Writing My Way Through
The DRUNK poem
Sometimes I just want to be a girl,
I don't want to be so tough...
I want to turn and ride to the house,
Say, hey boys, I've had enough.
Sometimes I want to wear lip gloss
Instead of a mustache made of dirt,
Wear something pretty and slinky and pink
Instead of these chaps and denim shirt.
Sometimes I want to pull up
Instead of crashing through the brush,
Say, Sorry Honey, I didn't get there in time,
But you know how I hate to rush!
Some days I count the pairs in the pen
And I don’t want to head them all.
I don’t want to mill in the dust and smoke,
And listen to those babies bawl.
Sometimes I want to sleep in my own bed
Rather than wrapped in canvas and wool
but to give up this glorious job
I’d be three kinds of a fool.
For it is often through miles and testing
that a girl can find her strong,
and sometimes the most luminous beauty
comes from days that are hard and long.
And these cowboy days have taught me well
about some other parts of life,
like kids and love and trails and logic
and don’t even forget your pocketknife.
And the truth is, I like these cows
I like how they move through the world.
I like to be in the wide outside
And I don't care if my hair is curled.
So, tomorrow I will saddle right up
And ride no matter the weather.
I’ll pull on my boots, don my hat,
And fill my hands with leather.
I’ll look deeper than the dirt and sweat,
Show up to ride all day,
Try to treasure moments money can’t buy,
And count those as the bulk of my pay.
Sometimes I just want to be a girl,
I don't want to be so tough,
But as I put these words on the page,
I reckon, I'm tough enough.
Last night I fed spaghetti to an old Navajo with red ribbons braided into his hair.
He sang, probably to ward off witches, when I showed him the spear point I found at Bull Water, and later I wished I knew that same song when he told of shooting an eight-year-old girl in Vietnam, one who had been selling cigarettes in camp every day until she came wearing something more explosive than a cigarette tray.
His life pivots, you know, on that one day, that one bullet, that one child, and last night the firewater flowed.
He told me that I am guarded by the wolf and the chief, that arrowheads on the bottoms of my horse's hooves point always in the right direction.
He sang the word for hummingbird, and it is the same as the word for fighter jet.
I think he made up the part about the chief and the wolf, but I believe him about the hummingbird.
Give me mud,
heavy black fragrant,
at the bottom of a trough.
Give me cows,
bawling cumbersome social,
daughters and sons and families of cows.
Give me light,
flickering non-electric intimate,
creating a circle of us.
Give me solitude
days of books and pages and truths,
when the story is the thing.
Give me weather
wind and storm and bright hot
on unprotected skin.
Give me simple
Keep your diamonds,
your exhaust fumes,
Give me mud,
heavy black fragrant,
at the bottom of a trough.
Sometimes I write a poem...
See You at the Barn
See you at the barn,
is what you give me
as you turn left and I turn right
along the ribbon of cedar posts and barbed wire
Up and down canyons, along ridges,
I make crooked the straight
in deference to equine muscles
and slick rock.
And my brain plays traitor to my heart
badgers me with
litanies and lists and ledgers and logic
costs and calendars and clocks,
Those things we have misnamed “real.”
I spur my horse faster.
But this rough ride can’t be rushed,
and reality reclaims its right to what is
and thank god,
I can see again.
Rocks in layers with pebble aprons,
as if they were waterfalls,
and they will be when the water falls.
Dead trees posed among the living,
as if they were paintings,
and they will be when the artist brings her brushes.
I see bright pink bear scat
laden with prickly pear seeds,
Deer as silent explosions out of shadows,
rising above me to stand as solid sculptures,
Tick tock becomes hoof fall and heartbeat,
hoof fall quickening when quinine quivers
with quail whirrr
and my heartbeat betrays me when I see
the bright green rattlesnake with
velvet tail and pale buttons,
coiled tight, head flat,
ready to strike,
and he does not buzzz.
A hawk is my sailing silent companion
until he cries, friendlylonley from the air.
