See our e-interview with David Romtvedt

Author's Preface to Powder River Breaks

David Romtvedt

David Romtvedt
David Romtvedt David Romtvedt

Not Rushing the Dance

The kids are sleeping
and the cows and chickens are sleeping,
and the grass itself
is sleeping.
The machines are off
and the neighbor's lights,
a half mile away, are out,
and the moon is hanging like a powdered face
in a darkened room, and the snow
is shining under stars
the way we are shining here
in our cold skins
under warm quilts.
We pull our shirts over our heads
and toss them to the floor
and the only thing grotesque
is the cold which we stumble through
each night of the winter.
I roll to you and put my hand
on your skin. You shiver and smile,
"Cold. But not too cold.
Some cold I like."
And draw my hand closer.
I pull it away
and jam it in my armpit,
and while I wait for the blood
I look at you, admire your face,
your neck and breasts,
your belly and thighs,
the shadowy double of you
thrown by candlelight to the wall—

There is no season, no grass
gone brown, no cold,
and no one to say we are anything
but beautiful, swimming together
across the cold channel of night.

Fixing Fence

Nobody I know loves fixing fence,
setting creosoted posts in ground
like rock, stretching barbed wire taut
to sing in rising wind and burning sun.
In the fall when hunters come
it's worse, wind drifted snow, gates
left open and wire cut.
They would make for themselves
a straight line from kill to truck
and drag the carcasses across the ground.
Sometimes I miss these cuts and find
weeks later a band of sheep far from home.
Sometimes I find the cuts after a storm
when the trail is clear and it is cold.
Often enough it is a fence not solely
my own but one I share with a neighbor
and so I go and speak to him and we meet
on a day when the cold will freeze our feet
and hands. We wrestle with the wire
and the come-along and curse together,
grinning, saying "sonsabitches."
And then again, for pleasure, "sonsabitches."
We find a fencepost driven over
and splintered and I go to the truck
for another and we have to use a pick
and a bar for now the earth is frozen–
not rock but steel, sheet after sheet.
We put our backs into it
but it's no go and we decide
to use magic—the levitation trick,
instead of setting the post in the earth.
It works! Though it sways, it does not fall,
held upright by wire pulled tight
from the posts on either side,
floating above ground.
Sometimes we stack rocks
around such a floating post.
We drink coffee from a thermos
and say again, "Sonsabitches." In the cold
I pull off my gloves to set the fencing staples
and drive them in, to release the come-along
and start again. And my hands are so dry
the skin cracks around my fingernails
and I bleed. This happens every winter.
I put bag balm on the split skin
and wrap it tight using cotton wads
from the top of the aspirin bottle
and a strip of greasy masking tape
I found in the jockey box of the truck.
Gloves back on I complain
but it is fine enough, the bright
sun and glittering snow, my neighbor
who I like plenty well enough
and who does this work with me.
He is a smiling fat man–cattle
while I am sheep. When I say I'm sorry
about the cut fence, he looks up and says,
"Hell, don't bother me none. 'Sides, ain't
your doing, damn eastern hunters."
I'm grateful he trusts me and believes
it is the hunters and not me cutting the fence
myself to let my stock onto his range
where they can get some free feed. "What
d'ya spoze them assholes is thinking anyway?"
"I don't know." I answer, "But I can bet
not a one of ‘em ever fixed fence."
And I lean back and slam a staple
into a splintery post so cold
the creosote smell is gone.
Even in this cold I'm sweating
and I take off my hat to wipe my forehead,
feel the sweat freeze there. "Fences.
Once upon a time," my neighbor says,
"There weren't no fences in this country"
I sigh. He goes on, saying, "My granddad can tell
about it. How there was herders everywhere,
every herder with his sheepwagon and dog,
some of ‘em with a horse. You remember
that herder busted both his legs and somehow
drug hisself up on a rise then got his horse
to stand there on the low side and he slid
onto the horse that walked on into town.
Resourceful son-of-a-gun." And he hits
the post again with a hard blow of the hammer.
"Fences. Always fixing ‘em. Always
will be, Makes me think of how a big storm
comes and the wind drifts the snow
over the fence lines and the sheep
walk right up and over, walk into
the next county and on south.
It's them old time gods, don't
want no fences anyways. Knock
‘em all down if they could." Again,
the hammer blow and the smile
and I look at my neighbor and realize
for a moment that he's a friend,
hammer in hand, a few staples in his mouth
even in the cold. We work through
the short near solstice afternoon.
When the sun drops behind the rim
of the mountains, the cold comes on.
"Better go in," I say, and he says,
"I'll just get this and we'll be done here."
So we go on ten more minutes–
snowbank and shade, ice and light.
"Ok, then," he says, "looks good enough
for now. We can set that post when
the ground thaws." I look at him and ask,
"When the ground thaws?"
"Yeah." He laughs, "Next spring.
Be soon enough for me. I'll see ya then."
"Ok," I say, and "Thanks for your help."

from Singing to Myself

I listen to myself singing,
and what I hear I hear again from you,
for my voice is yours and when I sing you can sing along.

