Cowboy Poetry with Joel Nelson | Blanton Museum of Art

>>I’m incredibly pleased to introduce Alpine
based Cowboy Poet Joel Nelson here today. In addition to being
one of today’s most respected poets and reciters and also a National
Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow, Nelson
is also known for his horse training skills which he has practiced
in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Hawaii. His CD, The Breaker
in the Pen, which he’s offered to sign for you guys after
the show, is the only Cowboy Poetry recording ever nominated
for a Grammy. A fellow poet, Baxter Black, commented that
the CD raised the bar for Cowboy Poetry for a thousand years. So
please join me in welcoming Joel Nelson. [ Applause ]>>Joel Nelson: And in the morning I was riding
out through the breaks of that long plane, and leather creaking
in the quieting would sound with trot and trot again. I lived
in time with horse hoof falling, I listened well and heard the
calling, the earth, my mother bade to me though I would still
ride wild and free. And as I flew out on the morning, before the bird,
before the dawn, I was the poem, I was the song. My heart would
beat the world a warning, those horsemen now rode all with
me and we were good, we were free. We were not told but ours the knowing,
we were the native strangers there among those things
the prairie growing. This knowing gave us more the care to let
the grass keep at its growing and let the streams keep at their
flowing. We knew this land could not be ours, that no one has the
awful powers to claim the vast and common nesting to own the life
that gave him birth, much less to rape his mother earth, then ask
her for a mother’s blessing and ever live in peace with her or
dying come to rest with her. Ah, we would ride, we would listen
and hear the message on the wind. The grass in morning
dew would glisten until the sun would dry and blend the grass
to ground and air to skying. We’d know by bird or insect flying
or by their mood or by their song if time and moon were right
or wrong for fitting work and rounds to weather. The critter coats
and leaves of trees might flash some signal with the breeze,
or wind or sun on the flower or feather. We knew our way from
dawn to dawn and far beyond, far beyond. It was the old ones with
me riding out through the fog fall of that dawn, and they
would press me to deciding if we were right or we were wrong,
for time came we were punching cattle for men who knew not spur
nor saddle, who came with locusts in their purse to scatter loose
upon the earth. The savage had not found this prairie till those
who hired us came this way to make the grasses pay and pay for
some raw greed, no wise or wary regard for grass could satisfy.
The old ones wept and so did I. Do you remember we come jogging
to town with jingle in our jeans and in the wild night
we’d be bogging up to our hats in last month’s dreams. It seemed
the night could barely hold us with all those spirits to embold
us. With horses waiting on three legs we’d drain the night
down to the dregs and just before beyond redemption we’d gather
back to what we were. We’d leave the money left us there and head
our horses for the wagon. But in the ruckus, in the whirl, we
were the wolves of all the world. The grass was growing scarce
for grazing. It would soon turn sod and soon turn bare. The
money men set to replacing the good and true in spirit there
we could not say there was no knowing how ill the future winds
were blowing. Some cowboys even shunned the ways of cowboys in
the trail herd days, but where’s the gift not turned for plunder,
forgot that we are what we do and not the stuff we lay claim
to. I dream the spell that we were under. I throw in with a cowboy
band and go out horseback through the land. So mornings now
I’ll go out riding through pastures of my solemn plain and leather
creaking and the quieting will sound with trot and trot again.