A fragile inchworm rests on my sleeve.
Fat green acorns wear tight-knit caps for fall.
Songbirds weave in and out of the bushes,
and I become one of them
as I weave with words and with wire.
And so the hours
do not pass,
for I refuse to claim them
or name them as such.
When I turn toward home,
I vow that when I remember,
I will not give time nor day nor task,
but rather, will say
“I remember that moment
when I was alive.”
See you at the barn.
Lots of Gone in her Eyes
Standing witness to what?
Blank verse, blank days, blank sky.
Cows chew hay
dropped behind honking horn
that cut the morning before 6am.
Doors slamming, water running, bacon frying.
Sipping delayed coffee
we retreat into silence and words--
incendiary and placid both--
and then retreat again from brains alight
to horse sweat and heavy decisions.
That old broad, does she stay or does she go?
Jesus, I wish it'd rain...
Rather go too far, ship too many, cut too deep...
Maybe that hard-to-handle bull
and those scrubby little heifers...
Well, maybe not that one,
looks like her mom.
You know the one I mean--
wide horns and some white on her bag?
We put her through last month,
black baby at her side, too tiny to brand.
She's still spittin' 'em out--
must be fourteen. Good little cow...
And her daughter's the spittin' image.
But--I did say I was gonna lighten up.
Sorting in bright baked pens,
Gooseneck gates rattle loudly in the heat.
We've memorized that blank sky--
notice the cottonball cloud when it puffs--
like a changed word in our familiar song.
We look away.
In matters of hope and heart
we long for the low-hanging fruit.
Fulfillment that comes before fatigue sets in.
Too tired to eat or make love or recoup our losses.
The afternoon storm cleanses, cools, soothes.
It wasn't much--but it's a start.
Told tired leaves and dusty roots
to hold on a little longer.
Tomorrow's storm brews
bigger and darker than its parent.
"Moisture breeds moisture,"
the old men say.
Eating after dark.
Only because it’s so far to the sale barn,
then chores. Always chores.
Damp air in the desert
smells different than other airs in the world.
Forks on tin plates.
Ice in amber glasses.
I bear witness as he looks up.
"I wish I'd-a kept that heifer."
She’s a better hand with a horse than he is, and she has to be because brute strength and courage-from-a-can are not tools in her box.
He scorns the tools that are in her box, her soft, gentle ways, her determination to let the colt come to her, the time she spends in a pen that is round, the advice she listens to from old men gone soft.
He’s more wham, jam, rope ‘em, choke ‘em, make ‘em spin a hole in the dirt, jerk, job, jab, give ‘em a taste of iron, teach that son of a bitch who’s boss, and he’ll get a horse with lots of white in his eye, lumps on his ribs, fear on his breath, a hard mouth, and don’t turn your back.
He’s all big hat, no cattle, big spurs, no balls.
He drinks whiskey in the kitchen with his buddies while she watches videos from the men who advocate a better way than the Lonesome Dove-get-on-‘em-and-ride.
She knows all about wham and jam, choke ‘er while you make ‘er spin, jerk, job, jab, giver ‘er a taste of a real man, teach that bitch who’s boss, and she’s a girl with lots of gone in her eyes, plans on her mind, fear of the dark, a hard heart, and sympathy for every horse he rides.
The beat of the heat is a refrain as we strain toward the hope of rain with dust under our feet and the crust of dried-up ponds mocking the month and the dense blue of the rueful rural sky.
We all say the same thing when we gather, palaver, an old fashioned word that's seen other dry-fry summers, and I wonder as we stand in the hot wind and slow burn which of these be-hatted men also mourn the loss of lust when the sheet is kicked away by impatient feet and even the early morning is another long slow wait, grate, uneasy fate, gray slate of un-puffed sunrise, then red red red.
There is no poetry in July.
Old timers talk of monsoons, coming always soon, thunderstorm noons, no clouds until midday tunes on the radio.
