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About Lisa Rumsey Harris




The Words in Cowboy

Cowwhich I hate
which I'm not

Where are words for me?

Big hair. Aqua net. Satin and Fringe. Linedancing.

Are there words for me?

I train palominos to lope like lullabies.
I splice fences, stretching barbed wire tense til it twangs like windchimes.
I lift alfalfa into feeders, trickling green flakes down my shirt.
I warm a cold bit in winter, breathing on it, clenching it in my sweaty hand.
I hold down chestnut flanks while Mother sews the bitemarks closed, using the stitch Grandma taught her.    

Boots and spurs don't need a man to wear them.
But the word "cowboy" sure does.

© 2005, Lisa Rumsey Harris
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

Lisa told us: "The Words in Cowboy" expresses my inability to articulate exactly what my connection to my Western roots are. Frankly, I don't like cows, and I'm not a boy. But I've spent my whole life with horses. So what does that make me? The poem grew out of that question.


Whiskey Women

Your Great-Grandma Lucille—fiery and outspoken—telling stories as she drives
potato trucks, putting cold calves in the bathtub, tangling with raspberry
briars, building fences, gathering eggs, and inoculating cattle.

Your Grandma Cheryl— she tells me she's a farm woman— I believe her. In an ice
storm she tore the tailgate off the truck then hitched the horse trailer so
we could take bleeding Banner to the vet.

Your mother Lisa—tougher on paper than in person—the horse I trained shies
at cattle. Still I wear cowboy boots and kill spiders.

Is there wilderness in you?

You stand on the back of your rocking horse—a two-year-old trick rider.
You rip off ribboned headbands, screaming.

Sela—my daughter
— another whiskey woman.

© 2005, Lisa Rumsey Harris
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

Lisa told us: This poem started out as the dedication in my Master's thesis: "A Woman's Place in the West" which explored portrayals of Western ranch women in literature and in my own family folklore. The title is metaphorical.  The poem traces my daughter's matrilineal ranching heritage, starting with my own grandmother, Lucille Leatham Rudd. To me, Grandma represented the quintessential Western woman: a woman with a strong voice, a strong will, a strong hand, and a way with words. And sometimes, I feel like I'm just a watered-down Kool-aid version of this original "whiskey" woman. But still, I see glimmers of her strength in me and in her other female descendants. The reason I wrote this poem was to honor her, and to teach my little girl that she came from good strong stock.

I use poetry to capture images with words. While poetry ( to me)  isn't necessarily about rhyming, it's always about rhythm and cadence. Look at Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, ee cummings, Derek Walcott, and even good old Walt Whitman: all talented poets who write free verse.


Two Windows

A coyote came to the horse water to drink last night,
My mother tells me over the phone.
The pup barked and bristled. That coyote treed your cat!
She was the size of a Shetland pony, Mom adds.
And when Dad went out to chase her away,
she just stared at us, with condescending eyes.
We had to throw rocks at her.

The horse water is beneath my windows at home.
I look outside here. The English tea roses bloom in the hedges---
Pink and white against trimmed green.
Through the chain-link fence, I can see the neighbor's Chihuahua.
She whines and cries.
The neighbor comes out. His screen door clangs.

Is my cat all right? She's fine, says Mom.
But she stays in at night now.
What happened to the coyote? I ask.
Oh, she just slunk off through the sagebrush
Toward the dry farms above our place.

© 2005, Lisa Rumsey Harris
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

Lisa told us, "I wrote 'Two Windows' when I was attending college and felt hemmed in by civilization. I missed the wilderness of Idaho. And I prefer coyotes to Chihuahuas any day of the week."

Saving Al

I gather him against me tight,
my left arm across his chest,
my right under his tail.
He fits inside the circle of my arms,
nibbling my sleeve.
His mother paws in the corral, halfway to China,
churning up enough dust to send smoke signals,
Her whinny pierces like a bottle-rocket.
Mom pours alcohol over the razor blade and comes close.
I brace myself and lock my arms.
She presses the bright edge across the abscess on his neck, fleshy as an apple,
where the geldings seized him while his mother lay spent from labor.
Blood flashes, bright against his soft, curling, palomino coat.
He rears, but I am ready.
He lands hard and blows.
Mom hollers at me to hold him!
He doesn’t try it again. He stands and shakes.
She works the wound, forcing pus and blood out.
The mare fights the halter, braces, and works to uproot the fence post.
He quiets, and tucks his nose in my armpit.
There is blood all over me, but Mom is clean.
It’s done, she says.
At the sound of her voice, he flings his head up.
He has ignored his own mother, but he cannot ignore mine.
His eyes roll, showing white.
She’s the priestess, he’s the sacrifice.
He doesn’t know that she hurt him to save him.
I have forgotten too.
I hold him and croon. I am singing now, I realize.
We’ll have to do this everyday, says Mom, to fight the infection.
I cannot unlock my arms.

© 2007, Lisa Rumsey Harris
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

Lisa told us, "This poem is about my first introduction to cowboy-doctoring. I was fourteen, and fresh to the whole concept of hurting to help. No squeamish, fainting, female flowers need apply. It was the first time I  played nurse to my mother while she doctored animals.  At the time, I felt like an accomplice, but  the colt (Al) survived. He would grow up  to be the first horse I ever broke from the ground up. Nowadays, he likes to nibble on my back pocket when I check his feet. I think he's  forgiven me for the circumstances of our first introduction."


About Lisa Rumsey Harris:

I'm originally from the sagebrush country of Southern Idaho (near Pocatello), but I've been transplanted to suburban Utah.

I grew up training and riding horses. My grandfather had a quarter-horse ranch on the Idaho side of the Grand Tetons. When I turned eight, he gave me a palomino mare.  The first horse I ever trained was the son of that mare, and he's still hanging around  my parent's place near Pocatello, Idaho.  I just finished my master's degree in English at Brigham Young University, where I still teach part time. I'm also a devoted wife and a mother of two sassy little girls, Sela (3 1/2 years) and Sasha (4 months).

I'm a big fan of Gretel Ehrlich, Sue Wallis, Teresa Jordan, and other women writers who are exploring their Western roots. Most of my poetry is inspired by my desire to honor my Western progenitors and to reclaim my own Western heritage for my two daughters. 




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