CowboyPoetry.com    Cowboy Poetry and Music and More at the BAR-D Ranch

 

 Jo Lynne Kirkwood
 

Featured in "The Big Roundup," an anthology of the best of CowboyPoetry.com.


Jo Lynne Kirkwood was named
Top Female Poet, 2009
by the Academy of Western Artists
 

Lariat Laureate

recognized for her poem
The Last Round-up

 

 

About Jo Lynne Kirkwood:

Lariat Laureate Jo Lynne Kirkwood  I'm from the Colorado Strip part of northern Arizona.  My grandfather was one of the original settlers of the area, and I'm still related to at least half the people left down there (always have been).  When my mother was born, in the small town I'm from, Arizona was still a territory (that's just a great—to me—piece of trivia that occurred to me recently. I've used it in one poem so far, but I'll probably think of something else to do with it.)  I grew up with beef cattle and hay. I now live in central Utah with my husband and four kids—and we raise hay and calves.  I also teach school—English and art. (And I do western art—watercolor and pencil, mostly.)  I've been writing for most of my life (since I could, when I could, sometimes when I shouldn't be—maybe.) but have been concentrating more on the "cowboy genre" for the last year or two.

We asked Jo Lynne Kirkwood why she writes cowboy poetry, and she replied: I accept that this is an honest question, but I'm going to do something real mean with it and give you a true answer; or rather, a series of them. The short version is "because that's what the folks who listen to what I write want to hear." The long version takes longer.

I'm a school teacher. I teach art and English, and in my English classes I teach poetry. Because I live right in the middle of what's still left of the Old West, there are lots of "half-growed" cowboys who end up in my classroom, and who have no connection with or interest in any dead poets, or "modern poetry" (meaning free verse.)  I discovered years ago, however, that they do like and respond to funny rhymed verse, and the "cowboy genre" in particular. So, I started bringing in what I could find—mostly work by Waddie or Baxter Black— and used that as an avenue in to whatever else I managed to accomplish. Along with reading "other folks' poems" I've always had my students write their own poems (some of which sometimes turn out to be pretty good...) and I write with my students.

When I write, I tend to use real life material either from my own background, or based on local characters, or stories my husband brings home from the coffee shop.  And, because so many of my poems are "almost" true or are about old boys everybody around here knows, before I even realized people were paying attention I was being talked about behind my back and accosted in the grocery store. Folks started asking me to read at various gatherings around the county, so, in order to avoid running out of material I had to keep writing poems.   

One day somebody who really should have known better said something that came off as disparaging about cowboy poetry being a sort of rustic folk art, and that it really wasn't considered a true poetic art form. That converted me. I am proud to work in a genre that has this broad an appeal. Cowboy poetry—anything about the cowboy era, really—is one of the few art forms that can be considered as authentically American, and I am all for preserving the culture and celebrating this particular "true poetic art form." It's about what I know, where I come from, who I care about, and, well shucks...folks just plain like it. Thanks for askin'.

You can email Jo Lynne Kirkwood and visit her web site.

 

The Last Round-up


I

For fifty and one hundred years they’d roamed those canyon lands,
Rancher’s stock with grazin’ rights, all the local brands.
On unclaimed tracts they’d once ranged free, then hemmed in by permits,
Passed down from grandfathers to sons, now forced to call it quits.

The edict came, a voice went forth, new forces ruled the land,
and in their greedy rush for power they failed to understand
a way of life, a reverence, an era forced to die.
And desperate men had little choice but rein in and comply.

Angry, silent, grim faced men, just doin’ what they must,
boys in fringed bright colored shirts, chokin’ on the dust.
Womenfolk in jeans and spurs, eager still to ride,
and leggy girls in braids and vests, pacin’ at their side.

Their flyin’ hooves shot chips and sparks off rocks along the trail,
the dust was thick and filled with stones a hurtlin’ down like hail.
The earth beneath them trembled, sent tremors to the core.
The sun grew red with haze and clouds across the valley floor.

They pushed them through the canyon walls like demon refugees,
a writhin’ mass of horns and hides, bawlin’ like banshees.
From out across the desert the mighty trail drive roared,
until the evening lay its cooling hand across the hoard.

And when the night had fallen, and the herds were penned at last,
A dynasty bowed down their heads.  Their way of life had passed.
Sweetly bitter they remembered their life in the old west,
now laid to rest, a last hurrah, a legislated death.

II

That lady ain’t no cowboy, the Salt Lake papers read,
they disagreed with what she did, and where her conscience led.
But some folk just ain’t malleable, don’t easily comply
when forced edicts and rules of law say, “Lay down now, and die.”

And when the last round up was through, and all the brands were named,
a few last hides still roamed the range. Her livestock still remained.
And though those men were truly charged to aid and give assistance,
they owned the law, or thought they did, and were irked by by her resistance.

Reason did not enter in.  A blind man seldom sees.
Their goal was clear.  Round up that herd.  Bring that rebel to her knees.
Horse sense played no part in it.  Wisdom held no key.
Their aim was pure and simple.  A Legal victory.

Money was no object,  although they later tried
to recoup some expenditures by selling off her hides.
They used all of their resources from the bureaus vast supply,
and went in with helicopters and guns, a round up from the sky.

Then took them to the auction, though the brands were not inspected,
they had no bill of sale or right, but clearly they expected
the government to back them up, the sheriff to comply,
The courts of law to rubber stamp their fabricated lie.

But at that final moment, face to face with fact
The boys who ran the auction gave those cattle back.
And with that noble, rightful deed, that act of bravery,
For one brief shinning moment all of us were free.

No, that lady ain’t no cowboy, I have to reckon that
but that cowboy’s sure a lady.
And you ought to tip your hat
to the whole danged bunch of them down there,
from the sheriff clear on down.
It took a whole posse of folks
to run the bureaucrats out of town.

© 2001, Jo Lynne Kirkwood
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

In February 2001 Jo Lynne told us that her poem is based on a current true story, an on-going controversy, described by the Salt Lake Tribune as one that "seems to encourage further polarization between conservationists and ranchers regarding grazing on public lands."  When the rancher in question wouldn't remove her own livestock, they were rounded up by the BLM, who tried to sell them at auction. Jo Lynne says "Things did get pretty close to an old fashioned shoot-out, but the . . . sheriff here told the BLM folks they'd have to pack up and leave, since they didn't have bills of sale or brand inspections (the brand inspector wouldn't comply, either, since they couldn't provide any legal paper trail for their deeds.) There was a fair amount of lying and threatenin' going on, but bottom line the boys at the auction told [the rancher] to take her cattle home.)"  Later some cattle were sold at auction.  The story continues . . .

Abandoned Homestead  drawing by JoLynne Kirkwood
Abandoned Homestead
Jo Lynne Kirkwood

Jo Lynne Kirkwood was a Lariat Laureate finalist in the third Lariat Laureate Contest, one of:

 

Lariat Laureate Runner Up

recognized for her poem, Round-up


Round-up

By round-up time the high country was filling up with cold
The nights were chill and slivers of ice lined the waterin’ hole
at dawn, until the churning hooves of near 800 head
ground to mud the diamond ice, turned the water a murky red.
Aspen trees were putting on their crowns of burnished gold
And oak-brush, not to be outdone, blushed scarlet in the cold.
The nights were brisk but the days were hot with sweaty work to be done
When you’re workin’ ‘til your saddle’s sore, round-up ain’t much fun!
But the grub was good, the company prime, and a cowboy knows the worth
of hard work and the friends we make in our short time on Earth.

As the the pairs started moving down the slope and the boys tallied up the bill
It soon were clear a number of hides was still up on the hill.
It’s this long warm fall, the trail boss said, they’re likely way up high.
They’ll mosey down in search of feed when the first snows start to fly.
Tell you what
, he said with a stretch, givin’ his neck a rub,
We’ll push these down then come back up and resupply your grub.
You boys stay here and cool your heels in the cabin on the line.
They’ll be comin’ down in sixes and eights when the snow falls on the pines.

Now Bucky was nothin but a young green kid, not old enough to shave
but Dove had wrangled for most of his life and was versed in the cowboy ways.
So through the autumn days the two stayed on up in the high country range
corralling strays as they wandered down, and watching the season change.
Mornings now their feet would crunch across the frosty grass
that led toward the frozen steam, covered with icy glass.
By mid-November it seemed that all the strays who could be found
had wandered in and were corralled.  It was time to be headin’ down.

But then the first big winter’s storm reared it’s icy mane
and roared around the cabin walls, shaking the window panes.
Dove and Bucky huddled tight close to the Franklin stove,
heartsick ‘bout the penned up stock, shiverin’ in the cold.
Little frosty cotton drifts seeped in the cabin door
and ice crept in around the chinks along the drafty floor.
For three long days the storm kept up, and when it finally left
There stayed behind a cold so deep it took away their breath.

The waterin’ hole was frozen hard at least four inches down
The cattle pawed and bawled for feed against the frozen ground.
Dove and Bucky broke the ice and brushed away the snow
from a section along side the stream where the grass had used to grow.
The pasture which had been so green and lush with summer bloom
Was frozen stiff and covered deep.  The herd was facing doom.