I’ll live in time with horse hoof falling. I’ll listen well
and hear the calling of the earth, my mother bids to me. Though
I will still ride wild and free. And as I fly out on the morning
before the bird, before the dawn, I’ll be this poem, I’ll be
this song. My heart will beat the world a warning, those horsemen
will ride all with me and we’ll be good and we’ll be free. [ Applause ] Those words were written by a very close friend
of mine, the late, great Buck Ramsey who passed away just
short of his 60th birthday after spending 30 years in a wheelchair,
the result of a bad horse wreck. That poem was simply a short
introduction to a long poem that he wrote titled Grass, which
if I remember right the original manuscript covered 42 typewritten
pages. The horse wreck that put him in the wheelchair may have
stopped his riding, but it opened up a whole new career of writing,
and he rode constantly in his mind. This program is kind
of held in conjunction with the art exhibit across the
way, the Blanton Museum. My wife Sylvia and I spent quite a
few hours in there today looking at the bottom floor of the Hudson
River School of Art, and then upstairs at the Western Art
by such famous artists as Frederic Remington and Charlie Russell
and Charles Schreyvogel and Frank Tenney Johnson, all of whom I’ve admired for
most of my adult life. On the bottom floor along with the Hudson
River poets, I mean, I keep saying poets, artists, I was taken by
a quote of William Cullen Bryant, and I couldn’t get it out of my
mind. He delivered this message at a funeral for an artist who
he obviously admired very much. William Cullen said the
landscape painter is admitted to a closer familiarity with nature
than the poet. He studies her aspect more minutely and watches
with a more affectionate attention, its varied expression. Well,
I wouldn’t argue with William Cullen, and I don’t intend to open
a debate over whether the landscape painter is admitted to a
closer familiarity with nature. But I would say that the poet is
admitted to a closer familiarity with life than the landscape
painter. So, just for your consumption there. [Laughter] Which
brings me to a quote by a famous poet who is not too long
deceased, Stanley Kunitz. In an introduction to his next to last
book Stanley Kunitz said of poetry if we want to know how it felt
to be alive at any given point in the long odyssey of the race,
it is to poetry that we must turn. I wish William Cullen could
have read that. [ Laughter ] Amy asked me a while ago if this was an hour’s
worth. I’m supposed to fill an hour here, so I said,
yeah, it’s at least an hour’s worth. When she explained to me a few
months ago when she invited me here to do this presentation that
the art exhibit that it was supposed to accompany was going to
include both western artists and the Hudson River School of Art,
I said, well, maybe I’ll try to do some poetry that will maybe
originate up in the Hudson River area and migrate westward. So,
two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel
both but be one traveler, long I stood and looked down one
as far as I could to where it bent in the undergrowth, then took
the other as just as fair and having perhaps the better claim because
it was grassy and wanted wear. Though as for that the passing
there had worn them really about the same. And both that
morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black. Oh, I kept
the first for another day, yet knowing how way leads on
to way I doubted if I should ever come back. I shall be telling
this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence. Two roads diverged
in a wood and I, I took the one less traveled by. And that
has made all the difference. Robert Frost. [ Applause ] Whenever I walk to Suffern along the Erie
track, I go by a sad old farmhouse with shingles broken and black.
I suppose I’ve passed it a hundred times, but I always stop
for a minute and look at this house, this sad old house, the
house with nobody in it. Now, I never have seen a haunted house,
but I hear there are such things, that they hold the talk of spirits,
their mirth and sorrowings. I know this house isn’t haunted
but I wish it were, I do, for it wouldn’t be half so lonely if
it had a ghost or two. This house on the road to Suffern needs a
dozen panes of glass, and somebody ought to weed the walk and take
a scythe to the grass. It needs new paint, shingles, the vines
should be trimmed and tied, but what it needs the most of all
is some people living inside. If I had a lot of money and all my
debts were paid I’d put a gang of men to work with brush and saw
and spade. I’d buy that place and fix it up the way it used to
be and find some folks who wanted a home and give it to them
free. Now, a new house standing empty with staring window and
door looks idle, perhaps, and foolish like a hat on a block
in the store, but there’s nothing mournful about it. It cannot
be sad and lone for the lack of something within it that it has
never known. But a house that has done what a house should do,
a house that has sheltered life, that has put its loving wooden
arms around a man and his wife, a house that has echoed a baby’s
laugh and held up its stumbling feet is the saddest sight when
it’s left alone that ever your eyes could meet. So whenever I walk
to Suffern along the Erie track, I never go by this tragic
house without stopping and looking back, and when I see the sagging
roof and the shutters falling apart I can’t help thinking
this sad old house is a house with a broken heart. Joyce Kilmer. [ Applause ] I remember that poem from high school, but
I had never heard it recited until one crisp fall morning I was
riding along on the way to gather cattle with an old gentleman
who many of you have seen in movies named Wilford Brimley. Wilford
can recite poetry for hours and hours, and he was riding along
stirrup to stirrup with me and started reciting that piece, and
I had to learn it. He also can recite this piece which I have
recited since I was a kid in school. It takes us down from New England
a few miles. It was written by Stephen Vincent Benet, the
Ballad of William Sycamore. My father, he was a mountaineer.
His fist was a knotty hammer. He was quick on his feet as
a running deer and he spoke with a Yankee stammer. My mother she
was merry and brave, and so she came to her labor with a tall green
fir for her doctor grave and a stream for her comforting neighbor.
