See our e-interview with David Romtvedt
Poems from Powder River Breaks including the cowboy replies to William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, and Walt Whitman
Author page at barnesandnoble.com
from Powder River Breaks: A Cowboy's Introduction to American Poetry
by David Romtvedt
Author's Preface88888I am the author of this book and I thought it would be a good idea if I was to explain how I come to write these poems and such. It is a long winter here in northern Wyoming–folks joke and say we got ten months of winter and two months of furious road repair. Or as my neighbor puts it, "We got but two seasons–winter and summer, well, there's fall and spring too but they's just winter by other names." Also, there is only so much checkers a person can win or lose at and only so much coffee that same person can drink or pour down the drain. I tried whisky but can only do that so much, too. The sun goes down early and comes up late and some days it's about as dark at noon as at night what with the burrowing snow clouds building up and the sun mysteriously absent there in the gray. Then it starts in to snowing and the wind can blow pretty hard so that you would be a damned fool I tell you, to go out and work in all that. This leads to many evenings and some afternoons holed up there, maybe in a big fancy house, maybe in a little cabin, or even in a sheepwagon. You're holed up all the same so you better get something to do.
88888 Once back in the 1920's–this being way before I was born but I heard about it–we had a big flood here along Powder River, like as if a dam had busted open and down come the water ripping through everything in its path. Only there weren't no dam, only the water which carried everything off. An awful lot of cows got picked up and spun downstream and the water rose up so high especially as it buckled to go around corners where the cutbanks pushed up against the watercourse that when the flood waters went down, there was the cows—hunderds of ‘em—hung up in the topmost branches of the cottonwood trees. All them cows bloated up so's their eyes were about popping out of their heads. And the vultures didn't even have to swoop down to the ground—just leaned out of their nests there and taken a chunk out of one of those cows.
88888 It was a strange and memorable thing. Yes, sir, you wasn't about to forget it. But you can only look so long at such a phenomenon of nature and, if there ain't no new people to tell the story to, you get kinda tired telling it to yourself.
88888So that's one thing–being alone it just came to me natural like to write down some stories about winter here along the Breaks and such. But what, you might ask, would I write about–snowstorms and lost sheep? Cows too big to give birth without that we haul the calf out with a block and tackle and a chain, batteries dead in pickups, and water wells gone dry? Plenty of other fellas picked up a pen to tell those things and maybe they was better than me at telling it. So for a long time I didn't write nothing at all.
88888Then one night I was poking around in the old man's stuff he left behind when he died in a summer lightning storm. He got hit and laid out there three days dead before anyone found him His one shoe was laying thirty feet away from him like he'd took it off to dump a rock out then jumped all that ways away when he got struck. Both his hands was burnt bad and looked like black stumps. No sir, it weren't a pretty sight, it being July and him suffering some damage being out there alone like that in the heat.
88888So I was going through his stuff one night the next winter when it was particular cold and I come across a big old thick book like you might have had told to you to read in school. Only of course, you didn't do no reading at all cause you was trying to get a look at Betsy Dorlap's thighs when she crossed her legs there in her desk. Or maybe you was busy watching the teacher–that year it was Miss Berthold–when she leaned over and you could see a little bit of round something, that nice curve down the front of her dress. Seemed like a big deal then, maybe bigger than now but don't get me wrong, I still like to get a look at a good looking gal. I just don't make such a fuss about it. Maybe not so desperate like. Don't ask me why.
88888The book the Old Man had saved was called The Mirror and the Flame: An Introductory Guide to American Poetry. The Old Man musta saved it for some reason and I wondered what it might be. A course, I might be making more to it than there was, kind ofa mystery to fill the time like. I mean the Old Man might have saved it for nothing more than a doorstop–it was a thick old heavy volume and would keep a door open in a good stiffwind. Even more likely was that the Old Man just plumb forgot he had the thing. Cause it's true he never talked to me none about poetry, American or otherwise. I gotta admit that he never talked to me at all. Still, I never heard him say boo about poetry to anyone else either. I wouldna bet that he could tell you what poetry was. I guess I only know cause I had to read it in high school. I do remember I failed the poetry section in Junior year. Most everybody did. The Old Man didn't even get to high school, dropping out in the seventh grade to work in a coal mine until his daddy died and left him the ranch.
88888I picked up the book and being as how I was alone and had read every catalogue in the place including learning a lot more than I needed to know about foundation garments and barbecue grills and I had about memorized several issues of Wyoming Woolgrower, well, that made it seem worth it to begin to read The Mirror and the Flame and get some notion about American poetry.
