Cowboy Intellectual

Note: National Poetry Month ends today. In commemoration, and especially for Sherry NC, P & L is publishing poetry all day. This piece is an Anna Belle original, circa 2004.

For Jeff Cavins

This poem will not capture your peculiar dialect,
so thoroughly hick, a mark against you, you knew,
but at home, in “Luh-cone-ya,” it made you an insider.
You played it up, hyperbolic, an exaggerated self-portrait,
courting rejection, testing, daring, like the glassy point
of your eye over your cigarette-sidled smile.
There’s no hope here of rendering your braggadocio
and swagger, your moments of keen arrogance
from knowing more than you should,
for escaping your home-spun ignorance,
more open-minded than anyone guessed.
You were my secret and we were the same, though I denied it.

No prose could explain how you called me to my roots,
made me face my denial, and how I almost hated you for it.
If not for the our talks on philosophy and politics,
if you hadn’t hungered for the written word,
if I hadn’t called you my cowboy intellectual,
I’d have run instead of climbing on the 4-wheeler with you.
I’d have missed that chance to sit by the river, cold with autumn,
a school of silver fish catching the last of the light,
hundreds flashing in mid-air, the music of their splashes
and the hiss of the fire, burning with wood
smoothed and bleached by the currents.

No epic could possibly expose your monumental battles,
your accidental birth, adoption, a distant father,
two brain tumors, back injuries from constructing
with molten steel, your face scarred with burns
from sparks flying up under the safety shield.
Your swollen leg, draining cancer from your gut,
succeeded where everything else failed. You died,
barely 40 and I still haven’t cried, though my chest hurts
and I feel the hole; I can’t believe you’re gone.

Nothing I could write will make anyone feel
the way I feel when I see the chalk on the wall,
a message left on the brick last year when you didn’t show
at the smoking area, our meeting place for nicotine
and papers; real, honest critique that you drank up,
the world somehow clearer because you finally knew
when to use that and which and what a preposition was about.
You loved irony. Your eyes narrowed to slits when you saw it.

No play would be complete without you playing yourself
because no one was shaped like you, carved by farmland,
a refugee in California, healed by shamans, prodigal’s son
returning with ambition that will never be realized now.
Your sense of humor is gone, along with your wacky faces,
no more trips to the cemetery, sharing a smoke in the sunlight,
a headstone between us like a missed prophecy.

No academic thesis will deconstruct you,
your odd mix of farm-grown axioms sprinkled
among the scholarly vernacular of our chats,
or note the peeling giant deer wallpapered behind your bed,
the chaos and cobwebs in your laundry room,
the moldy stink that seeped from the cracks of your drafty house
mixing with expensive, expansive aftershave.

I wanted more of you–a year was not enough, cannot be enough.
10 months without you and I still look for your truck
parked behind the university. I hallucinate
your loud laugh bouncing off the courtyard walls,
your greetings to everyone–you did know everyone.
I hate to think of your body without you, stiff and pale
in the coffin, how it makes me think of my own death.
Nothing disturbs me more than suspecting we were right,
no heaven exists and God is a cuddle toy for the lonely and meek.

No apology could excuse me or ease my guilt
over not returning your last phone call,
the plaintive quality in your voice that I ignored,
still fuming from our argument, too petty to remember.
I realize now that you knew you were dying,
recognize too late the apology in your voice,
absent the “sorry,” of course, just like you. Just like me.
I missed my chance to say goodbye and thanks,
shaper of me. Thanks and goodbye.

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8 comments on “Cowboy Intellectual

  1. cyn623 says:

    Oh, Anna Belle, that is wonderful and thought provoking. It caught me in the first few lines and sucked me through to the ending.

    It reminds me of people here – in rural upstate NY. Farmers and shopkeepers that keep doing the same thing over and over, year after year, and dispensing their brand of wisdom along the way. We called one of them the Philosopher. He’s gone now, too, but left some incredible thoughts behind.

    Keep doing what you’re doing – your talent knows no bounds.

  2. SherryNC says:

    What an amazing person he must have been, and how finely you have drawn him. Thank you for sharing Jeff – and your Apology – with us.

  3. Anna Belle says:

    I’m glad you both liked this piece. It about my good friend, and this poem just came out in a righteous lament after he died. We’d had an argument and I wouldn’t return his phone calls. The next thing I knew he was dead. I was so sad and disappointed in myself. This poem has been published a couple of different places and has even been read out by another poet at a reading in Sweden. I also sent it to his adoptive parents, at his mother’s request. It always has a big impact.

    In a lot of ways, I think I am a poetic portraitist. I do my best using other people as subjects. Thank you for commenting here. I really appreciate it.

  4. SherryNC says:

    In a lot of ways, I think I am a poetic portraitist.

    I absolutely agree.

  5. Patti says:

    I admit I’m not a lover of poems (hope you still like me), but that poem moved me. I knew a man who was taken very young, the first man I fell in love with. We had only a short time together but never will I forget him.

  6. Anna Belle says:

    Haha! Of course I still like you!

    I’m glad this poem resonated with your experience. Sorry for your loss.

  7. bluelyon says:

    Thank you for all the poems you posted. I read from the top down and loved this one the best!

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