by Amy Hale Auker
I need to write a new poem about what it is like, as a woman, to cowboy for a living.
All I can come up with is how much I hate it when my toes get cold.
All I can think of is that last old cow we put on the trailer for the sale barn, about the scorpion that ran away when I rolled my bed out on the ground at Alkali Spring in August, about how I alone can catch that roan mare when she won’t let the men lay a hand on her.
All I can come up with is that I like cows and like them, I have ovulated, copulated, gestated a miracle in my body, and lactated… for months.
I think I’m qualified to be a herder of mammals.
And that is what I am. I am a herder, a custodian, a caretaker, a steward.
I am a livestock man.
I grow food.
I need to write a new poem about what is like, as a woman, to cowboy.
But there are no new poems and we’re never finished shipping cattle in the fall.
There may be new foxes in the night and new orioles in the canyon and new griefs to be born and new ways of looking at the world, and oh don’t let me become blind.
And I might become blind if you put me in your cage of expectations.
For I have a rebel heart and that rebel heart gives me the grit to stay in my saddle even after it turns sideways when the bullfight breaks and we’re in the way.
And that rebel heart says this poem… doesn’t have to rhyme.
I need the language to tell about what it is that I do,
but all I have are nouns:
weather and wind and wool
and rock and rattle and remuda.
Smoke and sweat and sunrise and savvy.
Tracks and tinajas and trails and tally.
Cow and count and coffee and canyon,
logistics and latigos and loops.
Moonshadow and mother and manure
and moisture in the air.
Hooves and javelin and how sharp is your pocket knife?
I need the words to tell this story but all I have are verbs:
pee in the dirt
and dally up and build again
and don’t cry when you get yelled at.
Back off that little heifer and ride up! Don’t let that bull bluff you out. We’ll never get him again.
Thaw the frozen coffee pot.
Blink the smoke out of your eyes.
Wipe the blood off your chin.
Dig the snowballs out of your horse’s hooves.
Hurry up and get the gate; there’s a storm moving in.
Open a can of chili. Let’s eat before it gets plumb dark.
I need to tell about working for $75 a day, but all I can come up with is that little cow we left behind up on the mesa. We’d been gathering into the trap for four days and our first calf heifers run in the general herd and our bulls are out year ‘round…
but she didn’t bring her newborn in to hay
…and we had to go.
We cut her back with that old hooky cow’s daughter and her calf because the hooky cow’s daughter is mean, meaner than that ol’ hooky cow ever thought about being
…and no coyote or lion is going to get that baby.
But then it snowed.
And I don’t know what it is you think about in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep…
Do you think of soft tender hooves and fresh new life up under a cedar tree at 6000 feet with a mama who’s new to this gig?
I need to write a new poem about what it is like to cowboy.
Without the requisite body parts.
……Wanna see my tattoos?
© 2016, Amy Hale Auker, used with permission
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission
To fully enjoy and appreciate this poem, tune into Andy Hedges’ Cowboy Crossroads. In the most recent episode, cowboy and writer Amy Hale Auker delivers an outstanding recitation.
In the program, she also talks about the roots of her love of language; the inspiration of the writers and livestock men in her family; how she developed her writing and her daily practice; her life as a ranch wife and later as a working cowboy; and more. She speaks of her writing mentors, particularly Andy Wilkinson, who today is one of her editors.
She tells that the form of this poem—a poem that so eloquently speaks to her cowboying life on the Spider Ranch in Yavapai County, Arizona—was inspired in part by slam poetry, which she explains has similarities with cowboy poetry.
Livestock Man is also the title poem of her latest book, a poetry collection from Pen-L Publishing. The cover is from a photograph by photojournalist Jessica Lifland. Andy Hedges comments on the new release, “Amy Hale Auker combines her experience as a working cowboy with her love for language and writes verse that tears down any fences one might try to put around cowboy poetry.”
Catch Amy Hale Auker next week, August 9-11, at the Arizona Cowboy Poets Gathering.
Listen to Cowboy Crossroads at andyhedges.com/cowboy-crossroads. The popular podcast, a growing, lasting archive of engaging interviews with those involved in the working West and beyond, includes episodes with Don Edwards, Gary McMahan, Waddie Mitchell, Randy Rieman, Dom Flemons, Mike Beck, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Hal Cannon, Andy Wilkinson, Jerry Brooks, Wallace McRae, and others.
(Please respect copyright. You can share this poem with this post, but for other uses, request permission.)