Cowboy Poetry at the Blanton with Joel Nelson

Uploaded by blantonmuseumATX on 18.07.2012

>> 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
[ 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
[ Applause ]