It’s Saturday morning at the 32nd National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev., and the Ruby Mountain Ballroom is packed. The introductory applause has faded, but 91-year-old Elizabeth Ebert, “the Grand Dame of Cowboy Poetry,” in gold earrings and a navy blue pantsuit, is still pushing her way across the stage, two wrinkled hands on the walker, slightly stooped, a lariat of oxygen tubes peaking out from a small tank affixed to the side. Seated behind her, fellow poets R.P. Smith and Yvonne Hollenbeck, soon to perform themselves, smile as though clued in to some inside joke.
For a moment, the room is still. A wet cough. A camera shutter. The pfsh of a turning page. Ebert’s short, white hair catches light as she pulls out her marker and unsteadily flattens her book on the lectern.
“I’m kind of shaky in the morning,” she says. “Kind of shaky at night, too.”
The room laughs, is ready to laugh, wants to laugh, because 91-year-old Elizabeth Ebert—that intangible suggestion about her, that wry smile daring you to keep up—commands it. They know Elizabeth, or they think they do. They have or had mothers, grandmothers, a little white-haired aunt who lived on the farm, dutifully supporting her husband, sweet and soft-spoken, a story or two from the range always in the chamber. They’re expecting something funny and something sweet, wrapped in a shawl and rocking back and forth on a creaking pinewood porch. A Sunday yarn. A hard candy.
“Above my basement stairwell is a little cubby hole in which I put junk I don’t know what to do with,” she begins, “and I take the box out every once in a while and I ruffle through it, and one day I found a little notebook that said ‘21st Anniversary.’ The poem went like this:
We have reached a majority.
Twenty-one conglomerate years of marriage.
Good times and bad, sickness and health,
Joy and sorrow.
Sometimes I’d like to try for twenty-two
(Winchester, bolt action right between his eyes.)
This is not what the crowd expected. It’s better. Bolder. It’s more defiant, reflective of the blacklisted Dorothy Parker Ebert once admired, the New York poet and literary critic who once rhymed, in a poem titled “Love Song,”
He’ll live his days where the sunbeams start,
Nor could storm or wind uproot him.
My own dear love, he is all my heart,—
And I wish somebody’d shoot him.
The crowd is beside itself, heads buried in red-faced guffaws, eyes wide as silver dollars. Though Ebert’s love for her late husband S.J. is true as the ground beneath her—for every poem poking fun, there’s another three in dripping admiration—she often jokes they were happily married for 19 years, and another 42 “that sometimes got a little iffy.”
Hollenbeck, one of Ebert’s closest friends and a fellow South Dakota ranch wife, hears it over and over again: “’What’s this old gray-haired lady doing here?’ And then she has them rolling in the aisles. You can’t believe that little lady comes up with the stuff she does. She’s without a doubt the most popular cowgirl poet out there.”
Nevertheless, Ebert is tired. She doesn’t travel like she used to, doesn’t hesitate to curse her own body, her heart, the oxygen tank she now drags with her from the kitchen to the bedroom to the car. She doesn’t worry about dying—“that’s the least of my problems,” she says—and some days she wishes she would, “because I’m tired of dragging this damn thing around.”
She will continue to write, though she will not return to the Elko gathering. In all likelihood, the 2016 event was her last act on cowboy poetry’s main stage, and though she dismisses the importance of her own work and the influence she’s had on the genre, others do not. To the bowlegged bards of the West, Elizabeth Ebert is in a league of her own.
“It’s like you’re having a parade, and everyone is driving a Honda,” says Baxter Black, the genre’s most celebrated poet, “and she comes in in a Cadillac, sitting on the top.”
* * *
Former South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds proclaimed February 24, 2005, “Elizabeth Ebert Day.” She’s won “The Badger: Excellence in Poetry Award” and the award for “Best Female Poet” from the Academy of Western Artists. She’s garnered universal praise from the world of cowboy poetry, and yet, Ebert does not revel in talking about her own work, does not strike at the opportunity to pontificate on why she broke a line here, or added the last stanza, or titled her poem “Cowboy Courtin’ Time,” though in the latter case, she doesn’t need to.
Long years have passed since courtin’ time
Changed me from Miss to Mrs.