And some are wrapped in linen fine, and some like a godling’s
scion, but I was cradled on twigs of pine in the skin of a
mountain lion. Some remember a white, starched lap and a ewer
with silver handles, but I remember a coonskin cap and the smell
of bayberry candles. The cabin logs with the bark still rough,
and a mother who laughed at trifles, and the tall, lank visitors,
brown as snuff, with their long, straight squirrel-rifles.
I can hear them dance like a foggy song through the deepest one
of my slumbers, the fiddle squeaking the boots along, and my father
calling the numbers. Quick feet shaking the puncheon-floor,
the fiddle squealing and squealing till dried herbs were
rattled above a door and dust rose up to the ceiling. There
are children lucky from dawn till dusk but never a child so lucky.
For I cut my teeth on Money Musk in the Bloody Ground of
Kentucky. When I grew tall as the Indian corn, my father had
little to lend me, but he gave me his great old powder-horn and
his woodsman’s skill to befriend me. With a leather shirt to cover
my back and a redskin nose to unravel each forest sign,
I carried my pack as far as a scout could travel. Till I lost my
boyhood and found my wife, a girl like a Salem clipper. A woman
straight as a hunting-knife with eyes as bright as the Dipper.
We cleared our camps where buffalo feed, unheard-of streams
were our flagons, and we sowed our sons like apple-seed on the
trail of the Western wagons. They were right, tight boys, never
sulky or slow, a fruitful, a goodly muster. The eldest died
at the Alamo. The youngest fell with Custer. The letter that
told it burned my hand. Yet we smiled and said so be it. But
I could not live when they fenced the land, for it broke my
heart to see it. I saddled a red, unbroken colt and rode him
into the day there, and he threw me down like a thunderbolt and rolled
over me as I lay there. The hunter’s whistle hummed in my ear
as city-men tried to move me. And I died in my boots like a
pioneer with the whole wide sky above me. Now I lie in the heart
of the fat, black soil like the seed of a prairie-thistle. It has
washed my bones with honey and oil and picked them clean as a whistle.
And my youth returns, like the rains of spring, and my
sons, like wild-geese flying, and I lie and hear the meadow-lark
sing and have much content in my dying. Go play with the towns
you have built of blocks, those towns where you would have bound
me. I sleep in my earth like a tired old fox and my buffalo
have found me. [ Applause ] The exhibits of the Hudson River School have
a whole series of paintings with cattle pictured in the Hudson
Valley, and they’re very quiet, docile scenes. Some of the literature
on the wall explains that these cattle are content to
be brought in by people on foot, brought in every night after their
day of grazing and put in the barn for the night so they have
a rather peaceful existence. That’s quite in contrast to the
cattle that are in the paintings upstairs in the Charlie Russell
paintings, cattle being roped out on the wide open range, and
so there’s a tremendous, there’s just a tremendous contrast
between the cattle of the east and the cattle of the west. One
of my really good friends named J.B. Allen wrote a poem entitled
Kindred Spirits that I would like to do for you, and it talks
about the other kind of cattle than the ones pictured in the
Hudson River scenes. The spotted Heifer missed the drive and spent
the winter free, though freedom’s price was willow bark then
sprigs of filaree that finally showed beneath the snow before
her strength played out. And green up brought a fine bull calf
to teach the maverick route. They fattened on the meadows of the
high sierra’s flanks in the company of a maverick bull that drifted
from the ranks of cattle across the great divide turned loose
to make their way and lost amongst the canyons that were strewn
in disarray. The offspring of this union proved a wily beast
indeed endowed with instinct from the wild and blessed with wondrous
speed that proved a worthy challenge to the punchers
in the hills who through the hills spun hairy tales of wildest
wrecks and spills. But though the issue from the two were sometimes
trapped or caught, these two old wily veterans still
practiced what they taught, spent the winters running free within
their secret home which held enough to see them through emerging
weak and gaunt. For years old Utah searched the range in futile
quest for sign of where they spent the winter months and somehow
get a line on how they made it every year and brought a calf
to boot. Until finally one cold, bitter day it fell to this
old coot to happen on their winter park hid out from prying eyes.
