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The Poems
as told to
Laurance Wieder
copyright (c) 1990/1993/1994
by Laurance Wieder
all rights reserved
distribution over the network as freeware is permitted
for any other use, for information regarding Red Sea,
or to obtain a copy of the bound book, contact or
voice: 516 475 1142; fax: 516 475 9673
Table of contents
The Searcher/3
Buffalo Gals/6
Shot Down/7
The Classics/11
Hello, Pilgrim/15
Hard to Believe/17
Grauman's Chinese/18
Big Medicine/19
Overland Stage/22
The Needful/24
The Letter "C"/25
Black Hat, White Hat/27
The Searcher
Any man who'd burn his draft card
Will also burn his bra. Those birds
Who squawk loudest about justice
Haven't got the sand to stand up
When the chips are down. I remember
One time I was mounting this new filly
For the first time when the phone rang.
Heavy breather. "Well,"
Says I, "well pal, if you can breathe
So hard, why not come by
For a breathing contest. Hardest wins."
Then she whinnied. Wham! His handset
Slammed back on the hook faster
Than jack rabbit with a greyhound
Bearing down. That filly. Yes.
You know, I feel about horses
The way cowboys are supposed to
About women. Take Marlene Dietrich:
Maybe she was born a kraut, but she
Spoke the international language
Like a native, if you take my drift.
Lots of times, when John Ford had me
Sitting on some horse's back
Take after take, until I couldn't tell
Which end hurt more and my spine
Would start to cave in, I'd just picture
Her in garters with a chair
Back between her knees, and mine
Would straighten up. Look,
I'm not going to lie to you, not even
If you ask me about Santa Claus,
Because somebody's got to tell it plain
And, with the stuff the newspapers
Serve up and people swallow, what
Does it matter if I tell the truth?
You've got to think a man's outsides
Are what he's made of. If we had to
Climb inside a fellow's head
To know him-like spelunkers,
Little lanterns on our hard hats, bumping
Into sweaty rock and bat shit, sitting
On stalagmites, echoing, flickering, lost
While overhead the sun dried wash
Hung on lines, and red leaves piled
Underneath October oaks-
We'd be gophers. So we go
With the hand we draw, and pay
Only when the other guy has more
To show. Almost Indian poker. Sometimes
You have to spank a kid for his
Own good, not because you want to.
Principles can make a person hateful.
That dope who burns his flag may think
He's saying something about freedom,
But he's only saying "No" to someone
Else's truth. You can't play the game
And cry about the rules. Too many
Good men died without a sniffle,
Put aside their little doubts of right or wrong,
Left their wives and families for
Some European ditch, some jungle mine,
Some six inches of Pacific beach.
The sea is calm at Malibu today,
A low cloud sits on Catalina. Far
To the west, waves break
On coral shallows. Is it death
Or sunshine that's the cheat?
A person could take now to Doomsday
Chewing on these questions, and never
Find he's any closer to the answer
Than when he started, none the wiser.
Buffalo Gals
Hello there, little lady.
That dress looks mighty pretty
On you, not the gingham
But that way you fill it.
Care to walk with me a way?
Thought I'd stroll out
'til the moon rose
Over copper canyon
And the desert turned
A shiny frying pan
Where we could sizzle
In cactus shadows, coyotes
Startled by the cries
We'll raise, puffing dust clouds
In their snooping eyes.
No offense, ma'am, meant
Or taken, just forget
The invitation, just
Forget you ever had
A chance to yodel, to dance.
Shot Down
I didn't want to act the goof
For our guys who took the Sugar Loaf
On Okinawa. I knew the boots
And hat and spurs were out
Of place in front of that Hawaiian curtain,
On that stage, and so I passed
My hand before my face.
An actor, too, has got to go
Where he is sent, just like a soldier;
When your president tells you
What to do, you do it,
No matter if they clap, or boo.
Sunrise in the High Sierra,
First light dents the summer glacier.
A timber wolf slinks off. Elk browse
The bottom land. Dew beads webs
The spiders spin between scotch pines.
Here a man can scout the mountain
Lion from a distance, and feel how
God must, witnessing what people
Do. Shut up in a bottle, in a jam
Of cars, why not just eat the barrel
Of a gun, and get it over?
