Bill Jones: Three poems

billjonesloc.jpgBill Jones at the Library of Congress, 2018

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POEMS

Answered Prayer
Roundup at the Bar B Bar
Fixation

 

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ANSWERED PRAYER
by Bill Jones

Jake, the rancher, went one day to fix a distant fence.
The wind was cold and gusty and the clouds rolled gray and dense.
As he pounded the last staple and gathered tools to go,
The temperature had fallen and the snow began to blow.
When he finally reached his pickup, he felt a heaviness of heart,
From the sound that the ignition made he knew it wouldn’t start.

So Jake did what most of us would do if we’d have been there
He humbly bowed his balding head and sent aloft a prayer.
As he turned the key for the last time he softly cursed his luck,
They found him three days later, froze, in the cab of that old truck.

Jake had been around in his younger days and done his share of roamin’
But when he seen Heaven, he was shocked—Hell, it look just like Wyomin’.
Oh, they was some differences of course, but just some minor things,
One place had simply disappeared—the town they called Rock Springs.

The BLM had been shut down, and there weren’t no grazin’ fees,
And the wind in Rawlins and Cheyenne was now a gentle breeze.
All them Park and Forest Service folks—they didn’t fare so well,
They’d all been sent to fight some fire, in a wilderness in Hell.

Though Heaven was a real nice place, Jake had no peace of mind,
So he saddled up and lit a shuck, not known what he’d find.
Then one day up in Cody, one October afternoon,
He seen St. Peter at the bar of the Old Proud Cut Saloon.
Of all the saints Jake knew in Heaven, his favorite was Peter,
(This line ain’t really necessary but it makes good rhyme and meter.

So they shared a frosty mug or two, or maybe it was three,
Nobody there was keepin’ score—in Heaven beer is free.
“I’ve always heard,” Jake said to Pete, “that God will answer prayer,
But the one time that I asked for help, well, He jest plain wasn’t there.
Does God answer prayers of some and ignore the prayers of others?
That don’t seem exactly square, I know all men are brothers.
Or does He reply randomly, without good rhyme or reason?
Maybe it’s the time of day, the weather or the season?
I ain’t tryin’ to act smart, it’s juset the way I feel,
And I was wonderin’, could you tell, Pete, what the heck’s the deal?

Pete listened very patiently and when ol’ Jake was done,
There was a smile of recognition and he said, “Oh, you’re the one.
That day your truck it wouldn’t start, and you sent your prayer adrift,
You caught us at a real bad time—the end of the day shift.
And 10,000 Angels rushed to check the status of your file,
But you know, Jake, we hadn’t heard from you in more than jest awhile.
And though all prayers are answered—God ain’t got no quota—
He didn’t recognize your voice, and cranked some guy’s a truck in North Dakota!”

© Bill Jones, from There Ain’t Much Romance in the Life of us Cows, 1989
This poem should not be reprinted or reposted without permission

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ROUNDUP AT THE BAR B BAR
by Bill Jones

Every year about this time
I get a welcome call
It’s Ol’ Dick, my rancher friend
“Would you help us out this fall?”

His place is just outside of town
From home it ain’t that far
I always like to lend a hand
Down at the Bar B Bar

The wages they are kinda low
To tell the truth there’s none
Except a real good home cooked meal
And a “thank you” when you’re done

This fall Ol’ Dick was troubled
He’s short about nine pair
They could be strayed or rustled
Or layin’ dead somewhere

Now to a small time rancher
Nine pair ain’t quite forgot
Your guts they burn with worry
And your banker calls a lot

To Dick there might be somethin’ worse
Than not gettin’ them cows back
But the only thing that comes to mind
Is a fatal heat attack

We rode up the mountain
And crossed the sagebrush flat
‘A tryin’ to solve the mystery
Of where them cows was at

We spent two weeks on horseback
And searched out every draw
But much to Dick’s misfortune
Them cows we never saw

Dick talked to all his neighbors
And called some on the phone
The whole deal started lookin’ like
A plot from the “Twilight Zone”

Saddlin up one mornin’
To go out once again
Ol’ Dick he was real quiet
And wore a big strange grin

“Bill,” he finally blurted out
“No use you bein’ here
I checked my books real close last night
And I sold them cows last year”

© Bill Jones, from There Ain’t Much Romance in the Life of us Cows, 1989
This poem should not be reprinted or reposted without permission

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FIXATION
by Bill Jones

The fiery crash growls
Low and evil sounds
Rattle the earth
A fighter plane
Follows tracer round
Into a red hillside.

Later, a pilot tells what happens
“You get tunnel vision, ” he says
“Become obsessed with the target
Forget to pull up.”
We sit silent
In sandbagged reflection
Chavez makes the sign of the cross
“At least,” he says
“He has on dry sox.”

It is an omen
Dark and subtle
Of our own Nam madness
Mission successful—target destroyed
But in the end
We kill ourselves.