And to this day old Utah holds the key to where it lies. The
kindred spirit shared by all who seek a higher range could
not betray this cul- de-sac to folks just bent on change with no
respect for maverick ways or independent thought. And not one frazzling
idea of the havoc being wrought by putting things on schedule,
be it work or man or cow, till ways that make for being
free are bred plum out somehow. Old Utah turned and trotted off,
just let those old hides be. His heart a beating lighter just
knowing they were free. [ Applause ] While we’re on the subject of cattle, a lady
named Berta Hart Nance in 1931 wrote a poem entitled Cattle,
entered it in the Texas Poetry Society contest that year and
won the contest with this poem. To imagine or to really get the
feeling of the poem, you have got to kind of visualize the shape
of our great State of Texas on the map. And with that image in mind,
the boundary of Texas, you can appreciate this poem more fully.
Other states were carved or born, Texas grew from hide
and horn. Other states are long or wide, Texas is a shaggy hide dripping
blood and crumpled hair. Some fat giant flung it there,
laid its head where valleys drain, stretched it’s rump along
the plain. Other soil is full of stones, Texans plow up cattle
bones. Herds are buried on the trail underneath the powdered
shale, herds that stiffen like the snow where the icy northers
go. Other states have built their halls humming tunes along
the walls. Texans watch the mortar stirred while they kept the
lowing herd. Stamped on Texan wall and roof gleams the
sharp and crescent hoof, high above the hum and stir jingle bridal
reign and spur. Other states were carved or born, Texas grew
from hide and horn. Berta Hart Nance. [ Applause ] Maynard Dixon is one of the artists whose
work is exhibited upstairs in the Blanton. I’ve looked at lot
of Maynard Dixon pieces over the years, and the ones that strike
me the most are the ones that have a string of horses lined
out running across the desert landscape whether it’s the great
basin in Nevada or whether it’s open range in New Mexico. Every
time I see a Maynard Dixon painting of horses running wild
across the desert country I think of this poem written by Henry
Herbert Knibbs about 80 or 90 years ago titled Where the
Ponies Come to Drink. Up in Northern Arizona there’s a Ranger-trail
that passes through a mesa, like a faery lake with pines upon
its brink. And across the trail a stream runs all but hidden in
the grasses till it finds an emerald hollow where the ponies come
to drink. Out they fling across the mesa, wind-blown manes and
forelocks dancing, blacks and sorrels, bays and pintos, wild
as eagles, eyes agleam. From their hoofs the silver flashes, burning
beads and arrows glancing through the bunch-grass and the gramma
as they cross that little stream. Down they swing as if
pretending in their orderly disorder that they stopped to hold
a pow-wow just to rally for the charge that will take them close
to sunset twenty miles across the border. Then the leader sniffs
and drinks forefeet planted on the marge. One by one
each head is lowered till some yearling nips another and the playful
interruption starts an eddy in the band, snorting, squealing,
plunging, wheeling, round they circle in a muddy spray,
nor pause until they find the firmer land. My old cow-horse
he runs with them. Turned him loose for good last season, eighteen
years; hard work, his record, and he’s earned his little rest
so he’s taking it by playing, acting proud, and with good reason.
Though he’s starched a little forward he can fan it with
the best. Once I called him, almost caught him, then he eyed
me some reproachful, as if making up his mind. Seemed to say, well,
if I have to, but you know I’m living single. So I laughed and
in a minute he was pretty hard to find. Some folks wouldn’t understand
it writing lines about a pony for a cow-horse is a cow-horse,
nothing more, most people think. But for eighteen years
a partner, wise and faithful. Such a crony seems worth watching
for a spell where the ponies come to drink. [ Applause ] Most of my life I worked for fairly large
cow outfits, cow calf operations, and I spent quite a bit of time
on the Cocornado [phonetic] Six Ranch between Alpine and Fort
Davis. I left there in 1991 and started moving around from ranch
to ranch starting young horses under contract, breaking horses
is what a lot of people call it. I was fortunate enough to
be able to go to the Parker Ranch in Hawaii a number of times starting
their young horses, and to the King Ranch at Kingsville,
Texas starting their two year olds for several years. And when
I was at Kingsville, the evening breeze coming in from off the
Laguna Madre felt so good. I’m kind of desert person so I’m surprised
that I fell in love with that coastal bin country, but that
evening breeze coming off of the coast felt so good and has
such an aroma and a fragrance to it, that I felt like Frank Desprez
must have felt over a hundred years before. Frank Desprez
was from London. He was apprenticed as a copper engraver, but
he was having failing eyesight, and the closeup engraving work was
a little tough on his eyes. So in 1877 he set sail for the coast
of Texas, and when he arrived he went to work on cow outfits.