I'm not much for fancy thinking, but I think
A man's been given brains for something
More than sniffing his way from dish
To dish, from drink to drink. I think
This world is like a moving picture
Of each of us, for each of us to watch,
And get caught up in. Sure, it's sad
Sometimes, some days so tense
It hurts to look, yet who could tear
His eyes away, could bear to duck out
Even for refreshments? A lone harmonica,
The chase, an old guitar plucked string
By string, until the moon goes down.
At heart, I'm just another tramp
Along the rails, loafing 'til
The fast freight. Some call the whistle
Time, some take a chilly fright,
Some answer with their own low sound.
If there's a God, involuntary noises
Which escape like steam through fissures
Are the prayers he hears.
Not my gravel voice, or yours.
Marked one by one, awake
Or dreaming at our post, against
That bar we hardly measure up.
Give me a shot. A double.
The hidden grows. Those chants and steps,
The magic circles the old shaman drew
Inside the tent of skins, the doll
He waved to snatch near dangers clear
Of the sick soul, I never found
The time to learn or understand much
Less believe in. I treasure simple things
That are not me, that come from far away
And talk about what I can't say. I can't say
Why, but it's my nature, like Yosemite.
The Classics
Spend over half a century
In the motion picture business
And you're bound to wonder
About truth and power.
It's okay to confuse me
With the parts I play,
The real hair on the toupee,
I'm acting myself anyway.
But parts of my own life
Frankly stump me, hint some
Invisible director, backstage
Voices, forms behind the kliegs.
As a schoolboy I loved Latin.
Gaul is divided in three parts.
My given name is Marion.
My real initials are three M's.
Each of my three wives was Latin
American. Would a mystic say
That I was born to play the Latin
Lover? the marrying kind?
I walked a long time in the shadow
Of the tall man in the Stetson,
A man who paints his face and feels
Valuable, who sees himself as little
As possible. I can tear myself
Away from the mirror, easily.
Drink leaning back against the bar.
Hustle through the powder room.
Better to stand like a lodgepole pine
In Monument Valley, than have to turn
The knob and find a crowd of strangers
In my closet. When I'm called upstairs,
I don't want my friends to read the Bible,
Raise a stone. Just burn
My body. Throw the ashes overboard.
If the spirit lives on after
I'll be looking down, although I've got
A snowball's chance in hell of anybody
Honoring my final wishes. Long speeches,
Sobbing women, the last coffin nail.
Words work where action fails.
I never talked or acted cheap, as corpse
Or one-line cameo centurion.
What got me on this, anyway?
The shock at seventy of seeing
Me alive on-screen at thirty-three?
The sea swell?
This damn heat?
Saddle up.
Nobody's perfect.
Not everybody's
Tried so hard to prove it.
To the south, a cloudburst
Slicks the peaks, here
Heat lightning flickers
I'd be the ground
Your toes tap time on
The ear of corn you grind
Your folk song
Play the basin
I'll become the Amazon
Snake for ages down
Our course, your delta
Lazing in the rushes
I can take the heat
Hello, Pilgrim
A little man might have to get
A little drunk to speak his mind.
A big man might have to get
A whole lot more than drunk
To figure out just where he left
His boots. I didn't want my kids
To hear me yelling at my second wife,
But I'm not about to feel sorry
For what's happened. When I call
A fellow "Pilgrim," it's because
He hasn't reached El Capitan,
Because he's got the trail written
On his face. Tibetan lamas pray
By spinning wheels. So if a fellow's
Always got his wheels turning,
Even if he doesn't get around
To outright praying, he may have
All the religion he will need.
Calling to the man upstairs
Is like lecturing your kids:
The more you say, the less they hear.
I'd rather work.  I'd work even if
It didn't make me rich as Croesus.
It makes as much sense as a mountain
Does to someone in the valley.
On the Atlantic, winter waves
Look like mountains would
If they were weak, and we could
Move them, with talk.
Hard to Believe
Waking up each morning
With a million dollars in the bank
Feels good, no argument.
Lose the getting up,
A hundred million doesn't mean much.
Bull elephants, fatigued
By battle and their memories,
Turn solitary rogues,
Then stagger, heaped-up tusk and bone.
Hard to imagine twilight porch light jumping checkers,
Big city home game on the radio.
It's easier to play tall in the saddle.