88888Well, without going on too much about the power of art and such, I want to say just that that book changed a lot for me, changed my life you might say and I wanted to explain that cause I know a lot of folks don't put too much weight on such as that. I know I sure didn't. It never bothered me that somebody else might read poetry. It just didn't mean nothing to me and as far as I can see it don't mean much to most folks. They plain don't care one way or the other what happens with poems. Well, why should they if the damn poem got nothing to do with nothing ever happened to them. But that's another topic there and not mine. The truth is that if you know how to be a poet and you can fix fence, then there might be a job for you on a ranch. I still know that. But I changed my mind some about poems and such after reading that book and I found something I wanted to write about.
88888This here is it then–kind of my own guide or introduction or preface, I think you might call it, to the poetry of this great nation–the United States of America You don't have to believe everything I say or like it even and I'm not going to apologize for that, just say that you take what you can use and throw the rest out. That's something I learned reading the book and it works pretty good for all of life. Ok, sometimes when I was writing I got to trying to sound like the writers I' been reading. But I kinda lost my interest sometimes too I guess and just ended up sounding like my own self and I guess there's no way to help that. Anyway, if you're reading this, that is, if you're what they call the reader, that's the one who's having to do all the thinking about what's happening, I guess the most important thing is to figure out who's really talking when some words come out of some invented person's mouth. I mean sometimes a writer's talking and it's not exactly him doing the talking and maybe he don't even agree with the someone who's doing all this talking through him That's his character and characters sometimes suddenly get up there on the page and find they can have a little life of their own, like they was real people as mean or as sweet as you and me. You oughta know that.
88888In the book, there was a poem by a person name of Eleanor Wilner. (Editor's note: see the review of Wilner's work in our Spring Issue.) The poem she wrote was called "The Muse." The Muse is that goddess from ancient Greece who as far as I can get it gives the words to the writer, like the way God give the words of the Bible to them that copied it down. , Well, Eleanor Wilner starts out saying about the Muse, "There she was, for centuries, the big broad with the luscious tits." That kinda shocked me not so much for the fact that a lady poet would say tits but for the fact of it being in a poem I know I faiiled the poetry section in Junior English but one thing I was taught and remembered fail or not is that poetry has got a kind of a high toned way about it, it was about our better selves and how we was gonna get to that better place, they told us and all. Elevate us, you know. Well, Miss Wilner put the lie to that one and so did a good many of those poets in the book. They told something about a good lot of our lower aspirations. I liked that.
88888But Miss Wilner—she goes on to say how the Muse couldn't possibly be that skinny and have those big tits. What she says more exact is "why such a wraith should be so ample." That's a murky way to put it but if you think for a second you can figure it out. And it's real beautiful and on top of that she makes a point about how each one of us has got to figure out really who is the muse for us.
88888 I like Wilner's idea about amplitude as much as the next fellow but I'm not sure if I think that the messages I receive ought to be coming from the Muse. You might think I'm just discriminating and all, something like the way blond jokes work—like we all know that a blond has got to be a dummy and maybe that's right, maybe those luscious tits got nothing to say about the power of the muse's mind and heart. Well, that's true, still I don't know. The Muse could be anything if you ask me, could be a skinny old crone barely can get up each day without groaning in pain and her old tits is tired and lay there flopped on her chest like a couple of pancakes sewn on at the top. Could be that beauty queen like Wilner says with the perfect body, could be some animal a deer or elk, say, could be just the sky itself, the big blue sky hovering there above us. Or what if the Muse is a dead person you think of all the time, or a machine. You ask some of my neighbors, the Muse might be a big green John Deere tractor, brand new with a air conditioned cab and a radio.
88888 I guess I got myself a little sidetracked here but there was one other poem I come across. It was after I found The Mirror and the Flame. I was up to Sheridan for a brand registration problem I had to sort out and I saw a little used bookstore—I never seen it before though now I'd guess it musta been there all along. I felt a little nervous but I walked right on in, even took my hat off there with all them books. I went over to the poetry section and pulled the first book I saw offa the shelf—it was British Romantics is what the title said. There was a poet name of John Keats and his poem which was "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer." It was about the Greek poet Homer and how he wrote these famous books that all educated gentlemen in Keats' day would read. Only Keats never did cause he didn't know no Greek. Him and a lot of other folks I'd bet. I sure don't know no Creek. Then this fella Chapman translated those old Greek poems into English that was Chapman's Homer, and Keats could read that English. Well, John Keats felt like some great big old curtain had been lifted up and suddenly he could see, everything there was there in Keats. It was like a door opening to another world, and wham, you just can't believe you never saw any of it before. I felt that way too. That's my real introduction so you can see that this counts for something for me, and I think it can count for something for other folks too and that's why I tried to write this.