Picturebook Horses

And between the shelves, framed pictures covered up the walls. The old colonel’s love of livestock showed in most of them. Here was a painting of a Thoroughbred stallion, unlike any real horse that ever lived. Yonder was a glorified version of a Durham bull pawing sand, his huge head lowered in lusty challenge.

Elmer Kelton. Hot Iron. 1956.

On the wall opposite above the sideboard was an oilpainting of horses. There were half a dozen of them breaking through a pole corral and their manes were long and blowing and their eyes wild. They’d been copied out of a book. They had the long Andalusian nose and the bones of their faces showed Barb blood. You could see the hindquarters of the foremost few, good hindquarters and heavy enough to make a cuttinghorse. As if maybe they had Steeldust in their blood. But nothing else matched and no such horse ever was that he had seen and he’d once asked his grandfather what kind of horses they were and his grandfather looked up from his plate at the painting as if he’d never seen it before and he said those are picturebook horses and went on eating.

Cormac McCarthy. All the Pretty Horses. 1992.

I’ve thought about this scene from Cormac for a long time. For one, I took a drawing class in college and since our university had a top-notch equestrian program, I was able to sketch horses of various breeds at the horsebarn. I know something about the difficulty of getting a horse’s proportions correct. Another, my mother worked for the American Quarterhorse Historical Museum when All the Pretty Horses was published. She read it and disliked it and eventually I read it and fell into a deep, deep Cormac rabbithole. Anyway, Mom curated an entire exhibit on the quarterhorse original sire Steeldust, and wrote a children’s book about him.

Finally, and here’s my actual point. Cormac’s observation about art and copying art from art–this mimetic impulse in humans to make something beautiful or commit atrocious acts of violence– and also separating artist from mere tradesman takes on a whole new level considering Cormac likely copied that exact observation from Elmer Kelton. It’s pretty much guaranteed that he would have read Kelton as he prepared for the Border Trilogy, and Kelton knew horses. Cormac, of course, made it new, but there’s a lot to ponder there.

Inaugural Poems

The Texas Poetry Assignment, edited by Laurence Musgrove, published a pair of my inaugural poems. Amanda Gorman rightly won a lot of praise because her poem met the moment on the Capitol steps on the international stage. I’d like to think mine do as well; the moment and me just met in a different place.

Naming Dogs

Here’s a history of my family’s dogs.

A collie named Lassie. My entire memory of her is that she lived long enough to become arthritic and was in a lot of pain. She laid in the shade of our house in a spearmint bed. When she died, my older sister cried.

I didn’t see this happen, but I later came to know that my dad had taken her into the field and shot her.

There were sundry other dogs scattered through childhood, dropped off in the country by people in town. Most did not survive well. They got into the chickens. They wandered too far into the field and were killed by coyotes.

One was a Jack Russell we named Skeeter. When she was young, she could leap onto a round bale of hay, which was at least as big as I was. She never left the yard and lived off our table scraps. Once a cat of ours had a litter of kittens, and was quickly dispatched by a barn owl. Skeeter came into milk and nursed the kittens. Damnedest thing.

A dropoff, half-blind, milk-eyed Shih-Tzu strolled up to our house at some point and knocked Skeeter up. If we named him, I don’t remember what it was. They had a batch of ugly, useless pups. He was ill-tempered and snapped at Skeeter, the pups, and just about everyone else. I was old enough at that point to be the one to take him out into the field.

The only dog my dad ever paid money for was a Border Collie we named Lass (I know). The $300 he paid the breeder seemed extravagant for our family in 1995. But she was a workdog and smart and had the kindest temperament. She would “herd” toddlers that visited by walking between them and the road, keeping them in the yard, but she could also cut cattle and pen the stupidest of all God’s creatures, our flock of turkeys that dad raised to butcher and sell every Thanksgiving. Never once did she set a tooth to one of those birds. She, the near descendant of wolves, nearer than most domesticated dogs, treated those birds more gently than I ever did.

One morning, dad walked out to check the livestock and Lass was bleeding all over the front porch, her skin laid open and the sheath of muscles along her rib cage exposed. She’d been lured out into the field that night by the yipping of coyotes, and she’d done what she was supposed to do: guard our interests. She’d managed to get away. She’d managed, somehow, to crawl up to the porch in the night, and lay there waiting for the sun to rise and dad to find her.

I’d never seen dad distraught over an animal. Even once when a cow was dying of bloat in the corral. He handled the crisis clinically. He cut a garden hose and shoved one end down the cow’s throat, hoping to reach the stomach that had trapped enough gas to cripple the cow. When that didn’t work, he marched into the house and grabbed the longest butcher knife he could find in the drawer. One must administer whatever help one is able to when an animal is on the brink of death. He kneeled beside the moaning cow, lifted the blade, and plunged it into her swollen side to relieve the pressure. It didn’t work. The next step was the .22.