And I’ll admit, I’ve grown to like
Those cowboy-cowdog kisses
She doesn’t write on command, can’t write your friend a birthday poem or an ode for the centennial celebration. She writes when the words strike her, making sure to keep stacks of paper scattered around the house. And she writes with pen and paper, never a computer, though she does email and knows enough about Facebook to know she hates it, the way people share every detail of their lives.
Sometimes she’ll write a beginning, sometimes an end, but rarely does she write a poem in one sitting. Often times, they’ll germinate for weeks, if not months or more. And though she will occasionally dabble in free verse—“21st Anniversary,” for example—she’s adamant that poetry isn’t poetry at all unless it adheres to meter and rhyme. In the same way her dad made sure his lines were even and his fences were straight, her daughter Jayne says, Ebert makes sure her words are straight and her verse is even, taking her cues from poets like Parker—whom Ebert now finds “cynical and slightly smutty”—and early cowboy poet Badger Clark.
“Most cowboy poetry is rhyming poetry, and her rhythm and her rhymes are so perfect,” Hollenbeck says. “You can dance to her poetry.”
But they’re not always funny, and they’re not always sweet. The novelist Willa Cather once said, “Life began for me when I ceased to admire, and began to remember.” Ebert, too, and her memories—after 91 years on the high plains—are not all roses and sunshine. In fact, many of Ebert’s poems end in death, like “Tears Are For Kids And Women,” based on a young bull rider killed in McLaughlin, S.D., an event that kept her away from the rodeo for years. Or “He Talked About Montana,” based on a hired hand who worked hard, drank harder, and dreamed of returning to Montana.
She’s written two full-length books of poetry, Crazy Quilt and Prairie Wife, a chapbook of Christmas poems and a spoken-word album titled Live from Thunder Hawk, each of them a smooth blend of happy and sad, sentimental and defiant. But when it comes to her live performances, she sticks to the material that draws the biggest laughs. Poems like “The Last Great Rabbit Hunt,” in which she and her husband S.J. shoot a whole load of rabbits to sell for a quick buck in town. The fourth stanza ends:
And on that wind was wafted
Such a stench across the lot
That, finally, we remembered
Those rabbits we forgot
“When you start doing something serious at a [poetry] gathering, [the audience] just kind of turns off,” she says. “If you’re going to get hired someplace, you’re gonna have to do something people like.”
* * *
Save for the poems she’d pen for her Christmas card each year, Ebert was a closet poet until 1989, already well into her 60s. The year before, Ebert and S.J. attended a cowboy poetry gathering in Medora, N.D. On the drive home, S.J.—who’d always encouraged her poetry and knew how easily the words could trap her—prodded her to perform a few of her own poems. Always a private person, she hesitated to agree.
She’d never written for an audience before, never wanted to. She wrote poems for herself, a way to remember her past, the way things used to be, poems she considered “weird,” but made her feel better nonetheless, poems she committed to the page only to crumple them up and feed them to the fire. “Too profound to repeat,” she jokes. Not even her kids were allowed to read them.
Eventually she filled out the paperwork to participate in the Medora gathering, carrying the submission envelope down her short gravel drive and placing it in the mailbox each morning, only to run back and retrieve it before the postman arrived (the same bundle of nerves that would keep her circling the block outside the Elko Convention Center four years later, before her first-ever performance at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering). But then she slipped up, forgot she’d left it in the mailbox, and when she hurried down to retrieve it, that familiar envelope was gone. She was committed.
She performed in Medora the following year, the first time she’d ever recited her poetry before a public audience. She garnered rounds of applause and an invitation to perform again the next year at a larger show in Bismarck, sharing the bill with a handful of seasoned poets, among them Baxter Black, twenty years her junior, who’d become nationally recognized after a popular appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Hearing Ebert perform for the first time “was just one of those grand moments,” he says.
“You could just see a flower growing there out of the rest of us standing around like weeds.”
When the shows were over, Ebert joined Baxter and the other poets in the lounge, now part of a community she’d never heard of just a few years prior. The two admired each other’s work, and over the years, after so many book recommendations and words of encouragement—what Ebert assumes was Black’s influence in her invitation to the national gathering—she’s come to think of Baxter as her mentor in cowboy poetry. Baxter considers himself “the lucky one,” unaware he was a mentor at all.
“I knew from the very first poem that she started at the top,” he says. “We’re all out there shuffling, doing our stuff, and she didn’t have to come and audition for anybody. She just had it.”
