Introduction by Virginia Bennett
All That is Left by Virginia Bennett
The Range Call by Rhoda Sivell ( Canada, 1912)
The Muster by "Australie" (Mrs. Heron) ca. 1800)
by Virginia Bennett
She is the woman every little girl dreamed of becoming, capable yet cloyingly helpless, spunky yet charming. She was Calamity Jane or Annie Oakley of the sliver screen. She was the classy heroine once romanticized in the blue glow of an old, black-and-white Zenith television set, and she rode a high-steppin' buckskin horse beside her handsome husbands, Roy, trotting toward the camera and singing "Happy Trails to You" with a dazzling smile and a friendly wave.
Somewhere tonight, there is another woman sitting down to a desk, spilling words onto a page of blank paper. She may be on a ranch owned by her family or perhaps she is part of a husband/wife team working for wages at a large outfit owned by a faceless corporation. Her house may be a little employee's quarters or a log palace rivaling Bonanza's Ponderosa. She may be carrying on a multigenerational tradition, or she might be the first in her family to work on a western ranch with horses and cattle. Yet, there are common denominators that indelibly bind together all of these inspired, and inspiring, women.
The poet of which I speak has lived with nature and hard work. She has dirt under her fingernails more often than not, and is not averse to doing any chore on the ranch that needs doing, whether it's feeding the crew, cleaning out the hired man's house that has been left trashed by disgruntled employees, or pulling with all her strength on a pair of OB chains, icy cold and slippery from blood and amniotic fluid, in a desperate attempt to deliver a calf born too big. She takes her kids to school, or home schools them. She rides the horses available, sometimes even the "broncy" one disdained by the ranch hands. She's moved cows with a child perched on a pillow in the saddle in front of her. She does what must be done.
The cowgirl still exists. And we are blessed that she is willing to write about it. however, the sheer volume of submissions received whenever an anthology of women's writings of the West is being compiled tells us that this woman, penning her thoughts between ranch chores, is a commonplace occurrence. I have worked on guest ranches where visitors have never heard of cowboy/cowgirl poetry. And so, for many of you, Cowgirl Poetry is a world waiting to be explored.
Within these pages, the reader will find the beginning of a fresh journey down a trail of honest observances, where there is a commonality shared in all human experience. Though the reader has not personally worked in the sizzling hay-season heat on an admired "Little Red Self-Propelled Baler" (poem by Lisa Quinlan), he or she can relate to hardship, responsibility, honorable work ethic and desire to please one's parents. When we read of the lonely little girl on the porch in Dee Strickland Johnson's "Herd a-Passin'," we envision her waiflike form and travel back to our own "lonesomes," when just a wave from a passerby gave us courage to dream.
Vintage writings were a rich discovery. "Hail and Farewell," found recited as a dramatic ending to Gail Steiger's CD of truthful cowboy music, was penned by Delia Gist Gardner, whose husband, Gail Gardner, wrote many classic cowboy poems, including "The Sierry Petes," (better known as "Tying Knots in the Devil's Tail"). Steiger related that no one knew that his grandmother had been a writer, yet after her death, this single poem was found among her things.
While organizing a flow for this volume, a classic poem often turned out to be the perfect companion piece to a contemporary one, as in the case of "The Rhyme of the Pronghorns" (Mary Austin, 1920s) and Linda Hasselstrom's "Coyote Song." Such incidents illustrate the ongoing heritage of western women's writing, with hopeful scenarios that a hundred years from now women will still be writing of their experiences and emotions that are similar to that of the cowgirl at the turn of the twentieth century.
What has kept cowgirls writing for the last hundred years? We can only guess that those female authors of decades ago were influenced by the same motivations women enjoy today. Some may write and not feel the need to share with others, but I feel certain that for most cowgirl poets, the moving force to write of their experience has been acceptance. Her family, friends, neighbors and community have cheered her on and bought her self-published chapbooks, run off on a copy machine in town, saddle-stapled and offered up as one offers one's soul to God: take this, it is all of me, it is who I am, treat me kindly.
Faith plays a large role in the writing of women. Not only faith in God and Creator, a topic often touched upon in these pages, but faith that the weather will change, the rain will come, your horse won't stumble, but if he does you will survive, and if you don't, all will turn out for the best, for ranch women know too well that nature continues, and we're all just a part of the plan.