The second day dawned colder still.  The snow was icy blue
Dove and Bucky began to think they was in trouble too.
Maybe we should chance the trail, Bucky spoke aloud his need,
Leave the herd, turn ‘em out so they could scrounge for feed.
Dove turned his head and looked at Buck from the corner of his eye
then wandered off, not sayin’ a word.  Bucky didn’t have to ask why.
Dove never would go down alone, and leave the herd behind.
The idea wouldn’t have even come up, if Buck hadn’t aired his mind.

It was the evenin’ of that second day they heard a different noise
The padded scuff of horses hooves.  It was the boss, and five more boys!
Well, hallalooya!  Bucky whooped.  A prettier sight I never did see!
Dove didn’t say much, he never did.  But you could tell he was relieved.
The mountain’s rough, the trail boss said, and the pass is pert snowed in
But if we move ‘em slow we’ll be okay.  We’ll be home for Thanksgivin’!


Thanksgiving?  Bucky said, Why shucks.  I plumb forgot the season!
This year there’s a lot to be thankful for, I sure will have good reason
to bow my head when grace is said and thank the Lord, Amen
for what he’s done to keep us safe, and bring us home again.
There’s friends I made, and lessons learned about stickin to what you start
And deeper truths that can only be found when you listen to your heart.
And thanks for this harvest we’re bringin’ in, and the bounty that He brings
And the chance to do it all again, when we move ‘em up next Spring!


© November 1999 by Jo Lynne Kirkwood
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

 

 

Shorty's rope   drawing by JoLynne Kirkwood
Shorty's Rope
Jo Lynne Kirkwood

 

 

Lessons in Love

Les, he come into Pearl’s coffee shop,
and engaged her in conversation
about the merits and drawbacks of personal ads
in resolvin’ romance inclinations.

“These here,” he says, "is temptations.
A signed, undated blank check.
The ticket to what a man’s longin’ for,
laid out like a solitaire deck.”

And he unfolded the double-wide twelve columned spread
‘til it covered the whole top of the booth.
“These is answers to what fellers is prayin’ for.
Like reading scriptures and seein’ the truth.”

“Heck, Pearl,” Leslie drooled, “lookey right here.
Single female, financially able.
She’s just forty-seven, and looking for love.
Hot dang!  And he slapped at the table.”

“Humph,” Pearl snorted.  “You’re in for a shock.
This here’s just a paper, and them words is just talk.
Those lonely hearts women that writes out them ads
is likely wore out, or is lookin’ for lads
with a lot more to offer that what ever you got.
You might throw a wide loop, but a good catch you’re not!”

“Shucks,” Pearl continued,   “The boys can attest
You ain’t much to see when you’re lookin’ your best.
You ain't shaved in a week, nor bathed, that's for sure.
There’s an aura about you of aged horse manure.
If your folks taught you manners at home or in school,
you’ve forgot what you learned, ‘cause you sound like a fool.
When you’re here the coffee takes on a new flavor.
There really ain’t much that speaks in your favor.”

By the time Pearl got finished a-settin’ him straight,
Les’s was doubtin’ his manhood, and cussin’ his fate.
His face was all pruney with deep consternation,
His whole outlook a study in quiet desperation.

“Why Pearl,” Leslie stammered, his pride sadly shaken,
“I don’t understand this position you’re takin’.
Gol-dangit,” he mumbled, feeling sheepish and sore,
“I guess I hadn’t figured I was doin’ so poor.
Since you think my company takes such sacrifice
I’ll just stay out of here.  Thanks for the advice.”

“Oh, Les,” Pearl responded, feelin’ dismayed,
at seein Les so disturbed by her free-spoken tirade.
“That ain’t what I meant.  I think you’re all right.
It’s just that you need detailing a mite.”

“You could cover that smell.  Burma Shave would do much
to improve your whole outlook.  New Levis and such
is easy to come by, just go to the store.
That one that sells new ones, not those that been wore.

But you got to clean up.  And you’d better use soap.
Go down to the drugstore, get one on a rope
so’s it don’t slip away while you’re there in the shower.
Best ‘low time for that.  It will take you an hour

to get rid of grime.  And then when you’re done
You come on back.  Shucks, Les, this might be fun.
I’ll give you some pointers on what ladies hold dear.
Now go on, get lost.  I’m busy round here.”

Well, Les was embarrassed, but he knew deep inside
that what Pearl spoke was truth, and he had a tough hide
so he took her suggestions and bought him new duds,
and mastered the art of applyin’ soap suds.
And when he come back, in the late afternoon,
when that gal took a gander, she dang near swooned.

“Why, Les,” Pearl stuttered, “you clean up real good.
Who wudda thunk it.  Guess I never would.”

“That’s nice,” Les responded, “now lets hear what you know
about talkin’ to women.  The mail can be slow
and I want to find me an ad and respond to it quick
‘fore the good ones is gone.  Lay it on thick.”

“Oh, yeah, Les,” Pearl sighed, and reached into her skirt.
“She likely won’t answer, but I doubt it will hurt.
I wrote down this address after you left,
to try out for practice, which you needed, I guessed.

Least, if you know how to write.  With you I can’t tell.”
“I can write,” Leslie scowled.  “It’s just I can’t spell.”
And he snatched for the female that Pearl had said
she’d chose for his practice.  And he liked what he read:

“Single white female woman
guaranteed to knock off your socks.
Send all inquiries to the referenced address
care of the post office box.”

And now the boys are brushing their hats off,
tuning fiddles and rosinin’ bows.
Got their wives baking pastries, getting their hair done,
gossipin’ and buyin’ clothes

‘Cause Les, he’d followed directions,
been where he was told at a quarter past eight,
and his heart did a flip-flop when the gal of his dreams
had been waitin’ at her front gate.

Since secretly he’d been admirin’
this particular girl for her charms,
it was quite reassurin’ to discover at last
just how well she fit in his arms.

And if you’ve figured out the cowboy’s lead lady
you got good intuition, I guess.
Yep.  For sometime now Pearl’d been a figurin’
she’d be willin’ to settle for Les.

©Jo  Lynne Kirkwood - 2000
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

 

Romance   drawing by JoLynne Kirkwood
Romance
Jo Lynne Kirkwood

 

Ida’s Bread

Ida made bread in a dripper
usin’ ten or more pounds of flour.
She’d knead it by hand ‘til it bounced on the board
It would take her most nearly an hour
to punch it and slap it and mark it in loaves
then set it to rest and rise
on the warmin’ shelf above the wood burnin’ stove
when I was just pint sized.

Ida was born in the old days
when Arizona was still a territory.
She was her mamma’s last born, the runt of the litter
and tho’ her pa had wanted another boy
her mamma was glad to get her.
A little girl child in that house of men.
Someone to talk to through the long lonely days
a cowman’s wife knew so well back then

The wild of the west was a rough sort of place
Where only the strongest could thrive
In a country a man had to wrestle to claim
the weak could not hope to survive.
But Ida was strong.  She’d learned how to be
by takin’ on life with both hands
She’d reach down inside to pull out the wisdom
a west woman understands

She’d say, “Makin’ bead is a lot like the raisin’
of boys when they’s growin’ to be men.
You got to make sure at the first that you start ‘em off right
doin’  the best you can then.
And give ‘em some room for growin,’
let em fill out , and when
they’re ready, like dough, you got to still shape the loaves.
Them loaves can be molded to men.

See, the loaves is potential.  But the proof’s in the fire.
That’s the telling part.
If the flame is too hot, they’ll turn out all crusty.
and hard.  Might have holes at the heart.

But if there ain’t enough heat, they’ll never true form
Stay too soft on their underside.
full of dough in the middle, the wrong kind of tough.
Unfinished.  Can’t take life in stride.”

And Ida’s bread was worth eatin’
and her boys all grew to fine men.
She’d raised three of her own then took on my brothers
when my ma had gone on to heaven.

You see, Ida had learned bread makin
from her ma in that old fashioned way
She’d use just the right weight on the heels of her hands
to knead it and shape it like clay.
And I’d work with her there in the kitchen
while dad and the boys did the outside chores,
and Ida’d tell stories ‘bout when she was a girl
‘fore bread could be bought in stores.
And while we was workin’ the gluten
Ida would tell me of days
When the west was still open
and raw and unfenced
and of a life that‘s near faded away.

©  March 2000 by Jo Lynne Kirkwood
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

 

Lantern  drawing by JoLynne Kirkwood
Lantern
Jo Lynne Kirkwood


Requiem:  Kanab

When Dahl was less than eight years old his dad put him in a saddle
and took him to the desert range to check up on their cattle.
And there against the western sky his pa opened up his heart
And explained to Dahl the reasons he had chose the rancher’s part.

It’s in the blood, his daddy said.  It’s in the DNA.
It’s inherited from ancestors who lived the cowboy way.
It’s the freedom of an open trail, the sun’s clear blinding light
The clean serene of pristine skies inside a starry night.