Probably went up the trail two or three times. Then eventually
he went back to England and became a writer of what they call
curtain raisers and became a critic in the theaters. And in the
1880s the poem that he had written appeared in a livestock publication
in Helena, Montana. The title of it was Lasca, and to
me it is the classic Texas poem by Frank Desprez. It’s all very
well to write reviews and carry umbrellas and keep dry shoes. To
say what everyone is saying here and wear what everyone else must
wear, but tonight I’m sick of the whole affair. I want free
life and I want fresh air, and I sigh for the canter after the cattle,
the crack of the whips like shots in battle, the medley of
horns and hoofs and heads that wars and wrangles and scatters
and spreads; the green beneath and the blue above, and dash and danger,
and life and love and Lasca. Lasca used to ride on a mouse-gray
mustang close by my side in blue serape and bright-belled
spur. I laughed with joy as I looked at her. Little knew she of
books or of creeds, an Ave Maria sufficed her needs. Little she
cared, save to be at my side to ride with me, and ever to ride
from San Saba’s shore to LaVaca’s tide. She was as bold as the billows
that beat, she was as wild as the breezes that blow. From
her little head to her little feet she was swayed in her suppleness
to and fro by each gust of passion; a sapling pine that
grows on the edge of a Kansas bluff and wars with the wind when the
weather is rough is like this Lasca, this love of mine. She would
hunger that I might eat, would take the bitter and leave
me the sweet. But once, when I made her jealous for fun at something
I’d whispered, or looked, or done one Sunday, in San Antonio
to a glorious girl in the Alamo, she drew from her garter a little
dagger and sting of a wasp it made me stagger. An inch to the
left, an inch to the right I shouldn’t be maundering here tonight,
but she sobbed, and, sobbing, so swiftly bound her torn reboso
about the wound, that I swiftly forgave her. Scratches don’t
count in Texas, down by the Rio Grande. Her eye was brown, a deep,
deep brown, her hair was darker than her eye, and something
in her smile and frown curved crimson lip and instep high showed
that there ran in each blue vein mixed with the milder Aztec
strain the vigorous vintage of Old Spain. She was alive in every
limb with feeling to the finger tips, and when the sun is like
a fire and sky one shimmering, soft sapphire one does not drink
in little sips. So, why did I leave the fresh and free that suited
her and suited me? Listen awhile and you will see. But one thing
to be sure on earth and in air God and God’s laws are everywhere,
and nemesis comes with the footest fleet on the Texas
trail on Regent Street. The air was heavy and the night was hot, I
sat by her side, and forgot, forgot, forgot the herd that were
taking their rest, forgot that the air was close opprest, that
a Texas norther comes sudden and soon in the dead of night or the
blaze of noon and once let a herd at its breath take fright
nothing on earth can stop their flight. And woe to the rider and
woe to the steed that falls in front of that mad stampede.
Was that thunder? No, by the Lord I sprang to the saddle without
a word, one foot on mine and she swung behind away on a hot chase
down the wind and never was fox hunt half so hard, never was
steed so little spared for we rode for our lives. You shall hear
how we fared in Texas down by the Rio Grande. The mustang flew and
we urged him on. There was one chance left, and you have but
one, halt, jump to ground, and shoot your horse, crouch under
his carcass and take your chance. And if the steers in their frantic
course don’t batter you both to pieces at once you may
thank your star; if not, goodby to the quickening kiss and the
long-drawn sigh and the open air and the open sky. In Texas down
by the Rio Grande. The cattle gained on us and just as I felt
for my old six-shooter behind in my belt down came the mustang and
down came we clinging together and what was the rest. A body that
spread itself on my breast two arms that shielded my dizzy head,
two lips that hard on my lips were pressed. Then came thunder
in my ears as over us surged the sea of steers, blows that beat
blood into my eyes and when at last I could arise, Lasca was dead
I gouged out a grave a few feet deep and there in Earth’s arms
I laid her to sleep. There she is lying and no one knows, and the
summer shines and the winter snows. And the flowers for many
a day have spread a pall of petals over her head. The little gray
hawk hangs aloft in the air and the sly coyote trots here and
there, the black snake glides and glitters and slides into
the rift in a cottonwood tree, and the buzzard sails on
and comes and is gone stately and still like a ship at sea. And
I wonder why I do not care for the things that are like things that
were. Does half my heart lie buried there in Texas, down by the
Rio Grande? [ Applause ] Sometimes I get criticized because I get off
on other authors’ poems and neglect to do any of my own. And
people say why don’t you do some you wrote? I say, but there’s
so many good ones out there why would I need to? But, I’d like to
do a few of my own pieces now. And I’ve been writing poetry for
quite a few years, close to 30 years seriously, and I wrote a
few poems while on an outing in Southeast Asia back in 1969, 1970.