It's easier not knowing where I'm going.
Forget the doubles. When I can't shoot
My own stunts, wash off the war paint.
Leave the part that's like tobacco
Smoke, like liquor in a dry man's brain
Who's stopped believing in strong medicine.
Grauman's Chinese
Sid, there are no words
For what it feels like to stand
In cowboy boots, in wet
Cement. Instead, I drove
My fist into this sidewalk
Where the stars forever set.
Big Medicine
This poor excuse for a singing cowboy
Never shied away from a woman
In war paint, or a showdown, or a hoedown.
It makes no sense to play some weepy
Painter at the tulip party scared
By what he sees, when you're strong
And ugly. It helps to show some manners.
Six-feet-plus in stocking feet, I couldn't hide
Behind a skirt or what went on inside of me.
That's why I sit down like a veteran
Apache war chief smoking packaged cigarettes
While young bucks whoop around the fire.
No Indian could ever dance like Fred Astaire.
I never found, or lost, my Ginger either.
Sometimes staring at the ceiling on a late night
Turning in, the mattress rocks a bit, as though
The big machine had stalled. I try to keep
In motion, so I don't have to listen to the lies
My body tells me, but when I drift I hear
The wind out back blow hard, and boulders
Sag like paper bags. Time was I might have lost
My temper. Now a good day's one that I get out
Of bed, and there I am, and didn't make it up.
My music was the crack
Of jaw against a fist,
The splintered straight
Back chair against a bar,
The craze left by a shot
Glass pitched into a mirror.
Like I said to the drygoods
Merchant fingering his wares,
"Tuck it away. If I were you,
I'd save that thing for bait."
The trick was timing swing,
Impact and camera angle
So that wince and grunt rang
True. My third wife strummed
Guitar and sang the sad songs
Of the south 'til I forgot
The Alamo, the foreign enemy,
Myself. And who's to say
That I was wrong? A man
Who kicks a man named for a dog?
Once I outgrew my puppy fat,
I worked because I knew
The horse, the rope, the business
End of a repeater, hopes
And what came after better
Than I knew my kids, or how
I knew they were my kids.
When a puppy whines, you either
Let him howl, or let him in,
And what you make of him
He stays. No new developments.
No self improvement. In love,
As in the movies when the rain
Blows hard across old pasture land,
Watch out. Zeros at twelve o'clock.
Apache arrows. Talking drums.
The Padre shouting, "Cheer, boys,
Cheer like Protestants," and me
With little faith at all,
And that a sign of weakness.
Overland Stage
Don't think back much
To early times
When shooting dimes
Off tree stumps pleased
The girls, especially Louise.
Colt forty-fives
At fifty paces,
My partner's dummy's
Wooden face,
Those little touches would impress
A corn fed Kansas
Toast of Europe
Pair of brim full
Champagne glasses.
Just tall, and strong, my name not yet
In hero's getup:
White sombrero,
Pancake makeup,
Real hair and teeth, an opera
Cowboy actor.
When the lead sings
Tenderfeet dance
For the ladies.
Gentlemen, the dust we eat.
The Needful
It's lonely off the reservation,
Bad flats and white man's water, but better
Riding out at sunup to a showdown with my nature
Than waiting for somebody else to finish
Washing, so I can go after.
Too many years spent playing just
Myself left no time over to be husband,
Father, anybody else except a man who walks
By falling forward, upright, with no net-
One who's had to catch himself
Talking about things I might not
Know, unless I stopped midstream, looked
Past the bank, the moving train, the summer snow caps
Before I said the rest of what I had
To say, if I had to say it.
The Letter "C"
An easy way to take off weight,
But it's tough to sit up straight.
Doc said, "Good thing
You never were a dancer."
Didn't have to ask why,
Didn't need the answer.
I taught a clumsy boy
To dance with bayonets.
I held my women easy.
How many get to waste away
Aboard a yacht in company,
Can pay a little lady not a nurse
To fetch the dose
And read the mail?
Talking doesn't help
Make going easier,
Just longer.
For half the chances of a Chinaman
I'd fall for everything again:
Lights, smoke, the gullies
Liquor makes on ice. Politely
Smile at the joke, how
Living right, the beast
Gets tamer. Look her in the eye,
And name the time and place.
Some things it doesn't pay
To know.
