p o e m s  

w a l t  m c d o n a l d


Wind flings snow over stalks like cobblestones.
Cattle wait out the storm in windbreaks
far from barns. They know when it’s over

we’ll drive out on tractors, hauling hay
and hard alfalfa pellets. They fear no evil,
since every dawn we come and hammer ice to slush.

Nights, we rock in the dark and watch for stars.
Children we raised are safe in cities lit
by a billion kilowatts. We know spring runoff

will water summer’s hay, we’ll own the ranch
someday, if luck and hard work save us, if God’s
still in his heaven, if we’re still on the earth.



There’s nothing here but widows
and a dozen bachelors inside the boundaries
town signs claim. The average age is eighty,
clerks and ranchers hobbling along on oil wells

or victory gardens and food stamps.
Granddaddy moved here with Quakers in 1880,
seeking peace at the top of Texas, before most,
disgusted, rolled covered wagons to the Gulf.

Iowa farmers, they bartered acres
from Comanches for Bibles and a bony cow,
a steal like Manhattan Island. It says
Mobeetee on the map, the puzzling word

they heard breech-cloth Comanches say.
Smooth-chested natives never smiled,
saying it slowly to their faces, Mo-bee-tee:
buffalo dung, the runny kind, not chips

women gathered in baskets and burned.
These flat plains seldom rained, crops failed,
and wind blew down the tents. Years ago,
I found stone walls of a house they abandoned

after drought and more dead babies,
after cowboys told Granddaddy what Mobeetee meant.
One turned his head to spit from his stallion,
not even smiling as they trotted off.

Here are Granddaddy’s first wife’s stone,
and his. Grandmother let them stay,
but had herself brought back and interred with him,
today, believing in words, one flesh.



Da Vinci carved hands like that, but fists
of this family? Curved vessels bulge
under skin like thinnest leather,
hands excitingly relaxed but powerful,

enough muscle to feed the knuckles blood,
but not an ounce of fat. Not a blotch,
not one age spot on women over fifty.
My wife carves lamb and hands the platter

to a double cousin who’s come back.
I never met him in Saigon or later, until today.
Like her brothers, her cousin is huge,
ducks under the door frame, a giant

near his mother and Egyptian wife.
No wonder my wife is tough, that our boys
are bigger than me, our daughters beautiful
and bold. Her cousin’s grandchildren play

outside with ours, cousins adopted
from different landscapes, some scarred
with skin grafts. Some hobble on plastic legs,
one without arms. Her cousin could hold my skull

like a softball, man who works with steel
around the world, who hunts down bombs and mines,
turns killing fields to farms. Her brothers ranch,
donating beef to the town’s food bank.

Often, they grab me by the arms and scuffle,
horseplay like one of their own--their massive hands,
in spite of gloves, like cactus with all the thorns
rubbed off, their hard-boned faces bronze.



Slumgullion and bread fed bums
on Grandmother’s ranch near the railroad
in the Great Depression, Granddaddy dead.
At first she lost riders and cows,

barbed wire cut down, old cars abandoned
in her pasture, trails trampled past her ranch
by refugees. Windmills and a foreman
old as her father saved the herd.

The bank failed before it foreclosed,
and calves brought enough by fall.
Hobos spread the word for miles by signs
I never saw--Look for the house ten miles ahead,

around the bend where the train slows down.
That widow will feed you. I watched them
two at a time, making a trail from the tracks
to her back porch. Hats in hands,

they would ask, but she already had bowls
and spoons, tin mugs for water at the well.
They sat on the porch and ate,
or out on the grass under oaks,

then rinsed them clean and stacked them,
found the axe in the stump and chopped
a few thick logs, or raked the yard
the hundredth time that month.



From the road, we see antelopes loping away.
We like the way they glide, soaring over slopes.
Pronghorns show us the way, simply to stay together.
Our eyes rake autumn leaves like ore, panning horizons

before they fade. We hike flat miles toward sundown,
alchemy of oaks, the fleeting shimmer of gold.
Nothing glitters at night but stars. Outside Saigon,
I liked the long, boring hour of sundown, the last glow

before midnight, before the blaze of tracers,
the random rockets. When explosions stopped,
total darkness. Now, in the west, storms rumble
like after battles, lighting the sky in flashes.

Antelopes graze head down, praying hosanna to grass.
Far off, a car backfires like a rifle, and they bolt,
they never pause, they dash to wide horizons
and vanish, but not without a fight.© 

Walt McDonald. “Pronghorns Show Us the Way” was first published in Clackamas Literary Review.
 “Mobeetee, Where Faith and Neighbors Failed” appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review.


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