“Death of the Hired Hand, Hiawatha, Kansas” by Kate Sweeney

Kate Sweeney


I loved his hands pulling that rattlesnake from the baler,
how the thing twitched slightly, as if shuddering in its sleep.

He fetched the shovel to grind off its head, that sick miracle
of jaw still opening and closing on the rusty spade.

I brought the body to grandmother who husked it and shaved off
the tender white kernels of tissue, curing enough meat

to feed one man. Its dried rattle is still a warning,
urging my memory to stay in the barn so I would not be the one

to find him writhing at the gate, gasping in a bloody-backed t-shirt,
while the bull in crimson-tipped horns looked on indifferently.

from Rattle #31, Summer 2009


Kate Sweeney: “Growing up, I spent summers on my uncle’s dairy farm. He would often tell gruesome, exaggerated tales from his many years as a farmer. In this poem, I recalled his account of watching a young farmhand gored by a bull. This image haunted me throughout my childhood. After writing the poem, I shared it with some of my family. No one seems to remember the incident or my uncle’s story. Not even my uncle.”

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