It’s the proclaimed right to stand up tall and own your self-respect.
The undisputed gift of pride a rancher can expect.
It’s the heritage that claims the land from generations long
since buried in the rocks and sand, a legacy of strong
men who stood up proud and tall against this desert sky.
Their skin burned tough, their gaze grown fierce.  Unafraid to die.

Dahl listened to his father’s voice,  and knew his heredity,
He sat tall, there in his saddle, wonderin’, “How long until it’s me?”

And on canyon wall kachinas laughed
and wove their secret dance
above the gaze of mortal eyes
or human circumstance.

Dahl saw the writing in the sky when he was ten years old.
Men played roulette and his town lost to decaying yellow gold.
From Houserock to Los Alamos they hauled that ticking ore
Then sent it back as poisoned wind across the desert floor.

It burned his cattle, killed the sheep, and brought down healthy men.
It moved by chance, a reaper’s path, and struck, then struck again.
Yes, it’s the DNA that claims this land.  Dahl saw the mockery
of watchful worry.  Who comes next? How long until it’s me?

There’s a one way ticket punched for us. And we’re all on that last stage
conversing with a coach of fools all doomed by fate, or age,
or freakish chance, unlucky breaks, genetic malformation
or genocide experiments allowed by this great nation.

Dahl saw the words across the land and knew things just weren’t right
when a staircase appeared suddenly in the middle of the night.
With ink and paper men decreed an executive proclamation,
yet kept their distance, as though ashamed, these leaders of this nation.

Then Dahl read  the message in the stones, and thought it mighty strange
that they’d pushed big boulders ‘cross the road, blockin’ his summer range.
Those trails were formed by feet of men who walked in old time days, won
before test sites, or habitats, or roadless designations.

They were made by hooves of cattle, and steel forged horses shoes,
sheep camp rims and wagon spokes and the wheels of trucks they’d use
To haul the stock and herders up from the desert floor
Movin’ ‘em out like their daddys did, and like those who’d come before.

Yes, it’s the heritage that claims this land.  Dahl read the message strong
of watchful worry.  What comes next? How long can I hang on?
And on canyon walls Kachinas laugh, and weave their secret dance
above the gaze of mortal eyes and human circumstance.

There’s honor in this ranching life.  Tradition in its ways.
Our lives were built on bones of those who lived in bygone days.
There’s the ghosts of men who died lonely, gunfighters who drew too slow.
Cholera and Typhus both took their awful toll.

There’s specters of existence too mournful to contemplate
and spirits of babes born dead in the night when the doctor came too late.
We’ve irrigated pastures where sagebrush only grew,
and kept our skies a clean serene pristine shade of blue.

But the writing’s on the wall for us, and we’re at a desperate stage
Some folks have traded reason for environmental rage.
Misguided men have claimed this land, and we face a fearful test
as we live out these last chapters of the book of the old west.

©  Jo Lynne Kirkwood
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

 

 

Poker Face   drawing by JoLynne Kirkwood
Poker Face
Jo Lynne Kirkwood

 


 

Merle's Opus

Merle was known to be frugal.
He had a conservative way.
He’d wear out his jeans plumb to rivets and strings
whilst saving for some rainy day.
He lived on the wages of wranglin,
which is pert near the same ones as sin,
But since nothin’ came out of his pockets
he was able to keep what come in.

Merle had grown up with the wisdom
his daddy had known about,
That if you had somethin’ then you made it do,
and if not then you done without.
And Merle had been makin and doin’
for goin’ on forty-some years,
Till he met himself up with a woman
singin’ siren’s songs into his ears.

Her name was Velma.  And she’d been away.
Educated at cosmetology school.
She’d fallen a little, then picked herself up.
And she weren’t nobody’s fool.
She called her establishment
Velma’s International Beauty Bazaar
and it happened it was situated
just across the street from Pete’s Bar
and Grill, where the boys all gathered
to engage in coffee and talk.
And Merle couldn’t help it.  He was intrigued
as she came in and went out of her shop.

And as Merle was of the opinion
that girls was a pricey affliction
He’d done without women ‘most all of his days,
held out for the bachelor condition
But now Merle set to thinkin’
about choices he’d like to make over, ‘cause
He’d seen it revealed. The things you ain’t got
is the things you’re most hankerin’ for.

A cowboy’s life can be lonely.
There ain’t many feminine charms
And ‘times a man longs for a gentler voice,
and the comfort of womanly arms
To wrap close around him and ward off the night,
comfort him when he’s sick.
Merle got the feelin’ later than some fellers do,
but when it hit, it hit like your ton o’ brick.

He strung out the hose, found a bucket,
then hauled out his old pick-up truck
And by the time he got finished polishing the chrome
you wouldn’t a recognized it
for the ‘74 Ford F-150
he’d bought cheap back in ‘83.
Then he shocked the whole outfit by purchasing boots,
new Larados from Duke’s Saddlery.

He set out to court Velma with gusto.
She never stood a chance.
Had her eatin’ at Pete’s and goin’ to movies
and out to the Buckskin to dance.
Some folks used to say Merle was stingy.
A skinflint.  A tightwad.  Cheap.
But Velma didn’t see nothin’ that she didn’t like,
and it turns out their courtship was brief.

And since Velma had gone for some schoolin’
and had learned her a little bit
‘bout just what it takes to get on in this life
and appreciate what you git,
‘fore September had turned into Autumn
she’d said “I will, without a doubt.”
And according to Merle, he said “I do”
‘cause he was done with doin’ without.

© February 2000  Jo Lynne Kirkwood
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

 

A Cowboy Season

Part I
(Spring
in the Pastures)

In March, when the calves started comin'
the ground was still covered in snow.
That night twenty gave birth the temperature hovered
somewhere around three below.

By mornin' six calves were near frozen
and ten never lurched to their feet.
They lay stiff in their membranes of ice and placenta,
and the live ones were tremblin' and weak.

Then when the sun broke over the mountain,
After that night when so many were lost,
The snow hollows crusted, the ground turned to ooze
and you started to long for the frost.

But when the mist rose off from the pasture
clouds gathered, and then the rains come.
And a deep chillin' drizzle damped the back of your neck,
and your hands were so cold they turned numb.

Then the calvin' became a true nightmare,
what with heifers just plain built too small,
calves comin' backwards, that had to be pulled,
and you wondered if it was worth it at all.

You were gruntin' and gaspin' and covered in sweat,
cussin' to drown out the pain,
Neck deep in muck and cursin' the sky,
though you knew in July you'd need rain.

Then a little feller you'd thought was left dogie
answered the bawl of his ma,
and thrustin' his head 'gainst that cow's achin' udders
he sucked life from that muddy spring thaw.

And awareness come hard, like the thunder,
with that power that deep knowin' has.
There was no other place you would rather be
than right here, in the spring, birthin' calves.


Part II
(Summer-West Desert Range)

In July, the muck turns to powder.
Waterin' holes crackle like shards
of ceramic, the grass shrivels up,
and livin' just downright gets hard.

You're haulin' water sometimes sixty miles,
buyin' feed when the prices are high,
cursin' the heat and chewin' on devils
spinnin' dust 'cross a cobalt blue sky.

But at night your world fills with shadows,
and the splendor of moonlight and wind.
And evenin's coyotes pass you like ghosts,
and when they hear you singin', join in.

And together your voices will chorus,
low and mournful into that night sky,
like a dirge, or an anthem, with memories entwined
of the words to a child's lullaby.

And it's there, with the starlight and music,
and the clean smell of sage on the wind,
You remember, again, just who you are.
And you know there's  no way you'd cash in.



Part III
(October - The Pasture Corrals)

In late autumn gnarled branches remember
their youth, and know they must die,
and at night they moan, and creak and cry out,
and bare tremblin' limbs to the sky.

And in those lost hours 'til the dawnin'
hoot owls hunt, and predators roam,
and out riding nighthawk you look over your shoulder,
feelin' fearful, and longin' for home.

But a coyote's been doggin' your late season calves,
and near the tank a bear print was found,
and the fences need mending, better get to that soon,
'fore your cattle stray off of your ground.

The wind stirs dry leaves in the shadows.
Is that a bruin, a hidin' in there?
Or could be a cougar, warily watchin' -
Or nothin' but restless night air.

"Aw, Come on," you mutter, and shake at your shoulders.
"Grab hold, man.  This ain't no big deal."
It's just that October's got you feelin' spooked,
and out here the demons are real.


Part IV
(Winter - High Country Line Camp)

In those long hollow days of late autumn
when the cold is gathering strength
like a lariat coiled 'round the horn of a saddle
suppressing the power of its length,

Then you pull down your hat 'gainst the chillin',
hunch your shoulders to ward off the wind
and wrap up in lonesome, 'cause you'll face this alone,
and lock up your dreams, burrow in,

to wait out the long cold winter.
You'll tell time by the length of the day,
the duration needed for a piñon elbow
to burn to a powdery gray.

