By "Ramblin'" Tom Eliot
Hell, August is the cruelest month—
To hell with what the poets say,
when the wind dries your chaps and the sweat
sticks dirt to your neck’s back; the hay
gets blowed in little swirls by the dust-devils.
Ain’t no rest, nohow—the cows about to lay
down and call it quits if the water don’t flow
into the stock pond, and the bondsman’s
on the prowl for your best hand.
Nevermore, the raven’s cawing off
the canyon wall, and I’d roll up into a ball
a weed acrosst
the sere prairie, if only that tweren’t
too hot. Hisself, the devil,
rides the range here in August like he owns the joint—
and now I’m thinkin’ on it, perhaps that’s so.
But here by the cow pond, a cowpie
surprised us. Turns out I ain’t Texan atall,
but Kentuckian by way of Oklahoma, and when
we was kids, we’d bathe in the stocktank
or slide the range in a sled back of a horse,
and down we went, on the prairie,
where we felt free. I’d play my harmonica
all night and suffer, still, all winter.
Nothing grows here, much; the sod done busted
the plow. “Jesus” you can’t say, just the beatin’
down sun and the dry grass and the hoppers
lighting on the redrock. At noon there ain’t
a shadow to piss in, and evenin’ stretches
out like a lazy farmhand and makes the dirt
blows the wind off the feedlot—
my Irish coffee, where do you lait?
Don’t know hyacinths grow,
no wimmen will stay, just us
know-nothings, staring into the bright,
wasted sea of grass.
The old, crazy gypsy
who tells fortunes in town has hay fever.
Helluva way to make a living.
She ain’t the wisest around,
but is right just enough to spook us,
to keep us coming back. My cards
always show the devil driving a Conestoga
to the sun, wheels on fire, demon-
mares with manes aflame. “Fear
death by fire,” she says, sticks
my dollar in betwixt her ample tits.
I tread softly around TNT.
this town, turd-brown and sick in winter.
No crowds here, ever—well, maybe
Independence Day, when they put on a parade.
Wastrels run the dry goods store,
mountebanks town hall. Up Main
to the clapboard chapel called St. Mary’s
walks a farmer in a Stetson
getting ready to sell out and ship off.
His garden didn’t bloom this year,
nothing to put up for the cold months.
Now his dog’s ribs poke through
patchy fur. He’s my amigo too.
II A Game of Checkers
The apple crate he sat on, like some rickety,
well, apple crate, barely held in the fruit it shipped.
A smiling fruit still peeps out the side
like some guide to its mundane past. The window
shed a faint light, making ol’ Mike look sallow,
jaundiced, really. Like always, he smelled of pigs,
pungent; the liquid shit seeps into the skin.
The air stirred some stray straw, and the sun
made weird shapes off the froze puddles of
horse piss in the dirt street. The wood-fed
stove sang a sigh and Pauline
behind the counter moved her girth
a few feet and stirred a jug
of water to keep it thawed. We tried
to keep our cussing down, the dirty
words familiar to her ears,
but hell, there’s propriety even here.
It’d been a year since she brushed her hair
And it matted like wet hay under her bonnet.
“My nerves is bad,” she’d say, “My teeth
hurt. You’ns kin stay if’n you ‘unt to,
but keep it down and don’t skeer custm’rs
away. I wudn’t want them thinkin’ they kin
hang ‘round here too. You never know what people’re thinkin’.”
I think we’re in a rat rap,
and I ache into my bones.
when Pearl ran this enterprise
“When she was alive, she had nothing in her head
that old Scott Joplin Rag—
What shall the gents dance to now?
What shall they dance to now?
She’d rush out and walk the streets
with her braid swinging and slapping
shall we do?
in hot water, then?
And if it rained, then at four
she’d close the door and interrupt
game of checkers,
pressing her ass against our laps until a knock at the door—“
When Lily’s man came back
from pushing the Injuns farther west
with the cavalry, I says
GIDDYAP—THERE AIN’T NO TIME!
And you, my dear, should tart it up a bit—
or he’ll find some saloon girl for sure—
you’ve got a nice enough rack
to pull it off and still look a bit
respectable. That’s all these boys want, a good time,
and who better to give it them than us?
