men strode bare-chested out of the wood
wearing snakes on their arms.  He'd hoped the white man
with the curious girl had known something final.

Well, back in the sluice, a deathmask stared
down narrow, trackless halls of reeds, 
while in the tents a woman beaded lightning down my sleeve.
And now, through apple leaves, as dawn pales blue
the hood of the moon's last milky eye,
I'm after sliding an arm around my sleeping girl,
who's of another mind:  she squiggles down,
feet perched on my wrist, poised to chase or be chased
around the circle we make.  Soon must come her dream
of another life she has to run through one more time.

  • If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. —Barry Lopez, in Crow and Weasel