But most of my serious stuff has been in the last 25 years.
The writing process is fascinating. The process itself is a lot
more fascinating than the end product to me. It’s kind of like
it’s the journey that counts, not the destination, but sometimes
we write because we just can’t help it. The old gentleman who
explained how it felt to be alive, Stanley Kunitz, put it this
way. He said I never wrote a single poem unless I just had
to. And sometimes the words just come and you can’t ignore them,
and I’ve written quite a few pieces just simply about the process
of writing. Sandy Errington came up to me before this
started earlier and said I wish you would do While
I Sleep. So I told her, well, I hadn’t plan to but now I will.
This is a little free verse piece that I wrote back in 1999.
I was spending a night while on the back from Elko, Nevada
with a friend of mine. I had rolled my bedroll out in his front room,
and I woke up in the middle of the night with these words just
almost emblazoned on the wall like a teleprompter, and I just
grabbed my flashlight and got an envelope out of my bag and wrote
it down on the back of it. Titled it While I Sleep. Words come
in the night while I sleep like small birds and critters along
dusty trails through the branches over rocky stream beds to line
up and watch me waiting for me to awaken looking at one another,
shifting, trading places, rearranging themselves as
if they know their proper order and what they need to say. Sometimes
I awaken and acknowledge them on paper as I should. If
not they dissolve back into the shadows, the thickets and the burrows.
And if they ever appear again will they all be the same ones,
and will the order be disturbed. [ Applause ] Back about 1992 I had finished up a crop of
colts at the King Ranch and had accepted a contract to start
some race colts for an old gentleman. And I was in the process of
starting those colts and got acquainted with an old fella named
Phillip Osborne. And he would trot over on an old horse he had
and ride with me when I was going outside with these colts to give
these young horses a little reassurance and kind of help me get
by with them a little bit. And then he went back to California.
He was from the Coast Range country, and I lost track of him for
a few years. And then about 1996 I had a contract to start colts
for the Parker Ranch in Hawaii. So I thought I’d go by and see
Phillip. By that time he was getting on up in years, and he was
in a nursing home near Marysville, California. So I spent two or
three days there visiting with Phillip and then went on to
Hawaii. Then a few months later I was driving down the Hamakua
coast and thinking about those days I had spent there with Phillip,
and the words to this poem kind of came in a rush. And I mention
a piece of artwork by Charlie Russell called Bronc to
Breakfast in this poem. Bronc to Breakfast was one of Charlie
Russell’s most famous paintings. It showed a cow camp, a
chuck wagon scene, a cook fire early in the morning, cowboys saddling
up horses getting ready to go out on the day’s gather.
One horse had chosen to blow up and buck through the morning
cook fire. The cook was obviously pretty mad about it, and
the other cowboys around were slapping their legs and laughing.
It was a very famous piece, and a lot of banks and feed
stores would have calendars printed with Bronc to Breakfast
as the picture on the calendar. Bronc to Breakfast calendars hang
fading on the walls. There’s a lost and aimless wandering through
the corridors and halls of slippered feet that shuffle on a
waxed and polished floor and vacant stares of emptiness from
the men who ride no more, men who once rode proudly, men with
long straight backs, men who covered hill and plain with steel
shod horses tracks now pass their idle days in rooms with numbers
on the door with orderlies and nurses for men who ride no more.
