Shari Wagner, Indiana’s fifth Poet Laureate, is the author of two books of poetry: The Harmonist at Nightfall: Poems of Indiana and Evening Chore. Her poems have appeared in North American Review, The Writer’s Almanac, Shenandoah, The Christian Century, Indiana Review, and American Life in Poetry. She was awarded Shenandoah’s The Carter Prize for the Essay in 2009 and is the recipient of two Arts Council of Indianapolis Creative Renewal Fellowships, as well as nine grants from the Indiana Arts Commission. Wagner has an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Indiana University at Bloomington and teaches for the Indiana Writers Center and Butler University’s Religion, Spirituality & the Arts Seminar. Her laureate website is www.throughthesycamores.com.
The farm wife meets the giant rattlesnake of LaGrange County
I thought it was a monster farmwives concocted
to keep their daughters from wandering too far
into a cornfield. Mom never could name the Amish
farmer who stopped his buggy when he saw it
stretched across E 150 N near Fly Creek. A fallen tree,
he figured, but as he raised an axe, the scaly bark
beneath his boot slid into the field. Any snake
disappearing is scarier than the one you see, but
Mom swore this one had thirty rattles and eyes
like a red warning signal at a track. Some Christians
reach into a box to grasp a venomous snake.
They take it as an act of faith. Now that Mom’s gone,
I’m taking her great snake to heart. Rows of cornstalks
close behind me. Leaves against dry leaves hiss.
The farm wife balances the ledger before she goes to bed
Three hundred gallons of milk
leak into the empty diesel tank.
A dozen brooding hens flap
against the bars of their column.
Even the sheep I count leap
into the Blue Lake beans.
So much to keep straight—
like Uno cards in a losing hand.
How did the names of bovine ladies
shrink into numbers to subtract?
How can I fall asleep
with a bottom line that roars
like a combine’s cutter bar
crunching what it meets?
The farm wife shields the yellow jackets that stung her
Pete thinks we should pour gasoline
where they’ve burrowed near the fence post,
but winter frost will kill them soon enough,
all but the future queen, who will find
another cranny for her nest. “That’s the problem,”
Pete says. “She might move in under the porch
or behind a shingle.” I don’t deny it hurt
when yellow jackets stung my arms and nose
and clung like burrs to my socks,
but those feisty wasps were fighting
for what they fear they will lose—
and who am I to fault them for that?