Catherynne M. Valente
The Secret of Being a Cowboy
Did I ever tell you I used to be a cowboy?
Had a horse name of Drunk Bob
a six shooter
called Witty Rejoinder.
And I tell you what,
Me and Bob and Witty
we rode the fucking range.
This thing here is two poems and one’s about proper shit
mythic, I guess, just the way you like it and the other one
isn’t much to look at, mostly about what a horse smells like
when he’s been slurping up Jack and ice from the trough.
The first poem goes like this:
A few little-known facts about cowboys:
Most of us are girls.
Obsolescence does not trouble us.
We have a dental plan.
What I can tell you is cows smell like office work and
the moon looks like Friday night and the paycheck just cashed
rolling down to earth like all the coins
I ever earned.
Drunk Bob he used to say to me:
son, carrying you’s no hurt--
it’s your shadow weighs me down.
That, and your damned singing.
And Witty she’d chuckle
like the good old girl she was,
with a cheeky spin of her barrel
boy, just gimme a chance
I’ll knock your whole world down.
Me and Bob and Witty,
we rode town to town and sometimes we had cattle
and sometimes we didn’t and that’s just how it lies.
Full-time cowboy employment is a lot like being a poet.
It’s a lot of time spent on your lonesome in the dark
and most folks don’t rightly know
what it is you do
but they’re sure as shot they could manage it
just about as well as you.
Some number of sweethearts come standard with the gig,
though never too much dough.
They dig the clothes, but they can’t shoot for shit,
and they damn sure don’t want to hear your poems.
That’s all right.
I got a heart like a half bottle
of no-label whiskey.
Nothing to brag on,
but enough for you, and all your friends, too.
I quit the life
for the East Coast and a novel I never could finish.
A book’s like a cattle drive--you pound back and forth over the same
ugly patch of country until you can taste your life seeping out
like tin leeching into the beans
but it’s never really over.
Drunk Bob said:
kid, you were the worst ride I had
since Pluto said: Bob, we oughta get ourselves a girl.
And Witty whispers: six, baby, count them up and just like that
we’re in the other poem, which is how we roll
on the glory-humping, dust-gulping, ever-loving range.
Some days you can’t even get a man to spit in your beer
and some you crack open your silver gun
and there’s seeds there like blood already freezing
ready to stand tall at high midnight
ready to fire so fucking loyal, so sweet,
like every girl who ever said no
turning around at once and opening their arms.
And your honor’s out on the table, all cards hid.
And by your honor I mean my honor,
and by my honor I mean everything in me, always, forever,
everything in a body that knows
what to do with six ruby bullets
and a horse the color of two in the morning.
That knows when the West tastes like death and an old paperback
you saddle your shit and ride East,
when you’re done with it all you don’t put down roots
and Drunk Bob says: come on, son, you’ve got that book to write
and I know a desk in the dark with your name on it.
And Witty old girl she sighs: you know what you have to do.
Seeds fire and bullets grow and I’m the only one who’s ever loved you.
That horse can go hang.
And I say: maybe I’ll get an MFA
and be King of the Underworld
in some sleepy Massachusetts town.
And all the while my honor’s tossed into the pot
and by my honor I mean your honor
or else what’s this all about? Drunk Bob
never did know where this thing was going
but I guess the meat of it is how Bob is strong and I am strong
and Witty is a barrel of futures, and we are all of us
unstopping, unending, unbeginning:
we keep moving. You gotta keep moving.
Six red bullets will show the way down.
We all have to bring the cows in.
I am here to tell you
we are all of us just as mighty as planets--and you too,
we’ll let you in, we’ve got stalwart to spare--
but you might have to sleep on the floor.
Me and Bob and Witty just
clop on and the gun don’t soften
and the horse don’t bother me with questions,
all of us just heading toward the red rhyme of the sunset
and the door at the bottom of the verse.
The secret of being a cowboy is
never sticking around too long and honor
sometimes looks like a rack of bones
still standing straight up at the end of both poems.
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