But when he found Lass ripped open on the porch, he went to the coat closet, passed over the .22 which I’d seen him grab for any number of dogs, and instead picked a coat to wrap her in and rushed her to the vet. She survived for another eight or nine years.

Again, dad found her on the porch one morning unable to move in old age. He wrapped her in a coat again, and took her into the field and shot her. I didn’t see it, but eventually he told me that he’d cried for a whole day afterward.

My wife had a pair of Maltese lap dogs when we started dating 15 years ago. I wasn’t fond of either of them, but they came with the marriage, so I tolerated them. The male, Benji, died a few years ago. My wife came home and found him dead by the front door, waiting for her to get home. I made a coffin, and we buried him next to a crepe myrtle tree in our front yard. My kids cried and my wife cried off and on for three days. I did not, but I did read some words from the Book of Common Prayer as we buried him. The words did not seem to comfort my family in the moment, but reading them gave me something to do while they hugged.

His mate, Popcorn, had cancer last year, and a subsequent surgery to remove the tumor. A few days after the surgery, she was in bad shape. Barely breathing. Not eating or drinking. We took her to the emergency clinic to be “put down.” My wife and I and our three kids huddled around an examination table. The doctor explained what the process would look like. A hypodermic needle full of drugs I have no need to remember. It would take less than three seconds. We signed the paperwork. The doctor left the room to retrieve the syringe. My wife and kids cried. I did not. The doctor came back in. My wife, with a sudden resolve, said, “No, we’re not ready. We’re taking her home.”

She’s still alive 18 months later. She slept in my daughter’s bed last night.

About the time Benji died, and when my oldest son was eight–he’s eleven now– he asked for a dog of his own. We found an Australian Shepherd a few towns over, and all five of us drove over to pick him up. My son named him Blue. This is the first dog I’d ever bought. It’s my son’s, but I was going to be invested in this one.

I’d seen people squander good dogs, so my son and I took him to obedience lessons and trained him to walk beside us; allow us to walk through gates ahead of him; and we worked on fetch. The trainer said that Blue had clearly developed a bond with my son, and other than a fear he had of grown men, he is a sweet dog and has continued to be. This dog is also a common point between my son and me, a friend we could train together.

Life progresses though. My son developed other interests, and I went back to teaching, so I’m only home at the bookends of the day. We don’t play with Blue like we used to, but he’s always eager to play, sitting at the fence when we pull up; although, lately he’s been digging out and roaming.

Until yesterday when my son texted me as I was driving home from work. “There’s something wrong with Blue. We’re taking him to the vet.” The doctor didn’t offer much of a diagnosis; just a dose of antibiotics.

We let him sleep inside. When we got up this morning, he was dead.

The kids and my wife cried in the utility room. I read some words that were of no immediate comfort. I went to work before the sun rose.

I’m about to leave work now, and the sun will be setting and it will be 33 degrees with wind close to 40 mph when I get home.

I have to dig a God-damned grave.

I didn’t finish teaching Blue to fetch. He digs out because I never permanently fixed the fence. My son and I abandoned our own bonding over training this dog.

My wife and family know how to feel these things and offer comfort and weep. I’ve been mulling over sentences and verb tenses, constructing ways in which I’m supposed to feel. Maybe if I can say it clearly, I’ll know the emotion to perform, like stage direction in a play.

I have to buy a new shovel on the way home.

Poetry Reading Recording

On November 4, I had the honor of performing a few poems at the request of my alma mater, West Texas A&M University. It clocks in at an hour and six minutes, which is a lot. So here are some of the highlights.

  1. 5:40 – Introduction and Greetings
  2. 7:10 – The Local Imagination
  3. 8:40 – Hard Wood Rima (Palo Duro)
  4. 13:20 – Some Valley Cheese
  5. 21:24 – Ulysses Arrives in Amarillo
  6. 55:00 – Q&A

One Evil That Concerns Literature

There is one evil that concerns literature which should never be passed over in silence but be continually publicly attacked, and that is corruption of the language, for writers cannot invent their own language and are dependent upon the language they inherit so that, if it be corrupt, they must be corrupted. But the critic who concerns himself with this evil must attack it at its source, which is not in works of literature but in the misuse of language by the man-in-the-street, journalists, politicians, etc. Furthermore, he must be able to practice what he preaches.

W.H. Auden. The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays. Vintage International, 1988. P. 11.

The Beauty of the Weapons

Occasionally, I come across poems that have similar themes. I like to keep a record of them, or respond to them as if I were part of their conversation.