And you'll store up the things that you'll ponder,
sift the chaff and tune your heart strings,
sort out the worthy, discard the waste,
and make room for significant things

To hold on to, mull over, sustain you,
give repose through the long winter day,
A core to come home to, an essence to trust
when you're lonely, and long miles away

From the peg where your hat finds a welcome,
the hearth where your boots long to stand,
That place you will go when the winter and snow
have drawn back from this high country land.


© 2001, Jo Lynne Kirkwood
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's  permission.


Night Song

We had a rider named Flo, who fellers who'd know
Said could sing like a nightingale,
And a Mex we called Whitey, though it does sound some odd,
On account of his skin being pale.

And those two worked together. Preferred it that way,
Ridin' nighthawk, alone in the dark,
When the evenin' was quiet, 'cept for Flo's singin',
Whitey 'companyin' him with his mouth harp.

And those fellers was friends. Oh, they wouldn't have said,
If fact they 'most never spoke words.
But it was clear to us all they expressed more than most
With their singin' at night to the herd.

And we'd all love to listen, when they pulled night watch
To the sound of their soft serenade
And dreamin of home, and the end of the trail
We'd drift off to the music they made.

Well, it was on such a night, and things seemed all right,
With Flo singin' and Whitey behind,
We'd supped and cleaned up, and had a last cup,
And were mullin', and tryin' to unwind,

When along the horizon the dark seemed to deepen',
Then a breeze whipped itself to a wind,
And within heartbeats a thousand splatters of rain
Splashed our faces and slashed at our skin.

Below us the cattle grew restless.
Flo and Whitey, they yelled for more men.
Then lightin' bolts slashed the dark sky like gold daggers,
Thunder crashed as the night storm rolled in.

And the steers in the back started circlin'
The heifers lowed, deep in their throat.
Then two thousand head, like a wave on an ocean
Met that storm. The stampede broke.

We raced those hides ridin' half cinched on saddles,
Catchin' stirrups with the heel of one boot.
Flo and Whitey was leadin', with death in their eyes,
The whole outfit in desperate pursuit.

You couldn't call none of us slackers.
We rode strong, and raced 'em towards Hell,
Mixin' our sweat with the rain and the sleet
Or maybe tears, if there's truth to tell.

But the force of that storm was like nightmare.
A gravity born of the wind.
And onward they rushed, like a dam that's been broke,
Or demons, rejoicin' in sin.

Til the sleet heavy onslaught subsided,
The thunder rumbled, then faded away
And heads down, the herd slowed, an uneasy truce,
As the night met a new dawnin' day.

We rode in, pantin' and queasy,
Easin' 'em gentle back where we'd left camp,
Movin' 'em slow, our voices kept low,
Feelin' musty and froze in the damp.

And Sal sluiced us some barrels of coffee,
Made biscuits, not sayin a word.
And we sat there in silence, wating to hear
Two voices that we never heard.

But you knew they was somethin' like brothers.
And maybe, if they'd made their own choice,
They would have done it this way to end up together,
Whitey 's harp softly backin' Flo's voice.

© 2001, Jo Lynne Kirkwood
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

 

The Railhead

They thundered into the stockyards
like a churnin' red river of hides
They was bawlin' and sweaty and panic'd
half wild and crazy-eyed.

When the train pulled in from the railhead
we pushed 'em on. Wedged 'em in tight.
Run 'em up ramps like they was learnin' to dance,
moved out nine hundred head the first night.

We was hootin' and hollerin, wavin' our hats
They was balky and testin' our mettle.
But at last the big doors was rammed shut and bolted,
and the clouds of dust started to settle.

And after three months of sleepin' in saddles,
livin' on biscits and spit,
We had 'em in boxcars. The train pulled away,
and the boss divvied up our script.

Turtle and 'Lasses had wives back in Texas,
so they left soon as we'd been paid.
But most of the boys made use of their wages
in the bars for a couple of days.

Then, sayin' he had plans with a feller in Utah,
Red left, with a nod and a smile.
And the boss bought a ticket and headed to 'Frisco.
Had a sister he'd not seen in awhile.

Then Dave headed out, takin' Pelican with him,
and Sal signed with an outfit near town.
Dumplin' looked lonesome, but when I asked him he said
he was thinkin' 'bout stickin' around.

Said the blacksmith had offered to give him a job,
teach him shoein' when business got slow.
Then Shorty and Pete both got to their feet.
They'd been thinkin' 'bout Mexico.

So there weren't no one left to ride home with,
and 'sides, there weren't no one at home,
so I cinched my old kack on the back of my gray
and struck out for Montana alone.

And in the years since I rode with that outfit,
I've done alright. My life has been good.
I married my darlin' and got me two boys
who are livin' their lives like they should.

But when I think back on that grand illusion,
those heroes who were mortal men,
If I had one day of my life that I could relive,
I know I'd ride with that outfit again.

© 2001, Jo Lynne Kirkwood 
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.



He Could Have Done More


Hank could have done more with himself, they all said,
'Stead of spending his days on a horse.
If he'd chosen a life besides cattle and ranchin'
Things could have been different, of course.

Cleveland, Hank's banker, remembered him well
From back when they'd both been in school.
And he'd based some decisions he'd made on the fact
That he knew Hank weren't nobody's fool.

But he could have done more with himself, Cleve would add,
Maybe politics, moved up some in church.
And others who knew Hank would nod and agree
Above the tied and starched necks of their shirts.

But Hank never paid much attention
To those fellers from over in town.
They were mostly just jealous, the way that he figured,
So he didn't let their words get him down.

'Sides, he had a good suit.  He wore it to funerals
when one of his pards passed away.
That were happening more often this past year or two,
Been old Sandy just the other day.

And Red had gone on last year just 'fore Christmas,
Shorty not long before him.
And Duffy'd be next to sign on from that crew
From what they said 'bout the shape he was in.

Him and the boys, they'd had 'em some good times,
Hank smiled, and paused to reflect
On the Autumns they'd spent up around Kildee Fork
Doin' work some folks don't respect.

Course there'd been years when the winters were bitter
And they'd lost more calves than they'd gained,
Summers so hot that the grass turned to dust
And times had been desperate and strained.

But that Spring when they'd moved 'em up early,
The grass had grown tall like soft baby hair
So green it looked painted, like waves on an ocean,
Lush as carpet, and plenty to spare.

Sometimes that got to him, thinkin' about
All the times, good and bad, that had been.
Soon there wouldn't be no one to talk with about
The ways they had known way back when.

Sure, he could have done more with his life, Hank agreed.
No tellin' what, were he give enough time.
There were plenty of canyons he'd left unexplored
And mountains he'd not seen behind.

But the sound of rivers running matched the rhythm of his blood
And the currents of the wind across the land.
And the sway of branches creaking was the pulse of his heart beating
When he listened through the heat of desert sand.

When he walked out in the darkness and a million stars were falling
Like a slow revolving wheel of spinning light,
Then the soft sounds fell around him like a thousand voices calling
Him to join the celebration of the night.

But mostly it would be from the back of a horse
With fellers who felt as he did.
And no one would say much as they moved through the chores
And the days of the life that they lived.

© 2002, Jo Lynne Kirkwood 
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

 

 

Drifter

There's a coyote off there in the grease wood.
I smell him, and he slinks from my glare.
It's a sickly decay scent, rancid and thick
Like the makings of Death in the air.

A crow, black as midnight's been lurking around,
eyein' my buckles and tack.
He thinks I don't hear him, but I know he's there,
Waiting, til I turn my back.

Go ahead, Raven.  Take what you will
You have all of those bright shiny things.
Take them away to your home in the sky
I'd give all of my worth for your wings.

My revolver's handy. And there's three bullets left.
Used just one on old Roundy today
Hated to do it, but I hadn't no choice.
Leg broke. Weren't no other way.

There's a thing about horses.  They'll go 'til they drop.
A good horse is worth more than some men.
Cause some men are fools.  I'd be one of those
Damn horse killin fool that I am.

Now what do I do?  There's three bullets left.
Leg broke.  But I still got to try.
I've roughed out a crutch from a piece of mesquite.
Guess I'll manage. Either that or I'll die.

Two days out from Holbrook. But that's on a horse.
I'll be walking.  Say four, maybe five?
Figure if I travel at night, when it's cooler
Maybe I'll get there alive.

Come evenin', that coyote will wake me.
Tell me stories while he sniffs at my trail.
I've seen how they follow a lame ailing cow
He'll keep doggin' me, hopin' I fail.

But I show you, old trickster.  You tell all of your friends
That old crow, and those vultures up high.
This feller's no quitter.  And I'm headed home.
Time's wasted, if you're watchin' me die.

© 2001, Jo Lynne Kirkwood
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.



Drifter II

Ridin' a back road fifty miles outside Holbrook
One summer, late in July,
I stumbled across the bones of a horse
And a saddle, long sun bleached and dry.

There wasn't much left of the beast that had worn it,
That saddle, now curled with age,
Just some crumbling beadwork of spine and a skull
Half hidden in grease wood and sage.

But one silver concho still clung to the saddle
On the left, where the latigo tied,
And the bit on that bridle wedged into the skull
Was fine Spanish, hand crafted with pride.