* * *
Born Feb. 24, 1925, Ebert grew up listening to her father’s fanciful stories and reading the Westerns he kept around the house, like Emerson Hough’s The Covered Wagon or James Oliver Curwood’s The Hunted Woman. At night, she and her three siblings would listen to their mother read them aloud, interrupted only by their father bringing her a fresh cup of coffee. The whole family rhymed, leaving couplets around the house, reminders to pick up this or that, to finish the chores.
Ebert wrote her first poem when she was just four years old. She graduated top of her high school class in nearby Thunder Hawk on the North Dakota line—a class of four, so “that didn’t count much, did it?”—and enrolled in a summer program at the Black Hills Secretarial School in Rapid City, S.D., at the age of 16. Returning north, she worked briefly as a bookkeeper for a bank in Lemmon, then followed a friend to Washington, D.C. She hated the capital city as much as she hated Minneapolis, where she spent a year studying journalism and English at the University of Minnesota when she turned 18, hoping to write novels.
Then, “I got married,” she says. “Everything stopped.”
The couple first met on Nov. 8, 1945, a date she conjures up effortlessly, unlike so many others anymore. Though S.J.’s parents lived just four miles down the road, she’d never met him. He was a decade older and, after high school, had moved to the West Coast, where he worked as a mechanic and raced Model Ts until he was drafted for service during WWII. Tall and thin, hair slicked back, S.J. pulled up to the dancehall in Morristown, S.D., in a black Ford Coup, the tragedies of the Italian Campaign just months behind him. But he caught a young Elizabeth Summers’ eye that night. Of that first impression, she just smiles and says, “He was cute.”
Three days later, on Veteran’s Day, they went on their first date. Four months later, on March 20, 1945, they got married at the American Lutheran Church in Lemmon, only their families in attendance.
Her own parents took to S.J. almost immediately. It didn’t hurt that both S.J. and Elizabeth’s father, John, were veterans and trained mechanics. More than cute, S.J. was “capable,” she says. Having survived the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, she knew how valuable a capable man could be.
Soon after the ceremony, they celebrated their honeymoon with a cabin rental in the Black Hills. When they left, she says, “it was a beautiful, beautiful day,” hardly a cloud in the sky. But the night left them with 12 inches of snow, and in the morning they tore out their reverse gear attempting to back out of a snow bank. They stayed an extra three days waiting for repairs.
“The funny part was the cabin where we were staying was called The Linger Inn.”
They bought some land, just a half-section at first. They bought a house, just four miles from the house she grew up in. And they raised three children: Jonni, John and Jayne. Children who would know first-hand the importance of hard work, but also the poetry of a night beneath the stars, camped out with their mother on a bed of wheat in the old grain truck, connecting the dots, searching for constellations, breath rising in the crisp, fall air.
All the while, Ebert continued to write poems, jotting down a line here, a line there, whenever she had a free moment, whenever the rhymes hit her—sometimes in the middle of the night, sometimes in the summer fallow tractor, where’d she’d write in the dust of the windshield. S.J. never interrupted her, never asked her to stop if she’d already started. In their later years, just to tease her, he’d rhyme as often as he could. “It drove me nuts,” she says. They didn’t always agree, but on this they did: “It’s better to love someone in spite of, than because of.”
* * *
For nearly 20 years, she and S.J., finally retired, used her newfound reputation in the world of cowboy poetry to travel the way they’d always wanted to: slowly, and in every direction. They always drove—twice to gatherings in Santa Clarita, Calif.; nearly a dozen to Elko; to Colorado; Arizona; both Dakotas; all over the West and back again. “If it should have taken a day to get there,” she says, “we took a week.”
S.J. collected rocks. Elizabeth photographed flowers. They stopped for both and everything else. They took the smallest roads. They ate in the smallest diners. When Elizabeth drove, she’d slip into poetic reverie, often nudging her husband to grab some paper and transcribe a line or two before she forgot it. When S.J. was behind the wheel, he’d rest his right hand on her left leg and give her a squeeze.
The cowboy poetry community embraced S.J., too. They called him “darling,” presented him with an instrument case so he’d fit in amongst the musicians and poets he spent so much time around. But there wasn’t an instrument inside. There was a bottle of Scotch. Ebert joked she only brought him along to help her take off her boots at night, but in truth, she wouldn’t have traveled without him. “He was a lot more important to me than poetry,” she says.
