Four Poems by Walt McDonald

Trail's End

We locked the gate behind us,
as Uncle George taught. Not that longhorns
would get out--one hoof on a round,
slick bar of the cattle guard
and they'd know heaven was behind them,

pasture with dry stubble. Ahead, where the hoof
slips through, was hell: break a leg
and die. Buzzards patrol the sky,
death angels waiting for one wrong step,
one step. A month on the ranch

was never enough when I was a boy,
not even now, after our own children
have gone. Horses have to be begged
to be saddled. Go away, their haunches say,
side-stepping until caught by the wall.

Grown fat, they hobble along like mules,
have to be bossed to trot, quivering,
about to buck. If his geldings know
George rocks alone in a rest home,
they don't care, no coyotes, now,

no rattlesnakes. Houses around the ranch
drove them off, the golf course
trapping whatever slips past the barbed wire.
The ranch is down to a thousand acres,
the last five horses like old men

whittling in the county park,
the only wrangler a college boy
who drives out twice a week and feeds them,
rubs and turns them out to browse,
to dream of oats, to watch the sun go down.


From Kitty Hawk to Hatteras

See what you've been missing,
the ferry system says--Fort Fisher, Southport,
Ocracoke. Hatteras has a lighthouse,
dragged back a thousand feet

from the beach eroding fast as clocks.
See what's missing? Grain by grain,
sand slips away, swirls of black stripes
winding around the white lighthouse.

The earth revolves, the moon, the ravenous tides.
Granddaddy built his house on Kitty Hawk
to last, no sign my mother was born
and almost died in hurricanes,

the roof like a box kite. See what's missing?
Granddaddy propped it up between trips
for mullet and sea trout, until his boat
went down in a storm off Hatteras.

Grandmother grieved and weaved,
but now Grandmother's gone,
all aunts and cousins, even the roof
and Mother. Shacks along the dunes

balance on stilts, homes the salt sea breeze
takes back. Board by bolt they rust
and rot, propped up, abandoned
or bulldozed, making room for condos

or tourist shops with shark teeth,
lighthouses five inches tall, sea shells,
doubloons, brochures with maps
where beaches used to be.


Out in the Pasture at Dusk

The prairie on any day is endless,
too much to take it in between blinks.
My wife and I aren't Atlas
toting the world. We carry the cosmos,
not a globe but stars and rocks

in a billion different directions,
if we could see them, like canoeing
the Brazos River after a rain,
ripples and flow forever changing.
Horizon is fragile on the plains.

Grazing cattle shift, the buzzards glide,
vast details that don't match. Boots
and horses' hooves turn the globe,
and skyline scrolls. We raised four babies
on the plains. They toddled off and fell,

shoved up and now they're gone.
Explorers learned the signs,
established trails highways bypass.
Step any direction and pastures change,
a herd of antelopes galloping

by the time binoculars change hands,
strap quickly off and my wife
lifting them with a twist to fit
her eyes, counting four pronghorns
or five, not the ten I claimed I saw.


Chains We Didn't Hang

Grandfather's mansion was a shack
surrounded by corrals and barns,
a thousand cattle and horses.

Grandfather's ranch was Oz.
Chubby Grandmother spoiled us,
a wand in the kitchen and game room,

presto! our own good witch of the West
telling stories at night by the fire.
Cuddled, we stroked the folds

of her throat that swayed
when she chuckled and hugged us.
Gone, now, only pastures and barns,

corrals my wife and I rebuilt,
the last windmills a wonder of pumps.
Nights, we rock on the porch on chains

we didn't hang, wondering how many years
the magic lasts, how long
until our own grandkids come back.

Walt McDonald was an Air Force pilot, taught at the Air Force Academy, and is the Texas Poet Laureate for 2001.  Some of his recent books are "All Occasions" (U. of Notre Dame Press, 2000), "Blessings the Body Gave" and "The Flying Dutchman" (Ohio State, 1998, 1987), "Counting Survivors" (Pittsburgh, 1995), "Night Landings" (Harper & Row, 1989) and "After the Noise of Saigon" (Massachusetts, 1988.)

His poems have been in journals including APR, The American Scholar, The Atlantic Monthly, First Things, The Journal of the American Medical Association, The London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, Orion, Poetry and TriQuarterly.

You can see more of his work  at his listing in the web site of the Academy of American Poets, as well as in the "Samples" link of his home page,  You can contact him at

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