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LaVERNA B. JOHNSON
Southern Utah
About LaVerna B. Johnson

One of

Lariat Laureate Runner Up

Recognized for her poem, I Don't Look Down on Dust No More

 

 

I Don't Look Down on Dust No More

I see your boot prints in the dust
out in the horse's pen
and think, perhaps, you're still nearby
and I'll see you again.
Soft dust covers your ridin' chaps,
your round-up hat's wide brim.
"Don't bother with the dust," I say.
"We're just waitin' for him."

I used to watch the dust clouds swirl
and wish them far away.
Dust sneaked inside, nagged me to clean
when I would rather play.
A million times or more I've cursed
the dust, I'd chance to say.
I don't look down on dust no more,
my heart' s in yesterday.

Rain clouds rise up to drench the land
and everything turns green
while dust melts deep into the earth.
I guess I've never seen
a rainbow that's less welcome here
as dust clouds fade away
because it means time's passin' and
my heart's in yesterday.

Rememberin' our little ones,
cleaned up and fast asleep,
or rompin' wildly by the fire
with you, are sights I keep
stored up for when the hard times come.
Somehow they seem to seep
like dust into my wakin' hours;
they pile up soft and deep.

Well, I will dust my courage off
and finish up my chores
so when I ride the other side
my trail will follow yours.
Love's dust collects on memories,
falls from our happy stores
of living close together, glad,
and keepin' even scores.

Time's dusty traces in this place
tell me you had to go.
Your picture here beside me now
reminds me it was so.
I can't hold on to yesterday.
Before too long I'll know
it's time to join the big round up,
our final rodeo.

© 2004, LaVerna B. Johnson
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.



We asked LaVerna what inspired this poem and she told us:  

There's a lot of truth and a little bit of dreamin' in this poem. The loss of my husband in 1988 is still not old news to me. I think we accept loss, with time, but never forget. The line: I don't look down on dust no more came sneakin' in sideways and whomped me one day, soon followed by the realization that when my heart is in yesterday, it is a lonely place to be. I wondered who else might recognize these feelings. Movin' on, leavin' yesterday behind and staying busy, trying to accomplish good with the time allotted us means we are stayin' alive as long as we live. Still, every once in a while, I catch myself lookin' back, anchorin' myself in the reality of life long ago.

LaVerna B. Johnson was recognized previously as one of

Lariat Laureate Runner Up

for her poem, Homestead

 

Homestead

 There's a peaceful time of evening as the work is almost done
 when the horses drop their saddles, have a dust bath, roll, or run.
 We all gather to the campfire smells of cooking one by one,
 use our hats to slap the dust off--home again.
 
 We hear calls of cattle lowing, voices carry on the breeze
 as it wanders down the canyon, then meanders through the trees.
 While we stop to smell the sage, light shimmers "quakie's" golden leaves,
 and it sure feels good to be back home again.
 
 Mmmm! The cook done himself up real proud. The coffee's good and black.
 Spuds sizzling in the bacon grease are brown and crisp. I pack
 my blue tin plate with beans and steak, then hunker down to smack.
 It's time to find my bedroll, home again.

 Well, a calf was lost to cougar on the west range yesterday.
 The water hole we dug there brings a price we're glad to pay.
 We see cattle and the wildlife coexist, and that's okay.
 It's a part of all we've loved since way back when.
 
 There's an echo of coyotes as the light begins to fade.
 Timid deer step from the thickets.  Each, alert in evening's shade,
 now intently bows to forage in green meadows we have made
 while fulfilling dreams our grandpa dreamed back then.

 There are times on peaceful evenings after work and grub are done
 when dad tells of other evenings when he had to tote a gun
 in some far off lands where schemers tried to conquer, one by one,
 some small nations where folks fought to stay free men.
 
 He says, No... Never take for granted this peaceful, cherished land!
 ...Tells how fighting for the people there sure helped him understand
 how fulfilling obligations, sharing work, giving a hand
 helps us all prepare to go back Home again.

© LaVerna B. Johnson
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

We asked LaVerna what inspired this poem and she told us:

This poem was written with cowboy rancher Clayton Atkin in mind, and shared with his family after his death. Clayton loved to recite poems, had a sharp wit, and was one of the vanishing breed of cowboys who fought in the Second World War. "Homestead" was first published locally after the death of Clayton and Joy Atkin's fine young rancher son Brent Atkin who was killed while trucking a load of cows in from "the strip" to winter range. Printing this poem honors the Atkin family, some of cowboys' best.