"Si, si."
For one:
your Alamo.
Black Hat, White Hat
Marlene didn't like it when I rode
Out of town any better than
The others did. I liked her smell. I told her
I would wear her garter on my sleeve
Until somebody came along
Strong enough to take it off, but she cursed
Me like a gambler down to his last dollar
Damns the greenhorn raking in
His stake. Soon town was swallowed by the dust
My horse kicked up. Near fifty miles of sulfur
Flats and alkali before a well,
The trail marked by cattle skulls, by wagons
Capsized, broken wheels, by bumpy ruts.
I loosed the cinch and walked. A condor shadow
Slid across the desert like a clear creek
Over stones. I could make the water hole
By moonlight, once the snakes and lizards fed
And crawled back underneath their rocks. Coyotes
Howl. No Comanche here. No white
Men neither. A twisted oak, dead long before
Conquistadors dreamed Eldorado lay
Over the horizon, marked the spot.
I spread out my bedroll, hobbled dobbin,
Smoked a cigarette, turned in. The moon
Set. Her throaty words came back:
"No human tie
Will hold you, scout
The sea of faces,
Prairie grasses,
Old, bald, rich and fat,
A buffalo. Women
Sniff. Men look away.
Drink liquor. Faces
Will appear, and tell you
Things you cannot bear."
Pshaw. My Dad,
Dead since I was a kid, could hunker down
Across this campfire. I wouldn't turn
A hair. Gone, I will have all the time
Left in the world, so why regret
Someone I did or didn't kiss, a woman's
Curse, a bad review. Enough
To wear one saddle out on many mounts,
To keep a cool head on the edge
Of the Divide, new rivers spilling left
Or right, uncivilized, rugged, polite.
One thing scares me: done,
I'm just the parts I played. Stars
Fade. See, I traded hope, my share
In common happiness, to rise
Above the heads of men, to shine
For others passing on the prairie,
Sound and light enough to fill a dark
Room, quiet, strong, and true. A man
Of flesh and blood does not expect
To walk the earth forever. Shadows do.
Just because a man doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve, people think he
has no inner life. But it takes more consideration to lead a life of
action, than to be a man of words. Anyone who doubts the justice of this
observation need look no farther than these poems, spoken over a great
distance by a man of few words.
Besides the pleasure and excitement I knew attending his recitations, the
Duke's visits provoked me to ponder any number of questions. Of course, I
was more than a little intimidated by the star's presence. As reluctant to
impede the incredible flow of verses from his tanned, translucent self, as
I was certain that here was a spirit who would brook no cross-examination,
several months passed before I felt confident enough to pose the obvious.
One evening, after he had recited The Needful to me, I asked the Duke when
he began writing poetry. Why did he write? and how it was that he chose me
to deliver his poems tothe world?
"I didn't choose you. You chose me."
While I wrestled with that, the Duke gave me the benefit of his unique
"I can't say I ever decided to sit down and write, but all the time I
spent waiting for my scenes, I would think. Maybe musing's the word. I'd
think about where I was, and what I was doing, what happened, and why. I'd
lots of time, and the bigger I got, the lonelier I grew. So no one'd
interrupt me.
"If John Ford was directing, he'd have an accordion player squeezing out
tunes the whole time, off camera and sometimes on. 'Red River Valley.' So
there'd be this mournful music, and maybe the Tetons hanging over Jackson
Hole, or the sheer cliffs of Monument Valley.
"I'd look a bit, and think some more, take a rest between the looking and
the thinking and the hearing. And these poems sprung up, like flowers after
spring rain in the desert.
"See, one reason I was so strong was that my insides and my outsides were
the same. But an actor saying written lines doesn't have the chance to show
his insides as his own. They belong to the part, to the people looking at
you. Any actor tries to be his inside self inside a part, well, he just
isn't doing his job. You have to ripple like a lake does when the wind
crosses it, and shakes up that picture of the cloud on the surface. And who
can say what's swimming underneath?
"Understand, I'm talking to you now, man to man. I'm not telling you
anything I don't know for sure, so I wouldn't bother asking me questions
about religion if I were you, because you can't know what you don't
believe, and maybe there aren't any answers that you'd want to hear. So
just keep plugging, Pilgrim."
Which was all he had to say on that score, which was already more than I