And I couldn't help wonder, in the silence of wind
Across that dry desert floor
At the spirit that called him to venture this way,
that rider who'd come here before.

All around me the desert was silent
As though watching, perhaps holding its breath,
Waiting to see what I'd make of this relic
Unveiled like a trophy of death.

Of the rider there was no remembrance.
No human bones marred that vast land.
And if he'd left a last trail as he walked away
The prints had vanished into soft shifting sand.

As though bid by a power unnamed but still greater
Than any will I had left to command
I took off my hat and put it over my heart,
And bowed my head to the strength of the land.

Then the heat of the sun was diminished
by the span of a raven on high,
And the breadth of his wings marked a shadowy cross
on the sage and the sand and the sky.


© 2001, Jo Lynne Kirkwood
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

 

Lydia

See this box?  It was my mother's.  It used to hold her pearls.
I'd to love to see her wearing them, when I was a little girl.
Now this box is mine.  I keep it to hold my souvenirs.
My ma died from cholera, in '73.  I was nine that year.

Ma used to say I'd wear those pearls, someday, when I wed.
But they was gone by then.  Pa took to drinkin and cards, after Ma was dead
And he sold 'em to Frank Miller.  Had to, to cover his debt.
But he saved me the errings, to remember her. Tho' Frank would of give more for the set.

And this?  Oh my.  This is a curl from my little Billy's hair.
He come a-running on those chubby legs to his mamma's arms.  I declare,
When he would smile, his sweet face would plumb light up the skies.
Oh laws.  Such a beautiful baby.  He had his daddy's eyes.

It was that lye soap that done it.  Terrible stuff, that soap we make from lye.
It blisters and burns, and it killed my baby.  It took him three days to die.
I'd left the soap to simmer down, on a bed of burned mesquite,
And it looked like milk to that little boy, all frothed and foamy sweet.

Thing is, if there'd been any milk, maybe that would have helped some.
But the cow was calvy, so  we'd dried her up, to be strong when her baby come.
Oh, the milk wouldn't have saved him, but it might have helped. It hurt him so much to die
With his throat and insides so tore up and bleedin', he couldn't even cry.

I sat and rocked him that whole long time.  Oh Billy, I ache to hold you now.
When he was finally gone they had to tear him away. My arms wouldn't let go, somehow.
Eli's sister come, and wrapped my baby in the silk from my wedding gown.
And Eli buried him by that little pine tree.  See?  It's that first little mound.

I tried to get wild flowers to grow on them graves,
 but this summer's been hot and dry
And time any of them would get a blossom,
they'd mostly just fade and die.

Eli and me, we always figured there'd be more babies come,
but none never did.  Least none that lived.  There was that lonesome one.
A little blue baby, born in '97.  But he come early, and died.
Hot knifing cramps, worse than the others, that ripped me up inside.

Whole walls of pain that doubled me up, and threw me on the floor.
I screamed for Eli.  He tried to help, but that babe, it had to be bore.
And when he was born he was tiny and cold, and couldn't no more than mew.
I tried to warm him, but he stayed cold and still.  I didn't know what to do.

He died the morning after he was birthed, small as a newborn pup.
No bigger than the palm of my Eli's hand. God, I hated to give him up.
And I thought I would die from longin', when my milk came, after three more days,
There.  That next one's his mound.  Right close to Eli's grave.

Jen, that's Eli's sister, she's married and lives in town,
She says it ain't fittin' for me to stay, a lone woman with no man around.
She ain't got room, she says, but she figures I wouldn't stay long.
There's plenty of widower men, with kids.  And I guess that wouldn't be wrong.

It's sure I would have done better had there been a woman around.
But, Lord, to quit this place?  I put everything into this ground.
Ah, Eli.  Eli.  Why did you have to leave me?
I could no more move off of this place than let go of my body.

Eli. We put everything into this land.  Everything.
Dear God, some days I think you've give me more than I can stand


© 2001, Jo Lynne Kirkwood 
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

(Jo Lynne Kirkwood's family lived in the Kanab, Utah area for many generations. She shared the above poem at the 2002 Kanab Cowboy Poetry Rodeo, as told here.)

 

 

The Auction

We'd had a good crowd, picked up some change
from those ponies brought in from Nevada's high range.
But the arena was quiet now, folks all gone home,
And I figured that I was there on my own.
I glanced at the pens for a last look around
and paused. From the darkness a whisper of sound
pelted my senses. A low rumble, subdued,
Like two fellers talking some old troubles through.

I passed through the stalls and saw an aged wrangler sprawled
'Gainst a green metal gate. "Evenin'," he drawled.
And his partner in discourse, on that late Friday night
Was a scarred old wrang stallion. "Ain't he a sight?"
That cowboy offered, noddin' his head.
I didn't answer. Then he chuckled, and said,
"He'll figure a cougar's made an attack
If you bolt down a saddle to that feller's back."

I nodded agreement. The old man had it right.
That horse weren't for ridin'. But it wasn't my fight,
and he'd still likely sell. There'd be buyers who'd come
for all sorts of reasons. Horseflesh, to some,
was a meat. Or commodity. Sometimes the hide's
The most marketable part of a horse you can't ride.
"He ain't goin' to learn about fences or brands,"
I said. "Livin' domestic's mor'n that one can stand."

The old man caught my meaning, and averted his head
as wild things tend to do. I paused, then I said,
"It ain't awful different from the ways of the wild.
Death comes from living." That old wrangler half smiled,
then turned back to the horse. "I been down on my luck,"
He said. "I was drawin' wages, but my old pick-up truck
has needed some work. That's paid for now, though.
What would you need to let that pony go?"

"These horses ain't mine, " I said, not meeting his eye.
"But the sale's on tomorrow. You'd be entitled to buy."
His gaze was a river, clouded by time.
It was clear, like the stallion, he'd lived through his prime.
His boots were a scandal, covered with dirt
And an elbow protruded through the cloth of his shirt.
I doubted he had fifty bucks to his name.
He'd be needin' a grubstake, not a horse you can't tame.
But he nodded agreement, or perhaps resignation,
And walked through the darkness towards his destination.

The next day at the auction business ran late
And I was kept fully occupied mannin' the gate.
But long towards evening, with the crowds getting' thin
I glanced up and caught sight of that old cowboy again.
He'd backed in his Dodge. And in twenty minutes or so
that mustang was loaded. Then I watched them both go.
And that's where it ended. Just a man, and a horse
in an old beat up trailer, pullin' out, heading north.

And I had this odd feelin' that something'd slipped by
me. Something important. I can't tell you why.
But there's a quality 'bout 'em got stuck in my mind.
An old horse, an old wrangler. Out of place, out of time.
Just an old displaced cowboy. And that stud with no mares
on a long empty highway, headed nowhere.
That old wrang, and that cowboy. They were two of a kind.
There's a thing I been lookin' for, I think they might find.

© 2004, Jo Lynne Kirkwood 
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

 

Wild Horse Adoption

I was feeling the pleasure of professional pride
From pairing some kids with colts they'd soon ride,
At least, once someone trained 'em, taught 'em to rein,
Learned 'those wild ones the talents it takes to be tame.

'Course, there'd be some of 'em never would settle,
They'd spar with a bridle; try to spit out the metal.
Buckers and fighters. It's in their bloodline.
But there'd be plenty others that would work out just fine.

Those young ones are like that. And you just never know
How they'll turn out. But if you take things real slow,
Remainin' consistent, stayin' gentle, but firm,
Seems even the worst of those knot heads can learn.

They might be kind of balky, but you just can't be cruel.
To break those fine spirits, you'd be a fool.
But with enough time and patience most will learn what to do.
And a few of the horses might need some work, too.

© 2004, Jo Lynne Kirkwood 
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

 

Timberline

I'd ridden up high, near the timberline where snow still lingered beneath the pines
on a summer's morning when I came onto an ancient cabin. Lichen grew
on crumbled steps, through roof and walls, and sheltered there, where pines rose tall
through meadow grass, a frantic stream washed the rusted remnants of a miner's dream.
My pony nickered, as if to say he sensed a presence from other days.
I stopped, to let him rest and graze.

The cabin was dark, seemed filled with gloom tho' one lone window on the nearer room,
spilled pale light on an uneven floor. Hinges shrieked on a sagging door.
Ragged patterns, the tattered folds of a decaying curtain. Rotten, old
and cobweb gray, but apparent still. Curtains, on a weathered sill.
These were not hung by a miners hands. He would never understand
the need to soften sun's harsh glare. A woman, too, had once lived there.

On a narrow bench a wooden case, shrouded now in the corroded lace
of a metal band, mottled rust, debris of time, rodents, dust.
Weathered slabs, and a wire twist promised treasures I could not resist.
The casket opened with no key, and inside, folded longingly,
Faded fabrics, and a small cache of painted flora, heavy clay.
Ceramic ruined by heave of frost, few unbroken, many lost.
And against the shards, a final prize. High-top boots, in a woman's size.

They were old, and dry, the laces knots. The leather curled. But I thought,
as I took the boots in curious hands, they could be made supple, worn again.
They had once been precious. Now abused. But with mink oil, work, they could be used
to protect a tender woman's step. Where had she gone? Was she there yet?