Town girls in gingham gowns still have some
fight left; we’re old mares, maybe, but far from sway-backed—
GIDDYAP—THERE AIN’T NO TIME!
We ain’t antiques yet, are we girls, maybe
a little extra padding here and there, but then,
the men like a girl sturdy to marry
and thin for fun, but then again, what
about when the fun runs thin? Stay
away from patent medicine pills; the drills
you go through just whelping pups is enough.
But don’t be a damn fool and let them get away
with much—a look, a tip of the hat, but not a touch
of more than a brush of lace as a shady lady
GIDDYAP—THERE AIN’T NO TIME!
Treat them to a hot steak dinner and they’re yours,
wandering eyes or no; a hot dinner goes a long—
GIDDYAP—THERE AIN’T NO TIME!
GIDDYAP—THERE AIN’T NO TIME!
Goodnight Billie, Goodnight Lou-Ann, Goodnight Mae. Goodnight,
See-ya! Goodnight. Goodnight
Goodnight ladies, Goodnight, sweet ol’ gals, Goodnight.
III Prairie Fire
The stock pond’s bank is busted; hedgeapples bob
in the sudden crick. The wind blows ripples
on that, even. The midges have departed
and the skeeters flit above. Sweet light don’t
change the hell of it, the thirsty
cows lowing as they try to drink the mud
and get rocks and twine, trash and the ratty
carcass of a possum. And I’ll admit
I cried at that—for the cattle and myself
and the calf who don’t play no more.
Shape of the hills notwithstanding, ain’t nothing
soft out here; nothing runs softly on the plains.
And at my back I hear
the rattle of my old, wiry bones.
A coyote lopes through the tall grass,
dragging a hank of fawn along
a ridge while I sit whittling
a willow switch. The bones of the dead bull
poke up through the hard ground
and the coyote, king of the scene,
stops when he sniffs me—carries on,
his tan body naked but better-coated
than I. But at my back I hear
a train whistle, and know the end is near
of even this godforsaken land. The noise
of Mrs. Porter’s buggy, and I think on her daughter
while I watched her in the water
and recall us both as children, singing in the choir.
A rude sparrow
And a prairie chicken wake me
A Reel Ditty
In the brown corral on a spring noon,
Eugene, the Irish fiddler
called a reel and asked
in damnable English
if we’d dance as he’d call us to;
we obliged by waltzing.
At a violent hour, when the eyes dot black
and blue, when the human organ blasts
like a throbbing, broke thumb,
I, Ty Reece, blind drunk, sobbing between two shots,
old poke with wiry legs, can see
at the violent hour, the evil strike home
and bring a ruffian down—
the bank secretary, home for coffee, clears her throat,
lights a smoke, lays out the day’s memos.
She eyeballs her washing, bloomers
sunning, and lying on her sofa, sees
her stockings, a flag to neighbor boys—and naps.
And I, Ty Reece, old poke with wrinkled brow,
perceiving through her window, looked through,
an unexpected guest. She wanted he,
the young redhead, the bank’s new clerk,
who stared boldly at her, and whose
arrogance sits on his brow like a stove pipe
hat. I could make bold a proposition,
but she, bored and warm through the window,
endeavors to undo her tresses,
which I’d thought I’d proved I had desired,
and she, flushed with the thought of him,
explored the crinoline of her dress—her vanity
gone with her defenses; her lack of knowing
me there as good as her indifference—
and I, Ty Reece, old poke, could have told ya’;
I suffered on that sofa,
and I have sat by thieves at Harry’s saloon,
and gulled among the lowest of the low,
and dreamed of one first-and-final kiss
as she gropes her way alone and watched . . .
She turns and looks a moment through the glass,
hardly aware I imagined me her love;
her brain allows at least this little caution—
“Well, now he’s done, and I’m glad I’m over
When lonely woman stoops to self-love, and
puts her hand through paces, alone,
with an auto-erotic hand,
and puts a record on the gramophone,
“The music creeps upon the gutters”
and up the street old Victoria totters.
Oh town, prairie town, I sometimes hear
the lowing hymn from the chapel
whining like windward cattle calling,
where ranchers lounge at noon, where walls
of rough timber hold
the splendor of the dusty West, the sunset gold.