Our friend Clayton Atkin recited poetry, and kept us laughing. But he and his family did not laugh about tough ranching conditions that were sometimes made tougher by "environmentalists" who did not understand that good cowboys were environmentalists protecting the land long before it got to be fashionable. I thought about this, and about Clayton's sons and grandsons who were trying to carry on some great traditions. The future looked fairly grim to me. I wondered where the new cowboys would come from... young men who would not give up when things looked so discouraging. I wanted somehow to capture this struggle of keeping cowboy heritage alive in this poem.

We asked LaVerna why she writes Cowboy Poetry and why she thinks it is important and she told us:

I am a poet who happens to have been born in cowboy country, and grew up loving it. I can still hear Dad reciting poems around our campfire when we were out deer hunting, or pine nut picking. Poetry has added a richness to my life. I cannot imagine what my life would be without it, unless I might describe it as some kind of malady, or sickness... the kind our world is suffering from today where folks are kind of lost and out of touch with what is real. Much of poetry itself has gotten lost and some is so confusing folks don't want to hear it.

Cowboy poetry has never lost its soul! It still rings true, and people are so hungry for it they come in droves and gather 'round to celebrate the joy of singing the thoughts and spirit of being alive... just folks who belong to each other. This gives me hope for the whole world of poetry and for some folks who are still lost, still trying to find their way home.

 

 

At the Front: Remembering Grandma and Cowboy Music

When just a kid, I wake to music's play
and smell her homemade toast on wood-stove lid.
I'm far from home, the start of a new day

with coffee wafting through the air to say,
"Wake up! Don't lie abed, you lazy kid!"
Though half awake, we hear faint music play

tough cowboy songs of bringing in a stray
in bitter cold, of love that's gone a-skid
while far from home, and starting a new day.

When I am twelve, we all kneel down to pray,
but still she dies. It hurts like sad songs did
when half awake. We hear the music play

her favorite hymn. One last look at her face,
I slip a red rose in, as I am bid.
It's far from home, the start of a new day.

Her courage comes to mind in this foray.
Stark dangers in dark places are well-hid.
Though half-awake, we hear the bugle play.
It's far from home, the start of a new day.

© 2007, LaVerna B. Johnson
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

 

LaVerna told us: I have a grandson, Steve, serving in the army in Iraq, and I know he is trying to help make this world a better, safer place for all of us. I hope he remembers that he has many family members at home who remember him, pray for him, and also pray for peace.

In thinking of this and my feelings for this great young man, memories come flooding in. When I was a child, we lived in the "sticks." I often accompanied Dad as he worked on the Arizona strip, building fences, gathering stray horses and firewood in that lonesome cowboy country.

Staying over at my Grandma's house in town was a wonderful treat. The memories, the smells, the peaceful security of Grandpa and Grandma's home stay with me, even though she died long ago.

I am hoping, somehow, that Steve's grandpa and I have helped build some memories of love and belonging that our soldier grandson can also turn to
something like a warm campfire and cooking smells on a cold day when there is work to be done on the range, far from home.

 

    The Fence That Fenced Them Out

    Five head were missin' from the count
    when roundin' up the herd.
    We scoured for cattle every day,
    until we got this word:

    Those missin' Brahmas wandered out
    when someone missed a gate,
    and then came back to close it, but
    found out it was too late.

    Two cows and their three yearling calves
    were lost out in the hills...
    Coyotes, sand and cactus thorns
    and no fresh water spills

    would make it hard for livin' and
    we knew that time was gone.
    We had to find 'em pretty quick
    or their lives would be done.

    They turned up three days later, still
    alive at the Bar J.
    A couple of old cowhands tell
    the story this a way:

    They found our cattle standin' there,
    heads down, feelin' the drought
    with tongues too dry for lowin'—by
    the fence that fenced 'em out.

    The Bar J's pond, with water clear,
    was fed by springs that flowed—
    though slow-like that hot summer—when
    dry cattle rarely lowed.

    They looked 'most close to dyin', but
    no body had the clout
    to shame ol' Bill to openin'
    the gate that fenced 'em out.

    Next mornin' Bill's wife, Nellie, drove
    the pickup in to town
    and, seein' them, threw wide the gate
    to those heads hangin' down.

    Now, 'ol Bill's prize, his flowin' pond,
    it makes him tough and bold,
    but folks here know his greatest wealth
    is Nellie's heart of gold.

     © 2007, LaVerna B. Johnson
   
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

 

Laverna comments: The phrase "the fence that fenced them out"  came to me one day. Suddenly,  in my mind's eye,  I could see thirsty cattle on a hot summer day on the Arizona Strip, needing water but not able to get to it. Next, I thought of my friend Joy Atkin, and I knew that if she saw cattle suffering—there would be no doubt that their needs would be met.