Sweat dampens the bottom layer of my hair and the cold beer in my hand doesn't stay cold, and the conversation is getting old, chances sold, may I lay my livestock cards down, fold, hold instead the aces of weather worries are for peasants, for drought stories already told, Steinbeck.
Even these old men look bewildered and hopeless as we speak of shipping cows before they get too thin.
Falling in Love
I’m falling in love and it’s nothing like the movies.
I’m falling in love with hot coffee mornings and cold whiskey evenings and the long hours in between.
I’m falling in love with a little bay mare who is just as willing at dusk as she was at dawn.
I’m falling in love with cast iron and merino wool and acorns, with a leftover slice of bacon tucked inside a tortilla at 2 in the afternoon when we’re still six miles from home.
I’m falling in love with that kerosene lantern in the old cabin. You know the one.
With the gila monster and his half-smile, with granite cliffs etched with a language even I can learn to speak. The figures point the way.
I’m falling in love with Willie Matthews’ sunset skies and a John Dofflemyer poem.
With kittens in the hay and eggs in the nest and the weight of a burlap nosebag. The patient horses look like veiled women.
I’m falling in love with branding smoke and an easy sort and the first long trot of the year.
With winter solstice and spring snow and summer monsoon and autumn glow.
I’m falling in love and who needs the movies.
I get drunk on the smell of the dark places in the creek.
I get drunk on the idea that... well, on ideas.
I get drunk on frog song and lupine blue and sego lilies and horse sweat.
I get drunk on any moon, on a solitary quail at dawn, on the white foam around a baby calf's lips and the lowing of his mother when he strays too far.
I get drunk at 5am when I wake to Orion directly overhead.
I get drunk on long hot hourslog days and cooking out of doors.
He's only two years old
but he already knows what a Cheeto is.
Knows what an orange powdered cheese-food corn puff is
but has never pulled a carrot from the dark earth,
washed it off in the waterhose,
crunched into tender sweetness.
The words "corporate culture"
make a scream in my soul;
I wish for more black dirt,
more imperfect carrots,
sun-warmed cherry tomatoes,
more fat cucumbers with prickles on them.
All of the two-year-olds in the world this morning,
tucked away in their square containers,
insulated from weather
and cats with stickers in their toes
and earthworms that would squirm in tiny hands
and wind that would bite their cheeks
and overzealous dogs that would knock them down on their diapered bottoms,
eat sanitary chemicals,
unwrapped from plastic
served by caretakers,
recognizing that cheetah on the package
and the chemical burn on the tongue.
Just an ordinary day until you see them,
Just an ordinary day until you do.
Wild grapes growing high overhead,
Amidst the green, dusky blue.
Was an ordinary dawn at the morning,
And with ordinary you filled your cup.
And it would have gone on being ordinary,
Except that you looked up.
The birds usually get them before now.
The birds like to eat them tartly green.
You’ve been riding for hours through ordinary,
Towards this gift, here, at this spring.
So fill your mouth with seedy sweetness,
Fill your hands with purple blue stains.
Your horse, he’s content to graze here,
So go on cowboy, drop the reins.
Let greedy fingers get tangled in the vines,
Let your heart get filled up to the top.
With ordinary magic on this bright afternoon,
Because you know how to stop.
You’ll ride on from here for many more miles,
And smile at your hands fading to gray.
And you’ll think about how paying attention,
Flips the switch on an ordinary day.
His Time of Day
The old cow moves and stretches her bones
from her place in the cedar shade.
She calls to her calf, drawing him close,
teaching him to not be afraid.
The man and his horse have just arrived
with his smells and his sounds, his woo.
She sniffs the wind for the hint of hay.
He is making a pasture move.
The red cow turns, walks up the dim trail
with four more of her closest friends.
Their calves are all about the same age
and possibly distantly kin.
Years past her ears would have dripped with dogs
and his horse would have foamed with sweat.
Today they walk in a quiet line,
To join more on the salt ground, he bets.
