Stock Talk Christmas Eve
Until I landed on a farm and became acquainted with animals who had never been part of my life, I thought cowboy poetry was just a bunch of dorky rhymes. Living with livestock and the vicissitudes of country life taught me the value and power of this branch of the poetry of work. Bull riders, barrel racers, and cattle drovers all told their stories through the medium of poetry. They made me laugh and cry and took me into the deep rivers of a way of life I would never fully comprehend but learned to appreciate.
Though I never considered myself a cowboy poet, I did try my hand at writing some pieces about farm life. I had talented teachers in people I met on the cowboy poetry circuit, people whose written and oral expressions of lived experience shattered my stereotypes.
Rhyming poetry is still the norm in cowboy poetry, though many poets also write prose poems. What’s critical is what they express, not their meter. Still, the heart beats in rhythm. Songs rhyme. Dancing is rhythmic. We humans are attuned to rhyme, and I came to appreciate it in cowboy poetry.
This poem is one I wrote to tell the story of my first Christmas Eve as a small-scale farmer. I still feel the magic of that night.
Stock Talk Christmas Eve
One wintry night the relatives
Were gathered in our barn.
They’d all come from their city homes
For Christmas at the farm.
‘Twas Christmas Eve, and just before
The wassail was passed ’round,
We donned our coats and headed down
To hear the magic sound
Of animals at midnight,
For then the power of speech
Is given to all sheep and cows,
Or so I’d heard it preached.
My husband, he was skeptical,
The relatives amused.
They figured I’d gone round the bend
Since donning country shoes.
But to the barn they gamely trooped.
They’d humor me this time.
We flipped the switch and walked into
A scene that was sublime.
The sheep were calmly bedded down.
They looked, then turned away,
For we’d disturbed their peaceful rest
And hadn’t brought them hay.
I thought of tales of talking beasts.
“Let’s sing to them!” I cried.
Embarrassed silence met my plea.
“Let’s not,” my husband sighed.
No word came from those woolly heads.
I blushed and murmured low,
“They prob’ly talk when we’re not here.
I guess we’d better go.”
Then coming from a darkened stall,
We heard a little cry,
Soon followed by a throaty one
That pulled us to draw nigh
And watch a newborn struggle up
To reach her mother’s teat.
She crumpled, rose, and tried again
On tiny cloven feet.
While ewe and lamb crooned soft and low,
We cleared our throats and sang
Of friendly beasts and silent nights
And bells that angels rang.
Then all the livestock in the barn
Began to bleat and crow
And oink and quack and gobble
In the languages they know.
The relatives fell silent
Till one softly observed,
“That’s the closest thing to talking
This city dude has heard.”
So maybe friendly beasts don’t speak
In English or Chinese,
But if you listen close
You’ll hear them talk on Christmas Eve.
©11/94 Cathryn Wellner
This poem appeared in American Cowboy in November/December 2001. Since sheep are not a normal part of cowboy culture, I changed them to cows for that publication. But the real story features those woolly friends.