Taking the boots, I turned away and moved back toward the light of day.
Early chill had grown bright and warm, and waves of insects clicked and swarmed.
Wild strawberries, succulent, and sweet crushed beneath my awkward feet.
I too wore boots, with riding soles, that had brought me to this high meadow
where an ancient stump, long since hewn, marked the center hub of a mountain room.
And it occurred to me, as I looked around, I could read this story as though written down.

Her man had felled this sentinel long years back, and had used it well
to build a cabin, where they'd made their start.
But a memory stayed at the meadow's heart.
She had come here, I realized. Had waited here, with shadowed eyes,
Long, lonely days. Growing old, while he'd followed the siren's call of gold.
Here she'd listened to the meadow's noise, bird's songs, insects, her private joys
wildflowers blooming around her feet, strawberries hidden in the grass and reeds.

And those clothes, those dishes, in the wooden box.
Not abandoned, discarded, lost. No. She had never left this place.
In the dim of woods I found no trace, No cross or mound, no slab of stone
to mark her last enduring home. But I saw a figure standing there.
The sun's bright glint on auburn hair. Lips moved soft, in quiet song.
Then the specter vanished, and was gone.

Breathing deeply, I took her air. Her sunlight warmed my shoulders, hair.
I placed her boots on the altar of tree. Then left her, to continue my journey.
For I had miles to travel before I reached my home
And the trail was steep. And I rode alone.

© 2005, Jo Lynne Kirkwood 
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

 

Hard Times Come Again...

Last winter the fuel in Spence's tractor jelled up. I'd drive by twice everyday
And there'd be Spence, crankin' the starter. I could tell he was ticked, so I'd wave...
And then the freeze faucets froze on his calf pens right when it was gosh-awful cold.
Hauling water in five gallon buckets from the house can get awful old

when it's ten degrees below freezing. But that wasn't the worst.
When the ground thawed under his shed Spence found where his lines had burst.
Water flooded the road, got in his grain, ruined a good part of his tack.
It made sense that Spence was upset like he was, so I gave him a pat on the back.

You know, we had us an early dry spell. It happened way last May.
We'd had no rain for several weeks when Eldon cut his hay.
But as soon as he'd laid down all that crop the sky clouded up and drained
like it was full of holes. Came pouring down. Don't think I've ever seen such rain.

And those windrows that had been so fine were now withered, and so black we
could hardly tell the hay from mud. It all smelled like old tobaccy.
Well, we had an intermission. The clouds all went away.
So Eldon hooked up his rake and fluffed up all that hay.

But that storm just circled back around, and Eldon dang near cried
When the second deluge hit that hay and damped the other side.

Tom's had grief with his cattle. They've all been out again.
They range on the desert so when he brings them to market they don't want to stay in a pen.
They've cut the permits on the forest. Corn's gone high as the moon.
Fuel's so expensive we can't afford trucking, and there's no sign of relief real soon.

There are problems aplenty in ranching. Hard times can sure come around
so I figure I ought to be a good neighbor, and cheer up my friends when they're down,
and I tell them to count up their blessings. To smile at the hand they've been dealt,
because bad luck, in this business, you just laugh at. So long as it's happening to somebody else.

© 2007, Jo Lynne Kirkwood 
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

 

Halloween

That grove by the creek is Gethsemane,
But people wouldn’t go there to pray.
It has a cold, barren cast on the sunniest morning,
And mostly folks just stay away

Because an innocent man met his fate on that earth,
Was hanged from a cottonwood tree.
Long years back. Oh time, it moves on.
But the town bears the curse of that deed.

On a Tuesday, the last of October,
Death had overtaken the air.
The last dying leaves on the trees whispered secrets
‘Cross the grave of the restless soul there.

A sharp wind blew down from the mountains.
It had started sometime about noon
And the sound that it made was a fiddle
In a minor key, played out of tune

The sky held a strange yellow shadow
Brought on, I suppose, by the wind.
And the feel of the day was foreboding,
As though the whole town was waiting. For him.

The elders had set up for a party,
The Lamb of God Church Harvest Ball
But somehow the mood wasn’t joyful.
No, they didn’t seem happy at all.

It was evening when he made his appearance
On Main Street, walking alone
And they marked his arrival, though he came in like mist,
Or a memory, silent as stone

And I’ll tell you, that stranger was spooky.
He’d walked out of the desert or out of the grave,
And men turned their heads, shifted their eyes
And looked away from the looks that he gave

Music was playing in three quarter time,
The judge had his back to the wall,
And the entire town council was present
At that Lamb of God Church Harvest Ball

When the stranger walked in the violins stilled.
As one, the room faced his stare
And his gaze raked their faces as though he expected to find
Someone, who just wasn’t there

His eyes were white, or a pale, washed out blue.
Ghost eyes is the term comes to mind.
And he shifted and prowled through the revelers gathered
Like there was something he expected to find.

His voice, when he spoke, was musty,
A Texas drawl edged with rust.
And his skin looked cold. Had a gray, chalky pallor
As though powdered with talc, or dust.

He spoke the names of old timers, folk who were gone
Dead and buried in graves twenty year.
And he gazed at a distance no one could see
And folks watched him, heart heavy with fear.

But there weren’t any answers at the Lamb of God church
No justice for a deed unexplained
As when the evening grew darkest, as it had for ten years
The shadows closed, and he vanished again.

The punch bowl was laced with spirits,
There was a plain one set aside for youth
But even the preacher was half liquored up
As though that was easier than facing the truth

But there’s blood in the memory, and on the hands of that town
And dark secrets. They all bear the shame
And rumors are rife that some there still know
His story, and remember his name.

© 2006, Jo Lynne Kirkwood 
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

 

Why the Cowboy Sings
(for Cathy Brian)

They haven’t asked you why you sing,
Though I’m sure they’d like to know
Why sometimes you burst into song,
Or sing ballads, soft and low.

I know they’d like to understand
Why you do those tuneful things.
But they disregard the obvious, and ask
Why does the Cowboy Sing?

And granted, you’re no cowboy.
Though you’ve surely seen some cows,
Herded them, and birthed their calves
Still, you’re no cowboy, I’ll allow.

You’ve helped out cowboys, kissed their hurts,
Bandaged scrapes and cuts,
Patched their jeans and washed their socks,
Paddled little wrangler butts,

But heck. you’re not a cowboy.
You don’t spit or smoke or chew,
And you hardly even know how to cuss,
Though you’ve heard a word or two.

You can’t shoe a horse.  Can’t throw a rope.
Wrestlin’ steers seems dangerous.
You get saddle sore if you ride too long
And then you’ll probably make a fuss,

But you’ve washed ears, combed hair, sewed buttons on,
You’ve cooked ten thousand meals,
Rubbed liniment on aching backs,
And doctored countless ills.

Still, they wonder why the cowboy sings.
Well, I think I have a clue.
I figure that your cowboys sing
‘Cause they like hangin around with you.

© 2007, Jo Lynne Kirkwood 
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

 

Cathy Brian writes poetry, and often writes poems that her children perform (read some of Cathy's poetry here, and poetry by her son Caib here and her son Braden here). Jo Lynne commented on Cathy and the Brian kids and wrote, "the way Cathy interacts with them—and comes up with their poems—inspired this."
 


2007 photo by Jo Lynne Kirkwood


2007 photo by Jo Lynne Kirkwood


2009 photo of the Brian family, courtesy of Cathy Brian

 

Water Cycle

It started snowing in October, out along the rim
And old men watched with shoulders hunched, their faces closed and grim
And the sky across the valley, like a bowl of tarnished steel
Crouched upon the mountain, looked painted and unreal.

Folks piled high their winter fuel and penned their stock close by,
And clipped their words in deference to the threat in that dark sky.
Sometimes winter comes like this, maybe once a hundred years,
As though God and nature had signed a pact to give credence to men’s fears,

To mock us for our folly, our pride and arrogance
Remind us we’re but trespassers, the guests of Fate, and chance
And show that nature’s tolerance is changeable, mere whim.
Our anchor chains and corner stones are soapstone, twisted tin.

The snow piled deep upon the hills, weighing down the earth
And graveled slopes heaved and cracked, and in the spring gave birth
To mud slides, floods and avalanche.  The rivers crested full
And spilled their banks with gray debris uprooted in the flow.

The current raged unthwarted, uncontrolled by man
Tributaries left their course, and burst their holding dams.
Homes along the waterway were dragged into the surge
Bridges torn from bulwarks, and in the fearful purge

The very soil, the fields, the crops, the farmland washed away,
As the rivers wrenched new channels, in maniac, wanton play.
But at last the storm clouds vanished, and summer’s sun shone bright,
And men gazed on, then rolled their sleeves and stepped into the fight,

With persistent, stubborn obstinacy.  And before that season’s end
Set fence posts, fields and buildings with a tenacious, mortal hand.
And soon the only evidence of Nature’s vengeful wrath
Were scars upon the hillside, and newly planted grass.