Surviving with style demands a healthy sense of humor, and comic relief factors playfully within many a cowgirl's poem. Women can relate to anyone and write in any voice, be it their husband's or father's, or that of the family milk cow, as in Marion Fitzgerald's "Among Udder Things."
This collection spans decades of writings and includes American, Canadian, and Australian poets in a broad spectrum of styles. In whatever form they are written, I guarantee that these poems are not only entertaining but authentic, and that they will ring true to the ear of any dyed-in-the-wool cowboy or cowgirl. They are presented here for the enjoyment of readers everywhere who want to experience a little slice of wild and fun-loving cowgirl life. Let's trot down that happy trail Dale Evans wished for us fifty years ago! And don't forget to smile and wave!
© 2001, reprinted from Cowgirl Poetry with permission from Gibbs Smith, Publisher.
All That is Left by Virginia Bennett, Winthrop, Washington, 1992
At the mouth of a redrock canyon
Near the base of a sandstone cliff
She stands there, a skeleton sentinel
With branches arthritic and stiff.
And those upturned fingers appear to pray
For water, though now, it's too late.
Not far from her roots lies a rusty stove lid,
And the remains of a barbed-wire gate.
Not much, you might think, of a legacy,
Not much to remember them by.
Yet this site speaks readable volumes
To the wise and experienced eye.
And the tree, though now dead, says something,
An echo from a waterless grave.
For it tells of the hope of a homesteader,
And of the sacrifice somebody gave.
She stands enshrined, a personification
Of dreams and desires and grit.
For that old cottonwood was the first thing planted
When the flame of faith was lit.
Thriving under a pan of daily dishwater,
Her leaves a light color of jade,
Barefoot children swung from her branches
And a mother snapped beans in her shade.
But drought sucked the life from the homesteader,
Who eventually had to move on.
And within a few years, the tree had also withered
When its daily washwater was gone.
So, today, she stands guard in the canyon
And each storm brings a new limb to the ground,
And every spring, during the desert roundup
Weary cowboys delight in the kindling they've found.
© 1992, Virginia Bennett; reprinted from Cowgirl Poetry with permission from Gibbs Smith, Publisher and from the author. See more of Honored Guest Virginia Bennett's poetry here.
The Range Call by Rhoda Sivell of Canada, 1912
I'm lonely to-night for the old range,
And the voices I loved to hear;
Though the band in the town is playing,
The music comes soft to my ear.
There's only the river between us,
The town in the flat shows bright,
But I'm lonely, lonely, lonely,
For my old range home to-night.
I'm lonely to-night for the old friends;
For new friends can never be
Just what those dear old range friends
Have been in the past to me.
But I hear their voices calling,
And the band has ceased to play,
And my heart has gone out from the gas-lit town
To the wild range far away.
If you ever the range call,
The voice that speaks soft and sweet;
That wins you back to the prairie,
Away from the gas-lit street;
If once you hear her calling,
You sure than have got to go,
For the old range is waiting for you,
And you've got to love her so.
Reprinted from Cowgirl Poetry with permission from Gibbs Smith, Publisher.
See our feature on Rhoda Sivell with more of her poetry here.
The Muster by "Australie" (Mrs. Heron) (Emily Manning) of Australia, ca. 1800
Come, mount ye your horses, away let us ride,
For we've many a mile ere the eventide;
The cattle have strayed to the distant plain,
And we must drive them in ere we draw the rein.
So we're off, we're off, we're off,
With the stockwhip in our hand,
And oh, for the fun of a cattle-hunt
With a rollicking bushman band!
Across the gully and over the range,
With a plunge through a creek for a cooling change;
Now over a log or a rock we leap,
O'er hill and on level our pace we keep.
With a gallop, a gallop, a gallop
And a jolly song on our lips,
To the tune of the hoofs and the crashing boughs,
And the ringing crack of the whips.
See the wild young scrubbers come tearing in,
Then away they head, but the tail-mob win;
The horses swerve, and there's many a spill,
But the muster goes on with a shout and a will.
With a yeh, hallo, ya-eh!
And danger full in the face,
And a rageful charge of a snorting bull
But giving zest to the chase.
Reprinted from Cowgirl Poetry with permission from Gibbs Smith, Publisher.
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