Paperback: 130 pages
Publisher: Red Dashboard Press
(February 28, 2014)
Reviewed by Dennis Daly
I rode in with a posse of northeastern elites ready to make short work of any outlaw poet espousing a “cowboy” perception of all things human. Reckon us artsy-fartsy, highfalutin folk can’t abide shit-kickers, firing their guns in the air after writing a poetic memoir extolling the timeless and utterly personal importance of beans and cornbread.
Days after discarding the unused hangman’s rope and reading My South By Southwest, Elizabeth Akin Stelling’s collection of poems set in rural Texas, in its entirety for the second time I became a believer in, if not cowboy poetry, at least Stelling’s version of this genre.
Stelling writes with an odd poetic cadence. She mixes the expected caricature of popular movie legend with realistic country diction and then infuses it with jaw-dropping moments of complexity. The book’s front and back covers and its illustrations unabashedly build on the cartoon look. But through it all Stelling’s honesty blasts onto the pages with the withering candor of a west Texas sun.
The book begins with a prologue poem entitled Texas Skies. The piece is pure enchantment. White clouds shape themselves into dessert plants like mesquite and prickly pear, and then reform themselves into a woman encountering her universal cowboy. Flirtation follows with the predictable “scoot across a sawdust dance floor.” The poem ends transitioning from the messy personal to big picture beauty,
at night’s end,
morning light exposes a scene,
of rustled bed sheets and blankets
in a musky room
filled with far-flung recollection.
Down the road,
a prettier site to behold:
a backdrop of a country town,
under a big top called Texas,
a blue one
dotted with pretty white clouds,
scattered and taking on shapes,
of so many boundless things.
In Stelling’s poem, There’s A New Sheriff In Town, she describes her chemical makeup as a toddler in pretty funny terms and how it matches her Texas surroundings. The poem opens this way,
I drove my mother crazy
with my finger-sucking
(left-hand index barrel).
She would place me in a crib jail
and look down.
My “nasty habit” she called it,
crossing her chest
as if praying to ward off evil.
Her sister advised her
“buy really hot sauces”
like mustard, green chilies
dip my finger in them,
then when she lay me down
to sleep, guaranteed,
I wouldn’t touch them.
Aunt Grace was wrong.
The hotter the better.
Emotions attach themselves very readily to food I’ve noticed, remembered emotions from childhood even more so. Stelling makes good use of this phenomenon in her poem Corn-bread and beans. The poet details a family going through tough times. A mother prepares poverty’s breakfast in a cold house. The ending tugs at one’s heart,
Each felt the sting—one, two, three
cutting of onions,
a front door slamming
and a father gone.
Leaving them—one, two, three, four
frail bodies for eternity,
with a smell,
the burning aftertaste,
and a craving
for cornbread and beans.
Hearing the N Word In 1966 breaks through the surface texture of this collection. This poem delivers complexity, pathos, and a bit of thought provoking irony, all in five stanzas. The poet hits all the right notes. She has to. The poem begins harshly,
My father said nigger under his breath
toward some boys, coloured, and both
walking with scraps of lumber. They were dragging
wood along the school fence.
Huckleberry Finn did this jig,
And had fun.
Asking if daddy knew them,
supposing he worked with their fathers—
I was told to shut up
to remember my place.
Here’s another brief selection from the same poem, highlighting childhood pathos,
Sandra and I came walking down the street.
In a rage Momma flew out our front door,
telling me to go into the house. Watching
through the screen door, I saw my friend’s tears.
Her unkempt afro swung around, then
she had to walk back four blocks
to an empty school.
Not only does this poet have a good ear but she understands the times and how societal bigotry infests otherwise decent people. It’s not that the poet’s persona is throwing her parents under the bus, but rather she seems intent on presenting an honest picture and setting up an ironic twist in the final stanza.
Kit Carson’s name graces a stray boulder and Geronomo metamorphosizes into a wooden Injun in Stelling’s poem Outlaws Still Border Texas. Tourism pleads its case from desolation. On a family road trip the poet notes a number of these incongruities. The poem ends not unreasonably,
“Goyahkla” means “The one who yawns”;
it is one of many trading posts
and totem pole—
riddled smoke shops
along the old Chisholm trail.
When I listened to the wind blowing through my long
auburn hair as Daddy drove,
I thought I heard the Great Spirit
call out: How
on earth did this blasphemy
make it this far?”
Wasn’t this supposed to be
a new frontier?
Beginning her poem, History Calls Out, “A Bullet Gone Wild, Stelling quotes the gunfighter Bat Masterson, who said, “If you want to hit a man in the chest aim for his groin.” I know a bit about Masterson. He later became a sportswriter in New York and railed against the barbarity of football. Somehow that seems appropriate. Stelling mixes a dreamed up meditation with gross reality. Here’s the heart of the poem,
When a man walked out into the street,
his gun packed as tight as possible,
in his belt and not far from his crooked
finger, it might have appeared aggression
looked you square in the eye.
Walk and draw was still a dream.
Civilized men kept a one shooter
deep in the pocket of his trousers.
To prosper, whiskey, and boredom
Brought out the best in a man
In the wilds of the frontier.
Together, the blend of honesty and humorous caricature charm these poems of cowboy sub-culture. Try ‘em out. You’ll like ‘em. Maybe you’ll like ‘em alot. And, dagnabbit, keep your spurs on and watch your back.
You can check out the book here:
-Dennis Daly has been published in numerous poetry journals and magazines and recently nominated for a Pushcart prize. Ibbetson Street Press published The Custom House, his first full length book of poetry in June, 2012. His second book, a verse translation of Sophocles’ Ajax, was published by Wilderness House Press in August, 2012. His third book of poems entitles Night Walking with Nathaniel was recently released by Dos Madres Press. A fourth book is nearing completion.