© 1993, Bill Jones, included in Blood Trails; this version from The Body Burning Detail
This poem should not be reprinted or reposted without permission

 

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Chances are you’ve seen a version of “Answered Prayer” with “author unknown.” It has been printed in many places and recorded. Bill Jones comments, “‘Answered Prayer’ is based on an old joke I heard as a kid. I put its story line along with the rancher Jake…Bill Clinton used the story in a speech years ago—my version.”

Bill Jones has several books of his humorous poetry and prose (including The Pretzel Hold, The Dude from Hell, and There Ain’t Much Romance in the Life of us Cows). Some of his long-running Lander Wyoming State Journal columns are also found in the books.

Many will know another side of Bill Jones’ writing and poetry, which draws on his combat experience as a Marine in Vietnam. Blood Trails, with his poetry and that of the late Rod McQueary, was a groundbreaking book, bravely published in 1993 by John Dofflemeyer of Dry Crik Press. At the time, there was some controversy about the inclusion of such poems (and most were in free verse) in the world of cowboy poetry. The book has withstood the test of time.

Find one of Rod McQueary’s poems from the book at cowboypoetry.com. Read more at Dry Crik Journal,  where Blood Trails remains available from Dry Crik Press.

Earlier this year, McFarland & Company published Bill Jones’ book, The Body Burning Detail; a memoir of a Marine Artilleryman in Vietnam. His talents are on impressive display, with prose and poetry that is close to the bone, unforgettable work that is by turns disturbing, irreverent, diverting and insightful. John Dofflemyer characterizes it as “real, honest and profane.” Fellow veteran, writer, poet and filmmaker Ken Rodgers of Bravo! the Project calls it “incisive and illuminative writing.

Colorado poet, writer, and rancher Vess Quinlan first put Bill Jones and Rod McQueary together, after each had sent him one of their Vietnam poems. Times change and veterans’ issues are embraced today. Vess and Bill, with others, continue to offer workshops to veterans during the Western Folklife Center’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Recently Vess Quinlan commented that for him, the veterans workshops are the most valuable thing to have come out of the gathering.

Last year, Vess and Bill, along with Patrick Sullivan and others, took part in presentations at the The Library of Congress, lending their talents to a program recognizing the anniversary of WWI, through the Library of Congress American Folklife Center’s  Veterans History Project. The mission of the Veterans History Project is “…to collect, preserve, and make accessible the personal accounts of American wartime veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and understand the realities of War.”

This November, they, along with Jerry Brooks and others, will participate in an “occupational poetry” program from the American Folklife Center.

(Please respect copyright. You can share these poems and photos with this post, but for other uses, request permission.)

 

THE OLD HANDS, by Vess Quinlan

vessquinlanphoto by P’let Tcherkassky

 

THE OLD HANDS
by Vess Quinlan

It’s good to set and listen
to their talk of long ago,
these men with skin like leather
and hair as white as snow,

to hear how the world was run
a little different then,
produced a tougher breed of cattle
and a rougher sort of men.

The cows were lean and ringy
and working ’em was hard;
you could melt a hundred head
and not get a pound of lard.

There were damn few gentle horses
like we’re used to now;
it don’t take much to figger horses
had to match with man and cow.

A horse was five or six years old
before they’d run him in;
the idea of starting colts
was considered wrong back then.

Their days were long and lonesome
and the camps were far away;
they got to town about once a month
to spend the hard earned pay.

But the thing you hear most often
is the whole damn deal was fun,
in spite of winter’s biting cold
and summer’s scorching sun,

In spite of rank and spoiled horses,
or maybe ’cause of them.
You wonder if you’d have made a hand
had you lived back then.

You say you wish the old days
would come rolling back around
to see who could stay the camp
and who’d go back to town.

A grey head shakes, “No son,” he says,
“Not that, leastways not to the letter.
We done some things the way we did
’cause we just didn’t know no better.”

© 1990, Vess Quinlan, from The Trouble with Dreams
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission

Colorado rancher, writer, storyteller, and poet Vess Quinlan has been described, “Vess Quinlan is an American Cowboy Poet, who is widely considered to be one of the most respected poets of his genre.” There is no argument with that.

Find more poetry by Vess Quinlan in our feature here.

In July 2019, Andy Hedges’ Cowboy Crossroads podcast aired an outstanding interview with Vess Quinlan. It is filled with thoughtful insights about work, cowboys, poetry, and people in general. You’ll hear about his family’s and his own history and learn something about his perseverance and the wisdom he’s gathered. Listen to the episode here.

Find Vess Quinlan’s recitation of his poem, “The Barn Cats” and find more video at the Western Folklife Center’s YouTube channel. Vess Quinlan has been a part of all but two of the Western Folklife Center’s National Cowboy Poetry Gatherings.

The above photo of Vess Quinlan is by artist and friend-to-many Californian P’let Tcherkassky, taken at the Arizona Cowboy Poets Gathering. Find more about her at paulettespalette.net.