The liver sweats,
the railroad tar,
the bison drift
with the whistling breeze
to and froward, clacking car-to-car
the railroad clatters,
down brownish valleys
past rabid dogs
Lizzy and Lester
beating each other
as stern as storm
a giddy yell
and briskly swelled
the peal of yells
Drums and dusty knees
highballs bore me. Richy and Coon
undid me. Ol’ Richy raised his fist
and laid me on the floor, a narrow strait.”
“My feet are sure, my gate open;
my horses gone. After the escape
I cried . . . I promised a ‘new start.’
They made me no comment. How should I repent?”
On Mange’s sand dunes
I can’t connect
Nothin’ with nothin’.
The broken fingers of dirty hands,
my pardners are humble, expecting
To cowboyin’, then I came.
Ridin’, ropin’, rollin’,
Oh lord this puckers my butt—
Oh lord this puckers—
IV Death by Six-Gun
Phineas the policeman, a fortnight dead,
forgot the cry of kids, the deep, swell
prophets of loss.
buzzard on wing
picked his bones, whiskers. As he rose, he fell
entering the dirt-devil.
oh you who took the reins and rode windward.
Consider Phineas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
V What the Thunder Said
After the lantern-light red and sweaty faces
After the fraught silence of the corral,
After the agony of the stony places
The yelping and the whooping,
Jail and saloon and tarnation
of thunder rolling over distant mesas
He who was living is now dead.
He who was living is now a-dyin’
with no patience a-tall.
Here ain’t no water but dry rock
Rock and no damn water and somebody down
The road shouting straight across the prairie
Which is grass and hill and without water
If there was water we’d stop and drink
Out here there’s space to stop and think
Drying sweat and parching sand
If only there was water in the rock!
Dry cottonmouth, we cannot spit
Here we can only stand or lie or sit
No silence from the constant wind
and dry-fartin’ thunder and no rain
only solitude and no mountains
But redfaced cowpokes who sneer and snarl
From doors of dry saloons
if there was water
and not just dust
a stock pond
or even a trickle
and not the dry grasshopper
where the brown thrush squawks in the scrub pine
But ain’t no water here.
Who is the third who rides with you?
It was always just the two of us, but
when I look up the road, white and dry,
another rides beside you,
cantering in a brown sarape, sombreroed
I do not know this man—no woman
--who is that who rides with you?
What is that sound high in the air
a keening crackle of sadness
Who is that buzzard-headed shadow circling
over endless plains, lighting on the cracked earth
ringed, flat, the horizon only
broken by the low roofs of town
They break and recircle and settle, violent, near
San Antonio, Austin, Dodge City
Laredo, El Paso
A senorita braided her long black hair real tight
and fiddled Spanish music on her strings
and bats with evil faces whirled at night
screeched, flapped their wings
and crawled head upward on a crumbling wall
And down beyond were Mission towers
tolling ancient bells that kept the hours
and voices sighing over empty cisterns and spent wells
In this desolated hole outside the mountains
in the faded moonlight the grass is burning
lighting the tumbleweeds, around the chapel
--there’s this empty chapel, only the wind’s home.
It’s got no windows, the old door swings
Dry bones burn just like wood
Only the old rooster crows
And a lightning flash—a hot gust
no chance of rain.
The Pecos was low, the limp cottonwoods
prayed for rain, the gray clouds
gathered, over the desert
The puma crouched, humped and silent
The thunder growled
Tatta: What we got?
My friend, my bloody heart
The awful daring not to surrender
to the lack of prudence to live out here,
that here, even here, we have existed
Which won’t get written on our tombstones
the wolf spider won’t remember
the sealing wax will melt with our stamps
in our empty rooms—
Blatter: I have felt the flea
leap from the floor to my ankle,
felt the flea in each cheap jail,
thinking of the flea, we think of jail
at night when rumors of corrals
revive the dreams of cattle trails
Blat-blatta: the horse reared
happily, to the hand, expert at the reins
the wind was calm, his heart could have exploded
happily, when spurred, being obedient
to controlling chaps
sat upon the saddle
roping, with the arid plains around me
How can I get the land in order
to get my handle down, to get my handle down
A swallow, a barn swallow—these pieces dashed
against my hopes—I’ll have a fit—me,
Hiram’s hired man—I have passion but no self-control
And no peace,
no peace, no peace.