The Tyranny of Distance Briefly Conquered
120 men weighing 125 pounds or less,
take an oath in 1860 that they don’t follow—
that while an employee of Russell, Majors,
and Waddell, they swear to God they will not quarrel.
Under no circumstances, will profanity be uttered
or liquor touch their lips.
For 18 months, words travel
as never before. Dashing back and forth
between California and Missouri,
spurred on by wiry men in saddles,
letters press against sweaty flanks
of ponies. For a time, people
opened the smell of earth.
All the Greats Communicate Differently Now
i. April 16, 1841 (Stockton, Ireland)
William Campbell, the last
surviving Pony Express rider is born.
When he turns eight, his feet will settle
on American soil—and itch.
As a teen, William will scratch by
working for Russell, Major, and Waddell,
first as a bull-whacker, then moving up
from lumbering ox-drawn wagons
to spirited ponies, will be one
in the long line to carry letters
and Lincoln’s first message
ii. February 16, 1924 (Escalon, California)
As letters fly on wings of steel, the old pony rider
writes to Addison E. Sheldon of his riding years,
how later he served as Nebraska’s State Senator,
and was compelled to seek a milder climate
on account of my health, which I recovered
in our beautiful San Joaquin Valley in California…
We now have 140,000 acres under water,
with 600 miles of irrigation ditches to water
fruit orchards and alfalfa fields.
iii. October 24, 2014 (it doesn’t matter where)
His great-granddaughter is Joy Campbell Panzer.
Most likely the Joy Panzer who profiles—
via Facebook—the missive of a mallard clamped
in the mouth of a Lab named Lizzy. Orange feet—
jutting from the duck’s wet belly—suspended
in final applause.
When Joy praises Nancy Shahan-Wall
for taking such great pictures of Lizzy,
her shout goes out around the world.
Nancy Shahan-Wall likes this.
Joy likes Big Chico Burger, orthodontists,
Ternero olive oil and pink ribbon puppies.
She’s damn proud to be an American.
Without breaking a sweat, fingers gallop
to Cinder Farms. It’s Barn Days
where daughter Leah and Chewy
the ginger-colored horse pose for pictures,
blond manes spilling over winter coats.
Joy Panzer likes this
then rides a horse through an orchard
with neatly mowed rows
and snaps a selfie—
across the country
iv. October 25, 2014 (Kalamazoo, Michigan)
Raking a storm of silver maple leaves
to the curb, thinking of Joy Campbell Panzer
and how she likes the Haggins Museum,
who’s gift shop looks like fall—fake pears,
caramel candles wrapped in crisp white labels.
Who knows what William favored.
Probably the Sioux woman who sewed
him a robe from buffalo hide he gave her.
He must have been partial to tall weeds—
a flotilla of reedy lighthouses above the snow
saved him and Ragged Jim during a blizzard.
v. Same Autumn, Pizza Hut (Portage, Michigan)
It’s no secret that thumbs can’t see.
They gallop blindly over the grand
descendent of the late, great telegraph.
Even the mother, spellbound by landscape
running smoothly beneath her palms
cannot find the reins to save the child
who places a foot in a sticky stirrup,
mounts—with difficulty—the high chair,
yowls, then tumbles down.
~ ~ ~
Jennifer Clark is the author of the full-length poetry collection, Necessary Clearings (Shabda Press). Her second poetry collection, Johnny Appleseed: The Slice and Times of John Chapman, is forthcoming from Shabda Press. Her work has been published in failbetter, Flyway, Nimrod, and Ecotone, among other places. She lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.