I called my friend, likely the queen of the cowboys on The Strip, and she had two critiques: (1) Yearlings might not be called calves. I knew this, but wanted to show the relationship, and some of the reason these animals wandered off together. (2) You will have cows founder if they get too much water too soon after such thirst. I agreed, but said, "You know, as much as Nellie loves animals, I knew that she would be a wise lady, just like you. I trust Nellie to get water to them just right."

"Throwing wide the gate" means more than just moving fence posts and barbed wire.

When writing poetry, and choosing friends, some things are just understood.

 



 

He Cannot Stand a Snake

Out ridin’ through sagebrush and grass
Jess does a double take.
His horse side-steps, a jumpin' at
the rattle of a snake

that quickly slithers down a hole
beneath outcrops of shale,
warm sunlight glinting diamond-shine
on every burnished scale.

Jess holsters up his rifle then,
turns back, gave reins a shake,
and nudges cattle homeward. Agh!
Jess cannot STAND a snake!

He’s trained the dog he calls “Booner,”
to share this fear and hate
for sneaky things that might intend
some poison for his fate.

Old Booner doesn’t mind it, that
instead of herding cows
he’s guarding home, and sweet Marie,
the wife Jess took with vows

one year ago, September past.
It leaves Jess feelin’ warm
just knowing Boon is watching there
and keeping her from harm.

He tips his hat to shade himself
from broiling sun—and takes
some joy that Boon is home—and missed
a big scrap with a snake!

That very day, Marie drives in
to town for some supplies.
A stranger waitin' in the store,
speaks up, to her surprise:

Your husband told me you was here.
He smiles, with handsome pride.
You’re some great looker, like he said!
She kinda shakes inside.

I promised I’d come by today.
We are old friends, ya know.
I said I’d help with brandin’ steer
before the rodeo.

He calls himself a hand named, “Bill,”
but gives no family name.
Your man knows I can hold ‘em down,
and will be glad I came.

She sees his eyes, the quivering
of hands that seem to shake
with eagerness as he draws near.
What caution should she take?

Jess will be home right soon, tonight,
she says with nervous smile;
then, dusting off suspicions, says
Come on out, after while.

Stew will be on before sundown,
and Jess will greet you there.
But, as they reach the pickup door
old Booner, growls—teeth bare.

Marie, right quick, tells “Bill” goodbye,
surprised at Boon’s cold stare.
He’s barked at strangers often, but
this quiet says, “Beware!”

Marie breathes deep as she escapes,
while Booner glares behind.
As he stands guard, they head for home.
Unease soon leaves her mind,

‘til, comin’ slow, her rear view shows
“Bill’s” car is sneakin’ near.
Boon’s snarls are speakin’ danger, and
his warnings curdle fear.

Marie knows Jess, out on the range,
cannot be reached by cell.
She punches in a nine-one-one.
(They know the sheriff well.)

He’s on his way! Marie tells him,
I KNOW this Bill's a fake,
hell-bent to harm, 'cause just like Jess—
Boon cannot stand a snake!

© 2012, LaVerna B. Johnson
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's permission.


Laverna comments:
"The line, 'Jess cannot stand a snake' slithered into my subconscious, and though I tried to ignore it, I began to see Jess—and that snake giving warning. It caused me to think about cowboys of today, and their families who live in often isolated conditions. Cell phones, three wheelers, and a lot of new fangled things have brought change, but many of yesterday's dangers must still be faced. There are still some places where only an intelligent horse can meet the challenge of rough terrain and other hazards. Yet, how grateful we must be for new discoveries like cell phones. The story unwound, and I followed it to the end, surprised at where it took me."



 


  About LaVerna B. Johnson:

I was born and raised in the red rock country of southern Utah called "Dixie" since pioneer times. My ancestors settled here, learning how to make a living from a parched land that knew how to fight back. Dad brought me a colt from the herd of wild horses on the nearby "Arizona Strip" when he was working for some ranchers, building fence. It was the only horse I ever had to ride, but he was a good one, once he was tamed. Trips into surrounding wilderness with Dad to gather firewood, build fences, pick pine nuts, go deer hunting, eat his amazing Dutch oven cooking—these were my "vacations," more joyful than any trip to Disneyland. I love our rugged, wild country and the people that go with it. 

You can email LaVerna B. Johnson.

In 2009, LaVerna B. Johnson was named President of the Utah State Poetry Society. Read a September, 2009 article about her and the position here.

 

 

 

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Cowboy Poets of Utah

www.cowboypoetry.com

 

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