Fleet Visit

The sailors come ashore
Out of their hollow ships,
Mild-looking middle-class boys
Who read the comic strips;
One baseball game is more
To them than fifty Troys.

They look a bit lost, set down
In this unamerican place
Where natives pass with laws
And futures of their own;
They are not here because
But only just-in-case.

The whore and the ne’er-do-well
Who pester them with junk
In their grubby ways at least
Are serving the Social Beast;
They neither make nor sell–
No wonder they are drunk.

But their ships on the vehement blue
Of this harbor actually gain
From having nothing to do;
Without a human will
To tell them whom to kill
Their structures are humane

And, far from looking lost,
Look as if they were meant
To be pure abstract design
By some master of pattern and line,
Certainly worth every cent
Of the billions they must have cost.

W.H. Auden, 1951

The Beauty of the Weapons
El-Arish, 1967

A long-armed man can
carry the nine-millimeter
automatic gun slung
backward over the right shoulder.

With the truncated butt
caught in the cocked
elbow, the trigger
falls exactly to hand.

These things I remember,
and a fuel-pump gasket cut
from one of the innumerable
gas masks in the roadside dump.

I bring back manuscript picked
up around incinerated trucks
and notes tacked next
to automatic track controls.

Fruits of the excavation.
This is our archaeology.
A dig in the debris
of a civilization six weeks old.

The paper is crisp and brittle
with the dry rock and the weather.
The Arabic is brittle
with the students’ first exposure

to air-war technology and speed.
Ridiculous to say so, but
the thought occurs,
that Descartes would be pleased:

the calculus is the language
of the latest Palestinian
in the field of theology.

The satisfying feel
of the fast traverse
on the anti-aircraft guns
is not in the notes.

It lies latent and cool
in the steel, like the intricate
incarnate in the radar:

the antennae folded and rolled
like a soldier’s tent,
sweeping the empty
sky and the barren horizon,

the azimuth and the elevation,
sweeping the empty air
into naked abstraction,
leading the guns.

The signal is swirled until it
flies over the lip like
white, weightless
wine from a canteen cup.

Invisibly, the mechanism sings.
It sings. It sings like a six-ton flute:
east, west, always the same
note stuck in the rivetless throat.

And yet, a song as intricate
as any composition by Varese,
and seeming, for the moment, still
more beautiful, because,

to us, more deadly.
Therefore purer, more
private, more familiar,
more readily feared, or desired:

a dark beauty with a steel sheen,
caught in the cocked
mind’s eye and brought
down with an extension of the hand.

Robert Bringhurst, 1967

In Defense of the Writer In Residence

Chera Hammons. Photo Credit: Daniel Miller

West Texas A&M University employs a writer in residence. As a WT alum, this is a source of pride when I speak about my education, but admittedly, I’m a little wistful. This position didn’t exist when I was a student there. I wish it had. Despite studying great works of literature by writers from all ages and all over the world; despite pursuing a course of study focused on writing, there wasn’t anybody from our area with whom I could have had a conversation. There were simply writers I read who lived elsewhere or in some other time. As one writer I know said as he expressed his frustration with this area: “Writers around here either languish or leave.”

Currently, the office of writer in residence is ably filled by Chera Hammons, award-winning poet, novelist, educator, and advocate for our area in the larger literary world. Recently, that position has been under scrutiny from a new administration who has to make tough budget decisions. This has me wondering about the value this position holds.

WT was founded in 1910 to train and supply teachers for the burgeoning Panhandle population. In the subsequent century, WT has increased the local human resource by training young people to specifically address the needs of our area in business, agriculture, engineering, nursing, and technology. WT also has the Sybil B. Harrington College of Fine Arts producing, among other things, writers.

Good writers, or writers of a beneficial imagination, flourish on the same resources as writers of bad imagination. For every credentialed, large-hearted Chera, there are also a hundred online commentators producing noxious reactions. Our local university should subsidize a writer, especially of Chera’s talent, to indicate that certain types of stories should be valued above others.

Ag producers are subsidized to produce five specific crops because they feed and clothe the world. One-fifth of these crops produced in America are grown in our High Plains region. The subsidies provide stability for producers to weather fluctuating markets and fickle circumstances. Surely, we believe our stories, our view of the world, would also benefit the imagination of America. The Texas Panhandle could produce a Twain, a Dickinson, and a Hawthorne if they had the margin to write without being harried by the market. Subsidizing a single writer to produce, as well as supplement the instruction of a team of professors, is a minimal investment that has far-reaching benefits for our region, and ultimately the university who made the investment.

If you’re interested in writing on Chera’s behalf, you can email Dr. Neil Terry (Provost of WTAMU), or Jessica Mallard (Dean of the Humanities).