Dirt Cowboy Café

By Cynthia Huntington b. 1951 Cynthia Huntington
Heart, oh heart,
I sit here writing your name
on pieces of paper,
folded, hidden, misplaced . . .
found again.
There is the element of saying
and there is the element of making:
one needn’t choose.
I am singing the dream out from the ice,
asking it to carry me
like a horse or a river, down and away.
This day, here in paned-glass sun:
the young waitress shaking out her apron
and retying it flat across her stomach—
a bit of vanity—her hair swept off her neck,
crash of a milk bottle
on the granite counter, cream
spread in a mild pool toward the rim,
and the roots of habit and longing
briefly seized by the mind.
So noisy here! The sound echoes
out of years, brought to this
showing forth, unrehearsed.
It seems we wake
and find ourselves repeating,
embodying the ancient gestures
by which we recognize
ourselves completed.
Not one of us could be born
and invent life—it must show through us—
the arm flung in the air, the coffee poured out,
and down the street, someone hurrying by,
head down against the wind.
And a man and a woman
come to an old grief,
carved in them, carved
into them
—the old way of water wearing rock—
by law, and the hatred
between them is equal
to the hope neither will release.
Each wants to be whole,
to embody all of time, when nothing
in this world is whole, and
this is by law.
When my father said bitterly
to my mother: you have changed,
he meant, without meaning to say,
how she had changed him. A man
holds his head down against the wind.
Yet the wind fills him
with the dust of temples,
the breath of the dead.
The dream of the light
inside the branches—
a gleam of wet, glimmer that is a bud,
the leaf within the bud.
The photographer comes inside
and closes the lens of his camera.
Then he is the lens. Then my eye
is the light. This
is the element of saying.
The young waitress flings a paper cup
behind her, into the trash can.
That is a saying. The cream swirled
into the coffee, the sugar
dissolving, disembodied,
and the body of the manager disappears,
swallowed into a doorway.
The element of making is slow,
uncertain as a temple,
a falling forward, stitching back,
like a stone wall, like the panes in an
arched window, like a repetition
chosen beyond necessity.
Yet somehow we have seen all this before—
the girl in the fur hat
speaking syrup into a phone;
the falseness of her charm
is an ancient imposter, familiar and
therefore true.
A door is opened and falls
closed. Suddenly at every table
someone looks down and is reading—
books, newspapers, calendars,
reading tea leaves, reading bones.
A woman in a periwinkle jacket: I am reading
her shoulders as the day introspects.
In dream the passive construction
and the past perfect tense prevail:
she was being pushed on a swing.
The woman with many television credits
gazes out the window, heavy with years,
forgetting herself, forgetting sorrow,
the false husband, the crippled child,
the old plots forgetting,
and it is suddenly lovely, as free as
something read or dreamed; the young
waitress with sun on her
face—her unblemished face—looks up,
from the middle of eternity, her desire
immaculate in the moment.
When a word is beautiful
above all others—your name—
when a woman appears as a bird of prey
and we turn away,
hoping not to be recognized—oh heart!—
when the light on the branches
flares in a window with no sky,
this is old story reading us, these are springs
from words laid down before
and ahead of us, and in the moment
we are making an answer.

Cynthia Huntington, “Dirt Cowboy Café” from Heavenly Bodies. Copyright © 2012 by Cynthia Huntington. Reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press.

Source: Heavenly Bodies (Southern Illinois University Press, 2012)

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Poet Cynthia Huntington b. 1951

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Subjects Living, Life Choices, The Body, The Mind, Time & Brevity, Activities, Jobs & Working, Relationships, Family & Ancestors, Men & Women

Poetic Terms Free Verse


Cynthia Huntington was born in Meadville, Pennsylvania. She earned a BA at Michigan State University and an MA from the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College.
Huntington’s free verse poems often examine the bare mind, restlessly turning the form of the individual against both built and natural environments, mapping both threat and respite against a shifting screen of personal memory. Introducing her early work in . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Living, Life Choices, The Body, The Mind, Time & Brevity, Activities, Jobs & Working, Relationships, Family & Ancestors, Men & Women

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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