Poem of the week

Twenty-Sixth Winter by John Dofflemyer

This time, a simultaneously hardbitten and tender example of ‘cowboy poetry’

Sheraton Wild Horse resort in Arizona

Sheraton Wild Horse resort in Arizona.

If you find the term “cowboy poetry” impossibly paradoxical, you might need to think again. Last month, Elko, Nevada, saw the 26th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, an annual event that began with a small group of writers, folklorists and musicians, coming together to celebrate and regenerate an increasingly threatened way of life. Among the participants was the author of this week’s poem, John Dofflemyer, whose first full-length collection, Poems from Dry Creek / was the winner of the 2008 Western Heritage award for outstanding poetry book.

Poetry often has a big role in regionalist movements. It creates visibility, helps establish the endangered minority on the wider cultural map, sustains community spirit. But the end-product has to be accountable to more than “identity”. And there must be the raw material capable of generating fresh linguistic energies.

John Dofflemyer’s poetry draws fruitfully on his life as a cattle-rancher on the southern edge of the Sierra Nevada. In a note to the collection, he describes the setting: “steep ground my family has learned to work with for generations … Our grass is strong feed, our native cattle hearty – the character of the land shapes all.”

Poems of homage to other regional poets show how seriously alternative traditions are regarded: poetry here is not commonplace, as in urban environments, but hard-won and essential, a shared and treasured “strong feed” for the mind. The politics are not usually overt, but the tension behind the release of a self-conscious defiance can be felt when “Sometimes we howl like coyotes,/ let our yippee-ti-yi-yos go/ to God knows where/ just to let every living thing out-there know/ we own the space they can’t look after/ with rules and paper credentials -/ everything ‘cowboy’/ that makes you uneasy.”(“Cowboy Capitulation”).

The plain rectangular blocks of this week’s poem, “Twenty-Sixth Winter”, evoke clear sunlight, long shadows, clean sheer rock-sides. The poet’s language, on the other hand, is at times both idiomatic (“to only let her go/ another winter”) and heavy with a slightly bookish richness. “Once I chased the rainbow’s end on horseback” he writes in another alliteratively-titled poem, “Exercise in Excess” and there is something of that quest in many pieces of work, the rainbow being poetry itself.

Dofflemyer writes kindly about animals, reminding us that those he is currently grazing might be among the last. Like the cow in “Old Speck”, the mare in “Twenty-Sixth Winter” is aged and threadbare. While there are still bull-pens, and poems, jostling with vigorous young livestock, it’s as if these frailer creatures embodied “the disappearing moment/ we have become”.

Such animals, the speaker freely admits, should be humanely slaughtered, but he has resisted longer than he perhaps should have, and the poem itself springs from the moral dilemma. If such creatures are partly symbolic, they are also individuals, regarded with respect and affection. The skinny mare already looks as if she’s part of the land, but it is “hard” for the speaker to see the painfully exposed “ridgeline of her spine”. She is also connected to the human by the “memory” imagined in “her one soft eye” (my italics).

The speaker’s father is a singularly mysterious, ghostly presence, who slips into the poem in its first indented passage, seems to challenge the son, but then slips away, leaving him, perhaps, to accept that he is “another man” and this mare “another horse”. The inevitability of broken tradition shadows the poem, but tone and rhythm remain somehow upbeat. In the final stanza, the decrepit mare has perhaps once more been reprieved. Touchingly eager to start each day, she provides her owners with a lesson in survival and, implicitly, good dying: “She trains us …” The whole complex matter of negotiation between nature and human interference remains, of necessity, unresolved. The balancing of softness and hardness, animal and mineral, sympathetic cultivation and brutal “development” – these are the deeper paradoxes of cowboy poetry.

Twenty-Sixth Winter

I’ve wanted to squeeze
despair into thin air,
discharge bold charity
with my Remington
muzzle to her ear,
blast grey suffering
from this fleshless, ratty hide
tight as a drum
over Willow Buena’s bones
half-a-dozen times
when shadows climbed
up canyon evenings
each September,
to only let her go
another winter
with each memory
in her one soft eye,
the other in a cloud.
And were I young again –
she’d be gone.

Her neck is softer
beneath the halter
as I lead her out
of her retirement, away
from the fretting mules
babysat the past six years

       and I think of my father’s step
       as it slides along the furrow,
       led up and down the orchard row
by something
       I can’t quite see
in me.

       Another man,
       another horse,
       another time
would have let nature claim her,
graze until gravity pulled her down
some frosty night
       to be licked and chewed,
       melt away,
       forgotten carrion.

The ridgeline of her spine is hard
to look at
       this close to the house
       in this only spot of green.

She trains us –
       rattles her bucket
       earlier each dawn
       as if she could
       bring the sun.


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/feb/08/poem-of-the-week-john-dofflemyer