I take the pickup on a Sunday without a chore
and drive, checking the grass, watching a windmill pump.

I think about my voice and how it came from my mother,
my father, their voices formed from distant lands
not like this one, Denmark and Morocco, places
I've never been and guess I'll never get to,
not in this pickup anyway, I'm lucky to get to town
and my singing is about all there is to link me,
50 years old and my mother and father dead,
to them. No matter. I'll sing and not stop till my voice
comes to an end.

Cutbanks, and ridges, and, in winter, cornices
that threaten to tumble and fall, the whole rutted, jagged
land running from me to Powder River and there's a smell
of sage fills it all, fills me and takes me back to my childhood home,
another dry country far from Wyoming–eastern Oregon,
and dust, which fills my mouth, and tempts me more than any perfume
could tempt a man toward a woman, the smell that covers
other smells, those we call our own and wish to bury–armpit,
early rising in the morning stale breath, rank crotch, and feet
trapped too long in thick socks and work boots, all of this
is sweet and attractive to me, it draws me to men and women,
the old and young, animals rank and perfect in their way.
Every smell I can name, I seek it wondering
what are we that we seek some distillation that will make smell
invisible, that will render the world neutral and vague.
Not just me and you and the animals I work with but all smells–
the sage I told you, the strange sulphurous fumes where the oil wells
pump, the dryness of pine closing in on the creek and there where
there is water, the hint of molds, mildew calling other lands, wet places
near the sea, wet places by mountains where rain falls and falls,
ninety eight days in a row once, the rain fell, then stopped for one day,
and fell again. I go to town and there are the young girls,
heavy with distance from all this, the young boys not far behind,
their parents and the gentlemen who rule the small towns
in which we live, the school teachers blind and overconfident
telling us all how to live–how to read and write, how to be an American,
how to succeed, and all without thinking of why, what smell do they carry–
some smell of fear and denial, but even that, as it leaks from their pores,
I love and want to embrace them, kiss their eyelids and arms
and call to them that we each enter this world rupturing and spilling
our smell, the world's smell, this most living of forces.
Stop now, I think, and give up trying to clean everything,
sweep away all smell and say, "we are pure, you see, we don't smell."
Useless hope, and not hope at all, step closer, lean in, breathe,
inspiration and exhalation, respiration, secretion, excretion,
all belonging to all.

I went down to Casper once for a big concert. I had heard
the singers singing and wanted to hear more. My generation,
it was, Bob Dylan, who they say named himself
after the poet Dylan Thomas. Dylan had never before
come to Wyoming and why should he, or why not?
Why not throw that guitar away and buy a great big car
and drive wherever he wants. Blowing in the wind
and the times they are a changing. Me and a bunch of other
fifty something year olds remembering when we were young
and so was Dylan and maybe something really might change.

Now it seems there never will be any change,
never be anyone young again. Christ, I meet
teenagers talking about their stock portfolios
and about how they're not making the mistakes
we did. Perfection, they're chasing perfection.

Fear and hope and drive, all of it pushing
them toward getting, making, building, earning,
and it can't be called greed, no matter how many
new cars, how many summer homes and computer
controlled toaster ovens and racks of shoes imported
from places they're planning to go for vacation.
They want only light, light alone when the dark
surrounds us. It won't do any good saying this.

Dylan walked on stage and if it wasn't a swagger,
it was a walk of confidence. He still stood upright
and he turned and called to his sides and smiled,
a slight man but not frail, not weak, electric and sure.
Blue eyes. He faced the room and we were one,
in the past. Then the sound, somehow sweet,
how can that be, sweet Dylan, like he sang for God.
I must be enchanted, I mean Dylan never could sing
if by sing you mean carry a tune. But he sang anyway,
way beyond good or bad, beyond ugly and beautiful,
beyond sound and silence, beyond even what is seen
and unseen, beyond duality, being and nonbeing.
Then it's some song we all know and around me
people are singing along and I am amazed
and sit in silence listening to the music swell in the air
and even the air says welcome to whatever fills it
and does not ask whether the filling is sought or not.
Every mouth now is opening and spilling forth
its satisfaction kisses, procreation, transformation, horses,
the perfect balance of the man on the high wire.