He values now drives gentle and slow.
The man has been changing his ways.
Autumn begins informing his song,
commencing his legacy phase.
Soon he’ll turn this place over and be
accountable for what he’s done.
He wants to leave the land bountiful,
with things growing and creeks that run.
The old cow ambles sagely and wise,
her steer trotting close by her side.
She’ll bawl three days when he goes away;
In her belly, a new one rides.
A slight soft smile creases his face
as the water lot gate grows near.
That red broad with wide horns, damn she’s old.
For sure he should ship her this year.
But she keeps on bringing ‘em to him,
healthy calves, fat, shiny and slick.
He always finds her in those rough parts
where the best feed is strong and thick.
She leads her group in, every time,
without hint of struggle or chase.
Now at the tank, she bawls his way,
with water dripping from her face.
He closes the wire gate as he thinks;
does a quick tally in his mind.
He has shipped several old cows this fall,
And now there’s room to keep her kind.
She’ll show the young ones how best to move
in boulders piled high on this place,
and what to eat when it is not so good,
and where the hidden water stays.
Gentle and calm, but knows how to fight
with horns sharp and slinging snot.
The scent of coyote, lion or bear
draws memories of past battles fought.
But kind eyes rest between those wide horns,
that are wrinkled and grooved now thin.
He tosses out flakes of bright green hay,
as she brings her big steer on in.
Shaky truth he was fed in youth.
The country makes them wild, you know.
Thick brush and rocks and steep canyon walls
are not like those flats down below.
That way of thinking has now grown old.
He’s had years to look at it close.
When cows run off or the creek bank’s bare,
he examines his own self most.
And so he stands and watches these girls
as they chew their way through the hay.
Throws out one more fragrant bale because
he can, and it’s his time of day.
He was not a very old man
Though some days that time seemed close.
He was not always a good man
But he sure tried harder than most.
He had a job he’d come to like
For a man that he respected
And his wife sure liked that house.
But life tends to bring the unexpected.
For lately he’d been thinking
About his rowdy eldest son,
And the potential for serious trouble
If he stayed on the path that he’d begun.
Hanging with a rough crowd
Running hard, playing wild,
So he pondered how to help this boy,
Not quite man, and not quite child.
The cowboy went to his boss
With a question in his heart.
“If I was ever to quit you
Would you give my son a place to start?”
“Why, shore! It’d be a pleasure
To hire a young man with you as dad!”
“Then I quit,” said his top hand
And the boss just could not be mad.
So the cowboy and his wife
Moved a little off down the road
And as promised his oldest boy moved in
To straddle the horses Dad once rode.
It's been ten years and since
His father’s boots he’s filled.
He’s solid, smart and reliable,
Makes good decisions, and is strong-willed.
This song does not have
A catchy hook to sink in
It’s just a love song of fathers
For their sons becoming men.
I saw the old cowboy
In the coffee shop today,
Asked after his boy and
Here’s what he had to say:
I don’t know very much
And I wasn’t a very good dad,
But I guess I gave my son,
The best job I ever had.
I need to write a new poem about what it is like, as a woman, to cowboy for a living.
All I can come up with is that I hate it when my toes get cold.
All I can think of is that last old cow we put on the trailer for the sale barn, about the scorpion that ran away when I rolled my bed on the ground at Alkali Spring in August, about how I alone can catch that roan mare when the men can’t lay a hand on her.
All I can come up with is that I like cows and like them, I have ovulated, copulated, gestated a miracle in my body, and then, lactated... for months.
I think I'm qualified to herd mammals.
And that is what I am. I am a herder, a custodian, a caretaker, a steward. I am a livestock man.
I need to write a new poem about what is like, as a woman, to cowboy.
But there are no new poems and we’re never finished shipping cattle in the fall.
There may be new foxes in the night and new orioles in the canyons and new griefs to be born and new ways of looking at the world, and oh please don't let me become blind. And I might become blind if you put me in your cage of expectations.