Time was when spur rowels jingled when boot heels bumped
the floor, dawns with hot black coffee and saddling up at four with
feet in tapaderos and broncs between their knees and silken
neck scarves snapping as they turned into the breeze. From full-blown
living legends true to riding for the brand to the scarcely
mediocre who could hardly make a hand they would gather for the
brandings and the shipping in the fall. Now it’s walker, cane
and wheelchair in the antiseptic hall. And they all have their
mementos on the table by their side like a cracked and fading
snapshot of a horse they used to ride or standing with the wife
beside a thirty-seven Ford, a high-heeled boot hooked nonchalant
on a muddy running board. Just instance frozen from the past
that somehow give a clue to who and what they were before their
riding days were through. Horseback men with horseback rules
from horseback days of yore. Their one and only wish would be
to somehow ride once more. To once more rope a soggy calf and drag
it to the fire, to long-trot for a half a day and see no post
or wire, to ride a morning circle, catch a fresh one out at noon
and trot him in when the day was done to the rising of the
moon, to put in one more horseback day and have just one more
chance to ride home to a pretty wife and drive her to a dance, to
take her hand and hold her close and waltz across a floor before
the time to join the ranks of men who ride no more. [ Applause ] My wife Sylvia and I ranch near Alpine, Texas,
and we do our cow work horseback. The horse is not a pet, the
horse is not something we use for recreation, the horse
is not something we compete on. The horse is our partner that
helps us get our work done. And we have a great deal of admiration
and respect for the horse, and we have a great rapport with our
horses. The Chinese calendar has a number of creatures that they
dedicate the various years to. 2002 was the Year of the Horse.
And I elected to write some sort of a tribute to the horse
in 2002 just because he’s meant so much to me in my life, taken
me places I never would have gone otherwise. So in the autumn
of the Year of the Horse I finished this piece, titled it Equus
Caballus which is the genus and species of that animals. I have
run on middle fingernail through eolithic morning. I have
thundered down the coach road with the Revolution’s warning.
I have carried countless errant knights who never found the
grail. I have strained before the caissons I have moved
the nation’s mail. I’ve made knights of lowly tribesmen and kings
from ranks of peons. I have given pride and arrogance to
riding men for eons. I have grazed among the lodges and the tepees
and the yurts. I have felt the sting of driving whips and lashes,
spurs and quirts. I am roguish, I am flighty, I am inbred,
I am lowly. I’m a nightmare, I am wild, I am the horse. I
am gallant and exalted, I am stately, I am noble. I’m impressive,
I am grand, I am the horse. I have suffered gross indignities
from users and from winners, and I’ve felt the hand of kindness
from the losers and the sinners. I have given for the cruel
hand and given for the kind. Heaved a sigh at Appomattox when
surrender had been signed. I can be as tough as hardened steel,
as fragile as a flower. I know not my endurance and I know
not my own power. I have died with heart exploded ‘neath the cheering
in the stands, calmly stood beneath the hanging noose of
vigilante bands. I have traveled under conqueror and underneath the
beaten. I have never chosen sides, I am the horse. The world is
but a player’s stage, my roles have numbered many, under blue or
under gray I am the horse. So I’ll run on middle fingernail until
the curtain closes, and I will win your triple crowns
and I will wear your roses. Toward you who took my freedom I’ve
no malice or remorse. I’ll endure, this is my year, I am the horse. [ Applause ] Sylvia is warning me that my hour is about
at an end, and I’m going to close with one little short free
verse piece that I wrote about 13 or 14 years ago. I think every
one of you can relate to this piece. It refers to that moment
in time when you meet someone truly extraordinary. Regardless
of what happens after that moment, that’s what this poem is
about. I titled it On Finding Someone. If on some better than
average day I should be riding along observing, not expecting,
well maybe and should see just as hoof swept by one flawless arrow
point. If on that bright shining morning I should step down
to lift this point turning it delicately, feeling its smoothness
beneath my fingertips I would marvel at its perfection.
At the way some ancient one had tempered and crafted such
beauty and how it came to lie there all these centuries, covered,
uncovered, re-hidden, re-exposed until it came to me to happen by
this place on this day made now more perfect. And I would ponder
such things as coincidence and circles and synchronicity,
and I would pocket this treasure near my heart, and riding on
I would recall having seen such treasure as this elsewhere but not
this one, not this one. And for one brief moment I would stiffen
with fear at how one quick glance in another direction could
have lost this to me forever. And I would touch my shirt over my
heart just to make sure. [ Applause ]

5 thoughts on “Cowboy Poetry with Joel Nelson | Blanton Museum of Art

  1. From deep of m heart, I would like to thank at this cowboy poet. Really lovely words I listen until the end with closed eyes.

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