And then the money brokers, from glass towers far away,
Stamped edicts, laws, and gave permits, as in a former day.
And greedy men built monuments upon hills of sand and clay
And paid homage to their craft and skill.  And no one changed their ways.

Flowers bloomed in dooryards, trees grew green and tall,
Birds sang sweet, the sun shone gaily down upon it all.
God was in his heaven, returned from whence He’d gone,
And in that golden light of day, we forgot what had gone wrong.

And neighbors greeted neighbors, and lay to rest their fears
For after all, such a flood comes but once a hundred years.

© 2009, Jo Lynne Kirkwood 
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.


Jo Lynne comments, "About three years ago there were huge floods in the St. George area, which destroyed a lot of the new (big, fancy) homes that had been built along the Santa Clara River. I take my architecture class down to see the Parade of Homes each year, and that year we had some real close up views of deconstruction architecture. But within a few months they'd started building again, and now it's as though there never had been floods."

 

Eulogy

She married her a cowboy
and so she followed where he'd go
from Wyoming to Nevada,
wherever wind would blow
Looking for greener pasture,
for what might lie beyond the bend
But we kept up correspondence,
because she'd always been my friend.
They lived through right cold winters
and summers hot as sin,
Braved drought and sleet and floods and snow
without ever giving in
But I figured they were happy,
from those words she stopped to pen
and seal up in a letter,
which she'd send me now and then.

Oh, I'd see her still from time to time
when she'd come back to spend
A birthday with relations, or visit with old friends
And then we'd find a morning, or maybe an entire day
That we could spend together, if we could get away.
The first time that she brought it up we were sitting in the shade
Of a walnut tree, in my back yard, drinking tea I'd freshly made
and we were feeling calm and peaceful,
musing about the things we'd known
when she turned to me and said,
A woman needs a place to call her own.
I'd like a little place, she said, where I could settle down
A garden spot, a grassy plot, just outside of town
Nothing really fancy, just a little spread
But if I could choose, I'd like a stream,
and pine trees overhead.
And she gazed off down the distance
like she was looking at her life.
At what had been, and what was to come,
if you're a cowboy's wife.

Her man chased wrangs in Utah,
earned wages hauling hay
on the host ranches west of Delta,
for Mexican labor pay
and she came to visit, one summer's end,
spent a week or two
And helped me can tomatoes, the way that women do.
In that steamy kitchen, as we laughed our work seemed play.
And we shared our dreams, as women do. I still can hear her say
Someday I'd like to settle down. Oh, a little spot would do
Maybe high above the valley, so I could enjoy the view
And I'd ask good friends to come to call
when evening chores were done
So we could laugh, and reminisce and talk.
Oh yes. That would be fun.

We fell out of touch a few years back,
but I found her, once again
When we'd both come to a funeral
for a dear and well loved friend.
It was a cemetery service.
The mourners there were few
And we spoke our words beside the grave,
a simple, sad adieu.
And, sitting on this hillside now
with the valley spread below
and that nearby stream that gurgles,
singing soft and low
With a whispering breeze across the grass,
like a gentle, soft embrace
I can not help but be aware,
she has finally found her place.

© 2011, Jo Lynne Kirkwood 
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.


Luke's Story

It must have been well after midnight.   Two a.m., maybe closer to four
When the torment of wind took on a new cadence, as though a desperate fist banged on the door.
Luke eased himself out of his blankets.  The stove was low and the ranch house was chill
And the knock at the door in this dark hour of Christmas seemed to bode neither peace nor good will.
“I sorry to wake you,” said a stranger.   His accent was Mex and his English was poor
He was probably illegal, and hadn’t much cash, from the look of the clothes that he wore.
“But my truck, it is gone off the road.  It is cold, and the snow it is deep,
 And it is so late,” he queried.  I can use your barn for to sleep?”

Luke spat.  “I ain’t running’ no damned hotel,” he said.  “That barn is for my stock.
It’s not five miles from here to town.  I figure you can walk.”
Luke latched the door shut then went back to bed. He was just on the edge of sleep
When from out of the walls a voice seemed to call with a sound that was steady and deep.
I am but a humble innkeeper.  My name is known no more.
Two thousand years have come and passed since I turned the stranger from my door.
I sealed my fate.  When the stranger came I said he could not stay.
But he found shelter in my stable, in a manger filled with hay.

Luke sat back up. That guy must be in the barn.  It would take a dad-blamed fool
To stay outdoors on a night like this.  Still, there never was no rule
Some Mex would think the way Luke thought.  And even in the barn
The cold would come through the rafters and walls.  It wouldn’t be that warm. 
My penance is to wander, twenty centuries and more
And plead with men.  When the stranger comes, don’t turn him from your door.
That voice seemed to eat at Luke’s conscience.  He flung off the quilts in frustration
And shoved his feet into the legs of his Carhartts, cursing his imagination.   

Some voice coming out of the woodwork.  Of course no one was really there.
But it wouldn’t hurt to check on that feller.  He had some blankets he could spare.
The thin path of footprints marked a clear steady line from the house to the barn’s double door
But the feller’s had been joined by some others.  Smaller tracks, looked like two or three more.
The hinges squealed as Luke pushed the door open.  Luke stood looking until he made out the forms
Of some kids, with their mama there with them, huddled together to try and stay warm.
Luke let out a breath, shoved his fists in his pockets then scowled as he peered through the gloom.
“You might as well come on inside, he said.  There’s a fire in the living room. 

You just all pack up on the sofa there.  If you want it’ll make into a bed.
No sense in staying out here in the cold on Christmas eve,” he said.
Slowly the small group unfolded, then they moved toward Luke single file,
Two little kids just as bright as new pennies, and a mamma with a sweet gentle smile
And that feller who’d had the guts to come knocking.  Luke nodded as the man met his gaze.
“We’ll dig out your truck in the morning,” he said.  “After breakfast.   Then you can get on your way.”
Now this may seem an unlikely story.  And most folks wouldn’t bring strangers in.
But Luke did.  And this is Luke’s story.  And it turned out just fine for him.


© 2011, Jo Lynne Kirkwood 
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.
 

This poem is included in the 2011 Christmas at the BAR-D

 

 

The Fredonia Ordnance Ordinance

Bubba Johnson started it. He'd got a bb gun
From Santa Claus at Christmas. And I guess it just seemed fun
To test the gun's trajectory by shooting the Christmas lights
That were strung out across Main Street. But he didn't use his sights
Or it could be that his eyes were bad, or he just had lousy aim
Because he'd only bagged a couple of bulbs before the fire department came
And took the dang things down. Around St. Patrick's Day.
They just dismissed the shattered bulbs as breakage, and coiled the strings away.

But rumors were unraveled. The contest had begun.
And all the naughty boys in town started oiling up their guns.
Pop bottles were prime targets. Tin cans were second best
And the county gleamed with shards of glass. Robins left their nests.
Deer warning signs were filled with holes. Magpies had no reprieve.
And the tinny ping of bb's and pellets could be heard on the evening breeze.
There was a flash of fear when a bullet hole was found in the telephone booth
But the local men smiled, said boys will be boys, and thought back fondly to their youth.

Well, the weekend after Thanksgiving the volunteer fireman crew
Gathered to hang the Christmas lights, as yearly they still do.
It's quite an operation. Takes ladders, trucks and men
And hours of work. So obviously it upset those fellers when
Sunday evening, when the lights came on, after church and chores were through
Fourteen red bulbs had been shot out. And there were some green ones missing, too.
Well, those Fredonia men, they're pretty smart, so before an hour had flown

They gathered up those wayward lads. Told them they must atone
For their shocking misbehavior. Told the scoutmaster, that Monday night
All those boys must work together, to replace those broken lights.
So on Monday, Dusty, the scoutmaster, drove his tractor down the street
With the loader bucket full of boy scouts, who changed the bulbs out neat and sweet.
But there were more boys than empty sockets. And Dusty was concerned,
So he sent the varsity scouts to shoot out some more, so the cubs could have a turn.
There was a need for parental involvement. The townsfolk saw that was true.
Some of the dads came to help ... the varsity scouts. They put a premium on the blues.

It was heartwarming to see the bonding, these fathers and their sons
Working together for the common good. Oh sure, there was one on one
Competition, but Learning by Example made that great.
And they worked for hours. Long after dark. Until really, very late.
It was better than playing video games, or watching violence on TV.
These boys had adult supervision, and were serving their community.
You see, these Fredonia kids were learning all about gun control
Right there along side their dads. "Hold it steady, boy! Take aim, and pull!"

This could have gone on for hours. In fact, actually, it did.
But eventually the light bulb supply ran out, so the menfolk and their kids
All went home. Their wives were mad. Said the example was outrageous
Said their husbands had no sense at all, that juvenile delinquency must be contagious
And they'd all suffered from exposure. The men coughed, and stared down at their feet
And for the rest of that holiday season the lights gleamed bright across Main Street.
But that next year the Christmas spirit came early; The lights were up early to boot.
They were strung by the fifteenth of November, in time for the annual Turkey Shoot.

