Stone Telling

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The Secret of Being a Cowboy

by Catherynne M. Valente

Did I ever tell you I used to be a cowboy?
           Itís true.
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 oneís about proper shit
mythic, I guess, just the way you like it and the other one
isnít much to look at, mostly about what a horse smells like
when heís 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 youís no hurt--
itís your shadow weighs me down.

That, and your damned singing.

And Witty sheíd chuckle
like the good old girl she was,
with a cheeky spin of her barrel
sheíd whistle:

boy, just gimme a chance
Iíll knock your whole world down.

Me and Bob and Witty,
we rode town to town and sometimes we had cattle
and sometimes we didnít and thatís just how it lies.
Full-time cowboy employment is a lot like being a poet.
Itís a lot of time spent on your lonesome in the dark
and most folks donít rightly know
what it is you do
but theyíre 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 canít shoot for shit,
and they damn sure donít want to hear your poems.
Thatís 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 bookís 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 itís 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
weíre in the other poem, which is how we roll
on the glory-humping, dust-gulping, ever-loving range.
Some days you canít even get a man to spit in your beer
and some you crack open your silver gun
and thereís 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 honorís 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 youíre done with it all you donít put down roots
and Drunk Bob says: come on, son, youíve 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 Iím the only one whoís ever loved you.
That horse can go hang.

And I say: maybe Iíll get an MFA
and be King of the Underworld
in some sleepy Massachusetts town.

And all the while my honorís tossed into the pot
and by my honor I mean your honor
or else whatís 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,
weíll let you in, weíve got stalwart to spare--
but you might have to sleep on the floor.
          Me and Bob and Witty just
clop on and the gun donít soften
and the horse donít 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.

Born in the Pacific Northwest in 1979, Catherynne M. Valente is the author of over a dozen works of fiction and poetry, including Palimpsest (a finalist for the 2010 Hugo Award), the Orphanís Tales series, and the crowdfunded phenomenon The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Own Making, which won the Andre Norton Award. She also is the winner of the Tiptree Award, the Mythopoeic Award, the Rhysling Award, and the Million Writers Award. She was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award in 2007 and 2009, and the Lambda and Hugo Awards in 2010. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine with her partner, two dogs, and an enormous cat.

Read Catherynne Valente's discussion of this poem over at the Roundtable! Also in the Roundtable article, Cat and Sonya Taaffe discuss mythpunk and mythic-inspired poetry.

Audio Recording:
S. J. Tucker, singer of songs and weaver of worlds, was born and raised in the blues-soaked Mississippi River country of southeast Arkansas. She hit the road from Memphis, Tennessee in the spring of 2004, hell bent on chasing her dream of traveling the world to sing to her friends wherever she might find them, and has since happily taken up with high-octane wordsmiths like Catherynne M. Valente. S. J. loves to collaborate with Valente more than just about anyone else, and she loved recording this poem. Listen to S. J.'s music online:

Photography: Rodeo, by moominsean.