Western Civilization

By James Galvin b. 1951 James Galvin

for William Kittredge

1.

That woman still lives at her ranch.
You can ask her. Maybe
She knows. As near and far

As the rest of us can tell
The barn and sheds were built
In the Great Depression. Someone

Had money and a big idea.
Far and away the biggest
Idea I’ve ever seen.

Pat says there must’ve been
A hundred men, shepherds
And shearers, working there.

It’s one of those things
That not only is, but seems,
Larger inside than out,

Like a planetarium or an orange,
Even with Wyoming around it,
And real stars flying away.

Just stick your head in there;
Its dark will make you dizzy.
It has an underneath

Too low to stand in unless
You are a sheep. The loft
Vaults like a dusky church.


    2.

All that summer
I balanced water,

Coaxing the desert
Into pasture,

With eight cubic feet
Per second for two

Thousand acres.
Horseback, shovel

On my shoulder along
Miles of ditches:

Stalling here,
Releasing there,

Water over
The deepening green,

Keeping it living:
Herons and cranes

Regal in meadows,
Strings of ducklings

Frothing the ditch
To get away.


    3.

One day riding ditches I saw Clay.
He was on the hill against the sky,
Flapping his arms at me.
They were going to bulldoze the corrals at the shearing sheds,
Intricate maze of gates and pens
Clay, as a kid, had built with his father,
Before they lost their ranch, before Frank died,
Before the family had to move away.

The new owner was razing everything.
I guess he had some kind of idea.
Clay didn’t need any gates, but, as Pat said,
That’s Clay.
I met them at the shearing sheds.
Pat held a wrecking bar like a steel snake.
I just can’t stand tearin’ apart all them guys’s dreams,
he said, looking shy.
Hell is when you know where you are.


    4.

On the barn roof a loose piece of tin
Flaps in the wind like a broken wing.
Wyoming whirls in the sun.

Up in the loft a pair of shears,
Oh, fifty or sixty years forgotten there,

Floats in noonlight, bearing up some dust,
Just a pair of spring-steel scissors,
Two knives joined at the hip, with smiling edges.

An owl the color of things left alone
Flaps out of the gable door.

Hell is when you know where you are:
Mazes of pens and gates dreaming sheep;
Miles of ditches dreaming green.


    5.

No one living knows
Who built the shearing sheds,
Unless maybe that woman,
And I’m not about to ask her,
Ever since she tried
To stab her husband with a pair of scissors.
He was ninety-one
And barely held her off.
Later she claimed she was just
Trying to cut his heart
Medication out of his shirt
Pocket — dope, she called it —
And the old man had to leave
The ranch, where he didn’t last long.

They bulldozed the corrals.
We got forty gates.
We took them someplace safe.


    6.

Now the vast, dim barn floats like an ocean liner
Whose doldrums are meadows spinning into brush,
And everywhere you look Wyoming hurries off.

All night the stars make their escape.
In the loft a pair of shears cuts woolly moonlight.
All day a piece of roofing slaps in the wind.

A startled owl flaps out of the gable.
Hell is when you know where you are and it’s beautiful.
You saved the gates for nothing.

You balanced the water to keep the green from spinning
Away into sage, the same gray as the wing
That just now shaded your eyes.

James Galvin, “Western Civilization” from Resurrection Update: Collected Poems 1975-1997. Copyright © 1997 by James Galvin. Used by permission of Copper Canyon Press, www.coppercanyonpress.org.

Source: Resurrection Update (Copper Canyon Press, 1997)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet James Galvin b. 1951

POET’S REGION U.S., Northwestern

Subjects Relationships, Activities, Jobs & Working, Nature, Landscapes & Pastorals, Social Commentaries

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 James  Galvin

Biography

James Galvin is the author of several collections of poetry, including Resurrection Update: Collected Poems, 1975–1997 and X (2003); a novel, Fencing the Sky (1999); and The Meadow (1992), a prose meditation on the landscape of the Wyoming-Colorado border and the people who live there.

Galvin’s work is infused with the genuine realities of the western landscape, while at the same time not shirking difficult questions of faith, . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Relationships, Activities, Jobs & Working, Nature, Landscapes & Pastorals, Social Commentaries

POET’S REGION U.S., Northwestern

Poetic Terms Free Verse

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.