For I have a rebel heart and that rebel heart gives me the grit to stay in my saddle even after it turns sideways when the bullfight breaks and we’re in the way.
And that rebel heart says this poem doesn’t have to rhyme.
I need the language to describe what it is like to do my job, but all I have are nouns:
weather and wind and wool
and rock and rough and remuda.
Smoke and sweat and sunrise and savvy.
Tracks and tinajas and trails and tally.
Cow and count and coffee and canyon,
logistics and latigos and loop.
Moonshadow and mama and manure and moisture in the air.
Hooves and javelin and how sharp is your pocket knife?
I need the words to tell this story but all I have are verbs:
pee in the dirt
and dally up and build again
and don’t cry when you get yelled at.
Back off that little heifer and ride up/don’t let that bull bluff you out. We’ll never get him again.
Thaw out the frozen coffee pot.
Blink smoke out of your eyes.
Wipe the blood off your chin.
Dig the snowballs out of your horse’s feet.
Hurry up and get the gate.
There’s a storm moving in.
Open a can of chili and let’s eat before it gets plumb dark.
I need to tell about working for $75 a day, but all I can come up with is that little cow we left behind up on the mesa. We’d been gathering into the trap for four days and our first calf heifers are part of the general herd and our bulls are out year ‘round and she didn't bring her new baby in to hay
…and we had to go.
We cut her back with that old hooky cow’s daughter and her calf because the hooky cow's daughter is mean, meaner than that old hooky cow ever thought about being and no coyote or lion is going to get that baby.
But then it snowed.
And I don’t know what you think about in the middle of the night when you can't sleep. Do you think of soft tender hooves and fresh new life up under a cedar tree at 6000 feet and a mother who is new at this gig?
I need to write a new poem about what it is like to be a cowboy.
Without the requisite body parts. Wanna see my tattoos?
The moon set early tonight,
before the dark
but it wasn't much of a moon anyway,
just a slim porcelain bowl,
leaving the party early.
Three crude points,
all from the same green stone,
all more ancient than you,
line up in front of the fire;
They are memory and triumph,
a lump of curiosity,
to know the brown hands that
chose the green stone.
And my children break my heart
a little bit at a time,
don't you know,
break off pieces of it to hold
on their tongues,
tasting the sweet and the sour,
the me who can't say yay or nay
or kiss my ass,
my throat paralyzed with longing.
I have dreams, floor plans,
whole books like
ripe fruit within me,
a distaste for plastic jewelry,
ideals that fight to be lived,
a lust for more intimacy and yet intimacy is the anti-thesis to lust.
the moon set early tonight,
and I thought of building houses,
knapping flint and dreams...
I mailed the package
containing his wedding ring,
It slipped through the mail slot
an unromantic thunk,
no time to stand and salute
for the road home beckoned,
and there are three crude points
of green stone
in a new home,
and long ago the poet said,
"You can't step in the same river twice."
Letter to My Father
(in three parts)
Into the cold wind.
We’ve had some rain.
Bits of conversation, jokes,
The smoke of roll-your-owns
Drift back my way
Along the trot line.
Time to think
Before our hands are full
I think of you every time I swing up into the saddle.
Every time we get some rain.
You’ve left this game.
And some days I understand why.
You were one of the handsome men,
On a fresh horse,
Perhaps you rolled one of your own,
Blew your smoke and your joke
Into the cold wind.
You spoke of rain.
The first time I saw you cry,
I was four.
A heifer stood beneath the windmill,
A pack of town dogs
Had chewed her face off.
It was also the first time
I saw you load a gun.
Today I reined up,
So a little red heifer could
Drink from the creek,
Before catching up with the rest.
I understood about those town dogs.
I didn’t realize
about the heifer.
When the day is hard,
I tell myself to
You would also say
everyone is doing the best he can all the time.
I’d quit over a dehorning spoon
Or unnecessary roughness.
I ride off from horror.
I pick this life of
wind and work and wild.