Behind the barn and horses
grazing evening time, beyond
our chorus line of sycamores
locking hands gleefully,
young mothers pepper green,
return home to fresh feed
with branded calves—slope bare
for years without rain.
Breathing deeply, we inhale
all before our eyes—
herd and family without
the scattering sort of bulls,
they glean the sweetest first
up the mountain gradually.
We want to freeze the feeling
in a photograph forever,
knowing we cannot.
Everyone’s got a job on the ground,
in the smoke, in the canyon, dancing
in the branding pen—syringes, taggers,
knives and irons—stepping ‘round
fat calves stretched one after another
before finding their mothers waiting
at the gate for children after school.
The smart and hard-to-gather
black white-faced cow looks
a little rough in your cell phone
photo, but after twenty-two years
she knows the routine—bringing
her last year’s calf you missed
to the corrals for weaning.
for Kenny & Virginia
So hampered by the wet ground, we were only able to see a few cows and calves on the Paregien Ranch. The cows are producing lots of milk, there’s plenty of grass and the calves are really growing. Right now they would be handful to brand, and who knows when we’ll be able to get up the mountain to get that job done.
The clouds you ride are tissue-paper thin.
– Red Shuttleworth (“If You Had a Tail Fins Caddy”)
High on the mountain, two isolated cows surprised
graze thick fog without wet bags, act guilty found
in one another’s company before their inevitable trip
to town when we gather, the price of truancy
they seem to know or hear through my eyes
and the mist between us, or pure imagination
that blooms personified from my disappointment.
A little too content to be on vacation from maternity
and needy nurseries, the mother in me understands.
Up here, the footing is treacherous, each tentative step
measured against all the break-through, downhill
possibilities—up here the poems hang in oak trees.
Dark morning without moon or stars
before the first winter storm, the day before
Black Friday rains deals and discounts
for Christmas, for our economy and I am
ever thankful that the bulls are out early
courting cows, meeting kids and family
before dirt roads get too slick to travel—
ever thankful for the drought that felled
two big Live Oaks on the gate and fence
we corded-up and stacked beneath the eave
before the girls drove posts and spliced
the barbed wire on a mat of green
to leave the mess looking like a park—ever
thankful for them, for you and this ground
we’re invested in together, for good horses
willing to get the cow work done—
black skies without moon or stars,
you and I alone before the storm.
Sigh no more, ladies.
Time is male
and in his cups drinks to the fair.
– Adrienne Rich (“Sanpshots of a Daughter-in-Law”)
The women here wear leaves,
offer shade and dance in place
of plans to clear the unimproved—
or they bear children, populate
with coyote pups that learn
to clean the plates of men
girls fill with grass, raising
cows for heifer calves—
women teaching women.
The hawks are nesting, almost
everything on the wind
is a feminine production—
no passing fad for a buck.
I’ll raise my glass, bet
our future on the women.
Rare harmony, the grays and greens
spill off the hills like stringed music
in the gloaming, naked oaks in granite,
cows and calves bent to new grass
step slowly mowing earth and rain
at work in the bright of day and night.
Like sea tides rising, each blade eager
twists towards the moon in cool darkness,
drawn to listen to heaven’s basic chords.
A wild sound is playing now outside
while waiting for a cloud, for the strum
of winter storms to prolong the song.
I turn away, blinded by November’s
first light, Redbud hearts enflamed
with last season’s feed on green
burning yellows between dark shadows
with the news, with disbelief.
I retreat to calm counsel with cattle:
scattered pairs, calves fresh with life
finding legs to fly—buck and run
figure-eights without direction always
circling back, showing off for mom.
We will work the heifers anyway—
give them everything we can
to make them attractive to Wagyu,
their first bulls. And we will wait,
as we always do, for rainy days.
Heading into winter, black cows yet fat
sucking calves—damp, thick-piled green after rain—
everyone is clean and shiny off the hill, parading
to water early to laze in the shade. Pages
of poetry shuffle across a desk messy with business,
an untitled collection scattered and spread,
collected and clipped faraway in my head
from our family of cows, from short remarks:
our song of words and phrases overflowing
with the water troughs at Windmill Spring,
spilling too spontaneously to require editing.
We needed to collaborate, to escape the loud
and demanding devils too close to home.
In this place, we are blessed with native eyes
and forgotten tongues—where we can relate
long poems in the luxury of untamed silence.
February 12, 2015
A black and white macro of weathered wood,
corrals and hills beyond, old guitar song
and chiseled men follow smoke to the ridgeline
and back to the fire and branding iron. A ringing
cell phone colors riders, a black calf stretched
between two sorrels—blue denim action
of men and women, old neighbors dancing,
each genuflecting to a moment on the ground.
“We’re branding calves,” a limp loop
answers from the corner, looking down
canyon past hazy orchards, somewhere town
as if he could see the caller, the papered desk,
stretch the thirty miles. A guy with a drone
reports, “We got ’em all.” Empty white tables
and chair legs licked by green tongues wait
with meat, bread and beans on an oak fire, ice chest
beer below a towel, soap and water, plastic glasses
and fresh jug of whiskey ready on a tailgate.
Close again, the chatter of visiting face to face,
gossip, stories and mysteries unveiled, fading
with cows with calves strung up the canyon home.