Suddenly, it's over. There is scuffling and cursing
and we are herded by ourselves out into the night,
into the black asphalt parking lot, the rows and rows
of steel and glass, the rubber tires and the whirring sound.
Someone honks and someone else slaps a hand down
on a sheet metal hood or trunk cover. "Shut the fuck up!"
I hear shouted, and then "I love you too." Look how many
people came to this concert in pick-ups. I wonder if there is
any other place where Dylan can give a concert and half
the people will arrive in pickups. I laugh and somebody says,
"What's up, buddy?" "Oh, nothing, I guess I'm just kinda
talking to myself." "Talking to yourself–that's not so good
for you. Come on over and sit for a minute. Talk with me.
Gonna take a while to get outta here so many people."

I sit down next to the man on the tailgate of his pickup.
He offers me a beer from a cooler in the bed. "Thanks,"
I say. I take a long swallow and shiver in the cold night,
the cold beer bubbling down my throat. I'm satisfied,
better, I'm happy, I watch the drivers, all focus and concentration,
jockeying for position in the parking lot, gunning it here
and braking there, and all the while the moon is crossing the sky.

Drunks and cowboys littered around the arena,
some of them the same person, friends and enemies,
don't matter which I run into them here at Fair
and Rodeo, most of the year on the street,
tip my hat and nod a little, say, "Howdy" or "Good day."
When they pass I sometimes turn and wonder,
people I've known all my life, school days,
and more bad jobs than I care to count, and
who are they, these people I was born with,
live with, and soon enough will die with.
The mayor's got himself a new tie, thinking maybe
one day he might run for governor, the latest news,
the wonders of the cities, they say the Walmart's
coming to town while on the TV I learn
that scientists plan to make Mars into a planet
humans would like to live on–trees and water
and air you can breathe, no space suit, no protection,
just the sweet air of Mars. Humans will go there.
It's a big project though, taking 100,000 years.
Here comes that gal I fell in love with at fourteen
and her husband, an insurance salesman, how could
she do that? She smiles and says hello and so does he.
It's just me. Somebody else passes without a word,
looks down at the ground or up at the sky
as if God put some message there that'll be gone
in about one second and there's no time to say hello.
People's clothes and hairdos and vacations and who drives
what car and which family counts for the most and whose church
is growing or not and why, and the payment we make to each other
every day–shouts, tears, laughs, scowls, groans, and the one
straight look, that's a pleasure. Then the nights, the cold of winter
and summer's heat and the children suddenly grown with,
as they say, children of their own. I pull on my shirt and pants,
I stumble out the door and wave at the world. I'm a little untidy,
a little unsettled, a little disheartened. Still, I stand erect
and my neighbors smile–amused, accepting, compassionate, waiting.
Without noticing when I started I find myself walking,
passing storefronts and windows, open doors and closed.
I hear my name called out and I turn, looking backward
over my shoulder at the places I once was. No complaint
about that, nor about the places I know I've got to go.

They called me on the phone those churchgoers, asking me
to attend their services in praise of the man they call the Lord,
and when I politely said no to one, another called and I wondered
if there was a phone tree for Christ and how they decided who
called first, and who last, and I can't remember if it was the Catholic
Church or the Presbyterian. I got my own beliefs and I feel
kind of funny telling you what or listening to you tell me.

You can come with me if you want–walk out across that pasture,
spend a day along a fence line, or climb up in a windmill with me,
even when I got a moment take off for the mountains and walk.
I do that for myself, I guess, just walk, once alone at a spot
over 12,000 feet, a kind of open place, no trees, I laid myself down
and stared at the sky for the longest time. It was warm, almost hot,
but the breeze made it cool, almost chill, and I shivered for a moment
then somehow fell asleep, and when I woke it was the same sky
or a different sky, I couldn't tell, anyway there was clouds
and they was moving along, swimming above me, I believe
I could hear the whir of the earth while it was turning there,
it was that still. If you had been there with me, I wouldn't have
minded, not a bit, I would have been happy you was there.
And if you had asked me a question say about what I thought–
thought of God, for example, or death, or rebirth, and such,
I would have looked right at you, and I coulda told if you
was really asking or just listening to your jaws flap
and your false teeth clack, but if it was a real question,
I woulda answered you the most truthfulest way I could,
and not mind, and maybe then I woulda asked you what
you thought about such things, big things we'd be a fool
not to think of but big too in that you don't say ‘em out loud
easy. You don't blab ‘em in a building full of folks in tight
clothes and wearing makeup on their faces.

top page