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Walt McDonald

1934–

Walt McDonald was born on July 18, 1934, in Texas. In addition to serving as an Air Force pilot and teaching at the Air Force Academy, he earned a PhD from the University of Iowa in 1966.

He is the author of twenty collections of poems, including Climbing the Divide (University of Notre Dame Press, 2003); Great Lonely Places of the Texas Plains (Texas Tech University Press, 2003, poems paired with color photos by Texas State Photographer Wyman Meinzer); All Occasions (2000); Whatever the Wind Delivers: Celebrating West Texas and the Near Southwest (1999; with archival photos selected by Janet Neugebauer from Tech's Southwest Collection), which won a Western Heritage Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame; Blessings the Body Gave (1998); Counting Survivors (1995); Where Skies Are Not Cloudy (1993); All That Matters: The Texas Plains in Photographs and Poems (with photographs selected by Janet Neugebauer; 1992); Night Landings (1989); After the Noise of Saigon (1988); Rafting the Brazos (1988); and The Flying Dutchman (1987). He has also published a book of fiction, A Band of Brothers: Stories from Vietnam (1989).

McDonald has published more than 2,300 poems in journals including American Poetry Review, The American Scholar, The Atlantic Monthly, First Things, Journal of the American Medical Association, London Review of Books, New York Review of Books, The Paris Review, and Poetry. He has received six awards from the Texas Institute of Letters, including the Lon Tinkle Memorial Award for Excellence Sustained Throughout a Career, and four Western Heritage Awards from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. He also served as Texas Poet Laureate in 2001. He is the Paul Whitfield Horn Professor Emeritus at Texas Tech University.

By This Poet

4

My Father on His Shield

Shiny as wax, the cracked veneer Scotch-taped 
and brittle.  I can't bring my father back. 
Legs crossed, he sits there brash 

with a private's stripe, a world away 
from the war they would ship him to 
within days.  Cannons flank his face 

and banners above him like the flag 
my mother kept on the mantel, folded tight, 
white stars sharp-pointed on a field of blue. 

I remember his fists, the iron he pounded, 
five-pound hammer ringing steel, 
the frame he made for a sled that winter 

before the war.  I remember the rope in his fist 
around my chest, his other fist 
shoving the snow, and downhill we dived, 

his boots by my boots on the tongue, 
pines whishing by, ice in my eyes, blinking 
and squealing.  I remember the troop train, 

steam billowing like a smoke screen. 
I remember wrecking the sled weeks later 
and pounding to beat the iron flat, 

but it stayed there bent 
and stacked in the barn by the anvil, 
and I can't bring him back. 

Gardens of Sand and Cactus

My wife takes salt for starters, and rusted strands 
of barbed wire, the iron Grandfather left. 
Chips chunks from a salt block mired in sand, 
that tongue-rubbed marble artwork of the West, 

anywhere cows roam--not buffaloes that lick 
their salt from cactus and the bones of coyotes. 
Takes bones, a skull, when she sees one.  Takes snakeskin 
like twisted strips of film.  Looks under yucca 

for the best, six feet at least.  But fierce 
grandfather snakes don't rattle until they're sure, 
so she listens before she stoops.  Finds horseshoes to pitch, 
any flint or curved stone shaped like a tool. 

Tugging our last child's Radio Flyer in the pasture, 
brings pigments back, even the burnt sienna bolus 
of owls.  Scrapes umber from banks of the Brazos, 
however dry, gold dust where bobcats marked the stumps. 

Packs, stacks it all.  Takes time, fans with her hat, 
then hauls that wagon wobbling to our house. 
Amazed that she makes gardens of cactus and sand, 
I miter frames to hang whatever she's found 

and salvaged as art, even rocks she cuts and tumbles 
in a barrel grinding like sweet, hand-cranked ice cream, 
turning this desert we call home into babies' mobiles, 
wind chimes and swings, bird feeders in every tree. 

Jogging with Oscar

When I take my dachshund jogging, boys and widows gawk 
and stop tossing balls or lopping limbs off shrubs.  They call 
and point at long, pot-bellied Oscar trotting like a rocker horse, 
tongue wagging, dragging on grass when he hops over skateboards, 

long muzzle wide as if laughing, eager, sniffing the breeze. 
All Oscar needs is a tree like a mailbox, postcards from dogs 
he barks at at night, and odd whiffs he can't place.  When he stops 
and squats, up runs a neighbor's collie tall as a horse, 

stalking like a swan meeting an eel, muzzle to muzzle in dog talk, 
collie tail like a feather fan.  Wherever we go, we're not alone 
for an hour, devoted hobblers on the block, the odd couple-- 
long-legged bony man jogging along, obeying the leash law, 

the black, retractable nylon sagging back to Oscar, who never balks 
or sasses when I give the dangling leash a shake, but trots to me 
desperate for affection, panting like a dog off to see Santa, 
willing to jog any block for a voice, a scratch on the back. 

I've seen that hunger in other dogs.  I watched my wife 
for forty years brush dogs that didn't need the love he does. 
When my children visit, my oldest grandsons trot with him 
to the park, that glossy, auburn sausage tugging and barking, 

showing off.  The toddlers squat and pat him on his back. 
They touch his nose and laugh, and make him lick them on the lips. 
Good Oscar never growls, not even if they fall atop him. 
He was a gift from them, last Christmas, a dog their pop 

could take for walks and talk to.  Oscar would have loved my wife, 
who spoiled and petted our old dogs for decades, coaxing them up 
for tidbits on the couch beside her, offering all the bliss 
a dog could wish for, a hand to lick, a lap to lay their heads. 

Oh, he's already spoiled, barks at bluejays on his bowl, 
fat and lonely unless I'm home.  But how groomed and frisky 
he could be if she were here, how calm to see us both 
by the fire, rocking, talking, turning out the lights. 

For Grandfather, in memory of Grandmother Anna