© 2013, Jo Lynne Kirkwood 
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

 


© 2013, Jo Lynne Kirkwood; please request permission for reproduction


 

Depression Oranges

The old-timers tell a Christmas story, from 1933
When the cattle market had gone way down, had almost ceased to be
So there simply was no money. There weren't two ways about it;
If it took cash to get it, you were going to do without it.

And with Christmas fast approaching, the outlook was quite grim.
The Sears and Roebuck catalog came, but hopes and dreams were slim.
And folks, they told their children this year Santa was too poor
To bring them gifts. But the kids all knew he had always come before.

The north part of Arizona is a pretty lonely place.
There's more cattle there than people; it's far from the rat race
Of cities, and urban commerce. But some feller in a truck
Drove clear up from Phoenix, hoping to make a buck.

He came from southern Arizona where citrus grows on trees,
And pulled up to my grandpa's house late on Christmas Eve.
Perhaps it was just happenstance. But he filled a wooden crate
With oranges for every house in town. Brought them 'round to their front gates.

It was snowing on the mountain, and he needed a place to stay,
So there was an orange in every stocking, when kids woke up on Christmas day.
Popcorn strung on a Douglas Fir, treats that were homemade,
Carols sung around the fire, all helped to persuade

That though their parents had no money, proof that Santa's real
Might be summed up in the essence of a pungent orange peel.
Sometimes a story changes. Oh, he showed up on Christmas Eve,
and maybe was looking for a place to stay, or they just wouldn't let him leave.

But in either version, the outcome is the same.
He spent Christmas with us, and we never knew his name.
And it might have been a miracle, because that Christmas Santa's sack
Filled up and overflowed the bed of that big Mack.

And little kids at Christmas, they wish, and they believe,
And they stay awake and watch to see a man on Christmas Eve.
That year Santa had no reindeer. He had no sleigh or sled;
He showed up with Christmas in a big Mack truck instead.

© 2014, Jo Lynne Kirkwood
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without permission.



© 2014, Jo Lynne Kirkwood
 

Jo Lynne tells that the truck design is based on a local trucking company's 1933 Mack truck.


 

Old Stories

Includes:

The Voices of Women

Ida's Bread
Forget Me Not
Quilting Party
Eulogy
Why the Cowboys Sing
Pearl Was Always Waiting
They Called Her Queenie Olray
Gina
Timberline
Genetics
Sammy Dean
Lydia

A Rancher's Life

The Auction
Passage
Red River Refrain
A Cowboy Season
Roundup
Horse Killing
Old Stories
Horse Colt Adoption
It Has Been Awhile
He Could Have Done More

Tales from the Coffee Shop

Owen's Mare
Little Red Revisited
Sweetie
Morning at the Post
Reece's Peace
Ewela
Cowboy and the School Marm
Lessons in Love
Red Neck Fishin'
Merle's Opus
Hard Times Come Again
Administerin' Angel
The Debate Rages

Other Voices, Other Seasons

We the Living
She, After We Visited
Upon His Son's Leaving for College
Another Old Woman
Ilene and the Pheasant
Irrigating the Cornfield by Moonlight
A Thing Accomplished
Water Like Voices
Death, Disguised as a Flower
Rio Madre
Colorado
Kanab Creek

Available for $17 postpaid from Jo Kirkwood, PO Box 570207, Sigurd, Utah 84657; www.jokirkwood.com

It's possible to imagine many of the poems in Utahan Jo Lynne Kirkwood's collection, Old Stories, inhabiting the intriguing house on the book's striking cover.

With her rare talent, she builds quiet yet captivating poems. Strong underlying structures give way to masterful expressions and explorations of
place and character. She draws you deeply into the stories with their complexity of humor, longing, truth, pain, warmth, beauty, plain talk, hope,
the bittersweet, and more.

Poems are divided into sections, "The Voices of Women," "A Rancher's Life," "Tales from the Coffee Shop," and "Other Voices, Other Seasons." The first three are populated by cowboys and their wives, ranchers and ranch wives, old men, colorful characters, and children both innocent and cruel. There are bread makers, wranglers, fighters, old hands, gamblers, quilters, critters, worriers, seekers, and dreamers.

The stories evolve with clarity and wisdom, with precise expressions of character and feeling. People have been either well imagined or closely observed. It doesn't matter; they appear as true as photographs, men and women alike. They are delightfully diverse. Mysteries, politics, hilarity, pain, musings on Fate, and sometimes a complicated underlying and understated theme of a woman's place may find their way into these poems. The first chapters are filled with what are ballads of the denizens of rural America. It is no surprise that Jo Lynne Kirkwood is also a songwriter with a number of works recorded by others. She often honors tradition as she creates these tales.

The poems in the final chapter, "Other Voices, Other Seasons," sometimes step beyond her rural Western landscape and veer into other, less tangible worlds. They are among the most skillful poems. Some are crafted of more abstract observations, the meaningful sort that lead to pondering, as lines by Emily Dickinson might. Some are haunting, in the real-life sense. Here her words often sing in ways that are as impressive as in her character ballads.

This first, long-awaited collection is well done in every way: poem selection, organization, and layout. It is spare and uncluttered, as a scrubbed table inside that cover house might be, one that has seen a lot of life, both the tough times and the good times. And that's just what you want: nothing between you and the vividly observed lives and places that she offers. Jo Lynne Kirkwood's work as a teacher comes through in these poems; she is also a teacher of life, and readers will be edified, their own lives enriched by experiencing her words.
 

A Cedar Ridge Christmas


2013

Includes:

Christmas in the County
I Remember the Night of the Angels
We Didn't Have Much Then, for Christmas
Bringin' Home Christmas
It's Sure Startin' to Feel Like Christmas
Sandy Chris ... A Boy's Christmas Tale
Mesquite Magi
Cowboys and Christmas
Dulce est Decor
Cowboy Christmas Eve
Chub's Christmas Visit
El Nino Navidad


A Cedar Ridge Christmas
is available for $12 postpaid from Jo Lynne Kirkwood, PO Box 570207, Sigurd, UT 84657; jokirkwood@icloud.com; www.jokirkwood.com.

 


 

Until You Know Them by Heart

Includes:

Ida's Bread
Morning at the Post
Passage
Red River Refrain
A Cowboy Season
It Has Been a While
Pete at the Auction (Ewela)
Lessons in Love
Merle's Opus
Old Stories
They Called Her Queenie Olray
The Auction
Timberline

 

 

  Utah poet Jo Lynne Kirkwood is featured on the Western Folklife Center's Ranch Rhymes: Cowboy Poetry and Music from the Western Folklife Center Archives.

The program is described on the Western Folklife Center's web site:

Some of the best poems and songs at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering are performed each year in the smaller venues at Elko—the "Take Your Turn" and "Anything Goes" sessions. Jo Lynne Kirkwood's poem "The Auction" is just such a poem that stood out at last year's Gathering. Here it is now, along with an interview excerpt with Jo Lynne, in this episode of Ranch Rhymes.

The interview was recorded at the "sheep camp" recording booth at Western Folklife Center's National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, where oral histories are collected from poets, musicians, and others "with something to say about life in the West." Jo Lynne Kirkwood and her husband Michael were interviewed by Utah folklorist Carole Edison. Jo Lynne talks about her poetry and her life, and mentions that so many of her friends are a part of cowboy poetry, from the "tiny, tight community that is thousands of miles across."

Listen to Jo Lynne Kirkwood on the Ranch Rhymes audio here and read more about all of the archived broadcasts, which are also available as podcasts, here at the Western Folklife Center site.

[photo of Michael and Jo Lynne Kirkwood from the 2006 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering by Jeri L. Dobrowski; see her gallery of western performers and others here.]


 

 

Read Jo Lynne Kirkwood's:

Let Me Tell Ya, Pilgrim… in the 2011 Cowboy Poetry Week Art Spur

Bringin' Home Christmas  in our 2008 Christmas At Spur

and

Dulce est Décor, posted with other 2008 Christmas poems

and

A Cowboy's Christmas Eve in our 2007 Christmas Art Spur

and

Sandy Kris, posted with other 2007 Christmas poems

and

At His Own Pace  in our 2007 Cowboy Poetry Week Art Spur,

and

Mesquite Magi, posted with the 2006 Art Spur poems, inspired by her drawing, "Bringing Home Christmas"

Christmas in the County, posted with 2006 Christmas poems, along with her drawing

and

Longer than Time Understands, posted with "cowboy love poems"

and

It's Sure Startin' to Feel Like Christmas, posted with 2005 Christmas poems, along with two of her drawings

 

(the drawing on the right is the subject of the 2006 Christmas Art Spur)

and

Waterin' Hole, in our ArtSpur project

and

Visitation, in our ArtSpur project

and

Cowboys and Christmas posted with other holiday poems from 2004

and

We Didn't Have Much, Then, for Christmas posted with other holiday poems from 2003

and

Christmas on the North Fork posted with other holiday poems from 2002

and

  El Niño Navidad and Chub’s Christmas Visit posted with other holiday poems from 2000.

 

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Cowboy Poets of Utah

 

www.cowboypoetry.com

 

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