Ebert considers their retirement together the happiest years of her life, the reward for decades of hard work. But it wouldn’t last forever. Ten years her senior, S.J. was already 75 years old by the time they embarked on their travels. He eventually suffered a heart attack, and later, seizures. He was transferred from their little house on the prairie to the Five Counties Nursing Home. She spent every day with him, driving in from the ranch at 7:00 every morning and returning home again after he fell asleep. He grew weak and eventually he stopped talking, but he still held her hand. They knew what was coming. S.J. was tired, and she was too. On Aug. 18, 2008, he passed away.
“We’d said our goodbyes. It was just time to go,” she says. “It was a relief that he didn’t suffer anymore.”
* * *
Ebert is a bundle of contradictions. She is a South Dakota conservative who once loved Dorothy Parker, a New York liberal and radical feminist.
“At the time I admired Parker’s long cigarette holder and wished to go to New York and hobnob with the literati,” she says. But a few dalliances with city life “and all I wanted was a piece of prairie that I could call my own and a lot fewer people around.”
She is a poet, but she is reticent to express her feelings. She has created a new life from poetry—in fact, everyone knew her as Beth before the books called her Elizabeth—but in her darkest moments, she finds no solace in it. When S.J. passed, “I didn’t think about poetry,” she says. “Too many other things to think about.” She worries about the future, but she writes about the past. She calls herself a private person, but admits it’s nice to be recognized. She is frail, but she is mighty.
“She’s not standoffish, but you get the impression that you shouldn’t push this lady around,” says Linda Hasselstrom, a South Dakota poet and author. “Don’t be obnoxious to this woman, ’cause she could take your head off if necessary. Literally or figuratively, I don’t know.”
But it’s the contradictions that make us human. And anyway, she says, “nothing bothers me anymore.”
“I always figure when you’re 91, you’re older than everybody else. If you don’t know the answer, just make it up. Nobody is going to disagree with you.”
He Talked About Montana
He talked about Montana
For he’d worked there in his youth,
And you somehow got the feeling
That most of it was truth.
Talked about the things he’d done there,
Memories from a happy past.
Talked about Montana rivers
Running cold, and deep and fast,
About pines upon a hillside
And mountains rising high,
About the endless reaches
Of a blue Montana sky.
Said he left there at the war’s start,
Went to tell his folks good-bye.
Then there was a wartime wedding
To a girl who got his eye.
Said she’d keep the home fires burning,
‘Til the war was past and won,
Wrote her love to him in letters,
Sent him pictures of their son.
And the letters and the pictures
Helped him bear the death and blood.
And he’d dream about Montana
As he slogged through foreign mud.
They would buy a little ranch there,
And he’d teach the boy to ride.
It would be a bit of heaven,
With his family at his side.
But he came home to discover
Someone else was in his place.
She had found another lover.
It was more than he could face
For he was tired of fighting,
So he merely let them go.
It was then he started drinking,
Just to ease the pain, you know.
He’d work a month cold sober,
And then he’d draw his pay,
He was headed for Montana;
But the booze got in his way,
And he never made it out of town,
‘Fore the money all was spent
And he was busted flat again,
And he didn’t know where it went.
So he’d come back asking for his job.
And he’d hope you’d understand.
And you always hired him on again
For he was a darned good hand.
And he’d talk about Montana.
And you’d get a glimmer then,
Of the cowboy that he used to be,
And the man he might have been
Before the war and wife and whiskey
Had bent him out of shape.
Now the war and wife were history
And the whiskey was escape.
But he swore that he was going back
And he’d do most anything
For Montana sure was pretty
When it greened up in the spring.
Then he finally got an offer
To tend a band of sheep.
It was just for winter wages,
Barely paid his board and keep.
But it was in Montana,
So he was on his way,
He could stand to winter woollies,
He would work for little pay,
For he’d be there in the springtime
When the sky turned clear and blue,
And he’d go back to punching cattle
When his winter job was through.
Don’t know why he left the sheep camp,
Started walking into town,
Maybe he just needed whiskey
To wash the lonely down.
Quick come Montana’s blizzards.
Deep falls Montana’s snow.
And unforgiving are the winds
When they once begin to blow.
He’d come looking for his Paradise,
He hadn’t come to die.
But he froze upon a lonely road
‘Neath a cold Montana sky.
© 1997, Elizabeth Ebert,
and included in Crazy Quilt.
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without author’s written permission.