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(Please respect copyright. You can share this poem and photograph with this post, but for other uses, request permission.)

Vess Quinlan: Three Poems

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photo © 1993,  Kent Reeves; request permission for reproduction; find more below

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POEMS

The Old Hands
Mamma’s Cowboy
The Soul of a Cowman

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THE OLD HANDS
by Vess Quinlan

It’s good to set and listen
to their talk of long ago,
these men with skin like leather
and hair as white as snow,

to hear how the world was run
a little different then,
produced a tougher breed of cattle
and a rougher sort of men.

The cows were lean and ringy
and working ’em was hard;
you could melt a hundred head
and not get a pound of lard.

There were damn few gentle horses
like we’re used to now;
it don’t take much to figger horses
had to match with man and cow.

A horse was five or six years old
before they’d run him in;
the idea of starting colts
was considered wrong back then.

Their days were long and lonesome
and the camps were far away;
they got to town about once a month
to spend the hard earned pay.

But the thing you hear most often
is the whole damn deal was fun,
in spite of winter’s biting cold
and summer’s scorching sun,

In spite of rank and spoiled horses,
or maybe ’cause of them.
You wonder if you’d have made a hand
had you lived back then.

You say you wish the old days
would come rolling back around
to see who could stay the camp
and who’d go back to town.

A grey head shakes, “No son,” he says,
“Not that, leastways not to the letter.
We done some things the way we did
’cause we just didn’t know no better.”

© 1990, Vess Quinlan, from The Trouble with Dreams
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission

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MAMMA’S COWBOY

It’s been over fifty years
and mamma blushes like a teen,
red as a desert sunset,
when one of her brothers says,
remember the time Bearcat Bearden
fell in love with Marjorie,
hung around the telephone office
all winter just to walk her home.

I am a son amazed,
not to learn that mamma
had a boyfriend before dad
but at the idea of old Bearcat,
who would saddle a horse
to ride to the outhouse,
walking her home.

© 1990, Vess Quinlan, from The Trouble with Dreams
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission

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THE SOUL OF A COWMAN

When we had enough of shopping,
grew tired of “Don’t touch that,”
“Behave yourself” and “Come back here”
little guy and I escaped, set off afoot
down a handsome tree lined street,
the best town offers with great white homes
and yards penned in by wrought iron.
Little guy took in the plenty grass,
and said, “Grandpaw where are all the horses?”
I swelled with pride to know that genes ran true
and the soul of a cowman was in that child;
barely two he damn sure knew what grass was for.
Then thoughts of pure clean genes running true
vanished in an old man’s grin of understanding.
Raised water short on our desert outfit,
the poor little buckeroo had never seen a lawn.

© 1990, Vess Quinlan, from The Trouble with Dreams
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission

vessquinlanphoto by P’let Tcherkassky

Colorado rancher, writer, storyteller, and poet Vess Quinlan has been described, “Vess Quinlan is an American Cowboy Poet, who is widely considered to be one of the most respected poets of his genre.” There is no argument with that.

In July 2019, Andy Hedges’ Cowboy Crossroads podcast aired an outstanding interview with Vess Quinlan. It is filled with thoughtful insights about work, cowboys, poetry, and people in general. You’ll hear about his family’s and his own history and learn something about his perseverance and the wisdom he’s gathered. Listen to the episode here.

Find Vess Quinlan’s recitation of his poem, “The Barn Cats” and find more video at the Western Folklife Center’s YouTube channel. Vess Quinlan has been a part of all but two of the Western Folklife Center’s National Cowboy Poetry Gatherings.

This favorite photo of the book Vess Quinlan carries with him was taken at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering  by Idaho photographer and filmmaker Betty K. Rodgers (imarriedthewar.com):

Quinlan Book B&W© 2010, Betty K. Rodgers; request permission for reproduction

The color photo up top of Vess Quinlan is by artist and friend-to-many Californian P’let Tcherkassky, taken at the Arizona Cowboy Poets Gathering. Find more about her at paulettespalette.net.

The circa 1993 photograph of Vess Quinlan at the top of this page is by Kent Reeves from the landmark book Between Earth and Sky: Poets of the Cowboy West, by Anne Heath Widmark, with photographs by Kent Reeves.

Kent Reeves writes in the book’s Acknowledgments, “…I owe my work in this book to all the poets who allowed me to interrupt their lives and who took me in for a few days. I do not feel that I ‘took’ these photographs; I believe that each poet gave them to me.” In addition to Vess Quinlan, the book includes chapters with Buck Ramsey, Wallace McRae, Joel Nelson, Rod McQueary, Linda Hussa, John Dofflemyer, Shadd Piehl, Paul Zarzyski, Sue Wallis, Henry Real Bird, and Drummond Hadley.

See a gallery of photos from the book here and find more about Kent Reeves at cowboypoetry.com, at his site cowboyconservation.com, and on Facebook.

(Please respect copyright. You can share this poem and photograph with this post, but for other uses, request permission.)