A couple of years after I moved to the Phoenix, Arizona area, I travelled south to Tombstone for a weekend. There I found myself in a curious space. The town made famous by the gunfight at the OK Corral had been refashioned for tourism. Wooden planks lined the streets. The businesses along the streets included a couple saloons and restaurants but mostly hosted souvenir shops. On the east end of the town stood one of the few authentic structures remaining from the era that Wyatt Earp and his brothers made legendary, the Cage Bird Theatre, which, though dusty and cluttered, is mostly intact and functions as sort of a quasi-museum. Walking through, visitors notice faro tables, doorways that lead to spaces that were once the cribs of the working girls, and antique items, like books and photos, which memorialise the time.
Among the dust and bric-a-brac, on one wall, I noticed a revealing photo of Josie Marcus, Wyatt Earp’s third wife, who is thought to have been a prostitute herself prior to their relationship. I also noticed on display permits filed by women to work legally as prostitutes in Tombstone at the end of the nineteenth century, giving dates and the amount of fees paid. Something about the details of the permits ignited my imagination, and I began to wonder about the lives of these prostitutes. Who were they? What did their voices sound like? When they are depicted in movies or books and even in folk songs like ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’, they tend to be depicted flatly and predictably: the fallen woman, the prostitute with the heart of gold, the luring vixen, and so on. I started reading history books and taking notes, reading up on the lives of these women. Over the next few years, I visited the towns and places where these women lived, ranging from Jerome, Arizona to Cripple Creek, Colorado. My notes would lead to journal entries, and the entries led to poems – persona poems of the specific women, narrative poems which use anecdotes from their lives, found poems which relied on earlier writings, including some of the prostitutes’ own writings, letters, and first-person nonfiction books, as well as newspaper articles and accounts.
What I learned through my research is how essential these madams and prostitutes were to the economic and social fabric of the West – that wide imaginative space that exists on so many levels. They helped establish the communities that now comprise the Rocky Mountains and southwest territories of the United States – what is commonly referred to as the Wild West. What I also realised is that these women had complex lives, hard to pin down with words, which made the endeavour that much more fulfilling to pursue.
Often, what I encountered surprised me, though I wrote it myself. Single lines like, ‘room. No’, delighted me when I recognised its multiple significance. Sometimes, when writing, the voices of the women would come through as clearly as a tune that I might hear in my head. However, the best part was the unexpected comprehension and richness that this process allowed, offering me an entirely new understanding of and appreciation for women's roles, lives, and legacies in the Wild American West.
I Am Legend: Emily West Morgan
They made a song out of me.
You heard it? The Yellow Rose
of Texas. Sometimes they still
sing it, and it makes me laugh.
No one knows anything, yet
someone put a chapter in a book
about me, anyway, Emily West.
Go West, Emily. I was born
free in Connecticut. Mostly
it’s circumstance – moving to Texas
and not fleeing before it was too
late when that general named like
he was some great saint – Santa Anna –
a woman saint, no less, had come along.
Mostly, like Etta Place, my job was to disappear.
My job was not to open my legs
to that Mexican. I didn’t service
the gringo Morgan, either. I only kept
his house. But men will
remember women how
they will, and someone had to write
that damn song, and that song had to persist
in that awful down-through-the decades ear-
worm way, and when I realised
that, well, I didn’t stick around
to tell. I was not a whore. I was
not of Texas. I was born free
when we mostly weren’t
and if my own story in Texas messes
up the lyrics just a little, then so it is.
So be it. I know nothing about those
yellow roses and I only know about my
time in town, and I don’t know that
general. But I do know about being yellow
and about being mostly free,
but nobody ever asks about that.
Lydia Taylor, Kansas and Wyoming
I remember the first time
I realised clouds could move.
I was lying on the grass, facing
the sky, and saw a rabbit chasing
a dog and laughed, for everyone
knows it’s supposed to be the other
way around. But clouds see it different.
I went home to tell Mama
what I saw, but she was tending
the young ones and trying to hang
wash with the baby on her hip.
‘Mama!’ I yelled, and she yelled
not to holler. ‘But the clouds are
moving,’ I said. She said, ‘They do.’
I don’t think she realised that the world
was about to break apart, what with the
pile of wash and the baby’s screams.
Good God, my mama could just cuss
to incite a storm, but I just had to make
my point, so I said again, ‘Those clouds –
there – they move!’ and I pointed at the sky.
She sighed and said, ‘Sarah, clouds
is supposed to move.’ And I asked,
‘Even those giant cotton ones?’
They looked like they flew right
off the spindle and grew fat picking
off the cottonwoods they floated over
in the night. Mama had a wooden clothespin
tucked in her mouth, so she only nodded.
I looked up at the blue space above
the patch of Kansas that day and watched
my little sisters chase my dog Sandy
beneath the stretch of line and
flapping sheets, and I wished hard,
feeling my heart puff like it was full
of rain, that the clouds would quit
their march, so it didn’t all have to end
and Papa wouldn’t return home
swinging his anger like an axe,
chasing me down the cellar steps
until I tumbled in the turnips.
Sometimes when a man’s on top
and he’s taking too long and I
don’t have much to do I summon
those Kansas clouds and tempt
them to drift across Wyoming,
hoping they remember to carry
some cottonwood tufts and some
hard rain to wash away my sins.
Soiled Dove, Tombstone, AZ
That dove lay still as a nickel
at the bottom of a purse. The cat’s
mouth grasped its body in a letter C. What
to do now? The cat is preparing
breakfast. The dove has made
its peace. St. Francis, St. Anthony, and any
saint who assists animals, please
intercede. I hollered, jumped
up and down in my bloomers, my hair
tangling in the hot wind. And that cross-
eyed black-and-white cat opened her mouth,
as if to holler back, and that bird, faster
than an angel with its wings lit afire, left three
floating feathers and vanished toward the sky.
Sometimes a Woman: Hattie LaPierre, Wyoming
Well, I shot him
dead, but only after
he shot off my big
toe. I fired the bullets into his chin
and his back, and it took him four
damn days to die. But he
died and my work was finally done.
You gonna make me a whore,
you gonna make all those men
stick it in me, you gonna find out
what I have inside. All those men
paying me and me acting like it’s
normal every time they sprayed
their venom into me. Sometimes a woman
has had enough. A handful of months
in the pen was worth escaping
that living hell. I was pretty
once and in love with Harry
Black whose heart bears the color
of his name. When he smacked
his hand against my jaw, I knew
his own chin had it coming. Do
you know how to walk while missing
a toe and wearing pointy boots?
Do you know how it is
to have men knock you
around from the inside
out? I asked him these
questions and he never would
answer. So I silenced him for good.
Maxine, Tombstone, Arizona
‘Elderly men would do well
to ask for Maxine. She is especially
adept at coping with matters peculiar to advanced
age and a general rundown condition,’ reads my card.
It’s true that I work with the further along in life. Sometimes
when a man has marched so many miles toward the end
of his battle, his sword gets a little dull. My specialty
is to sharpen it. Think about it:
by then a man has usually saved a little money
and he’s also not looking so far into the distance,
so he’s willing to spend a little, too. Those that need
their swords whetted and shined just a little? They tend
to be good tippers. Over here, on the shady side
of the street, I’ve used their swords to carve my niche.
*Quote taken from Jan McKell’s book Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountains, p. 26.
you are afraid
of everything: the bullets tucked
in each chamber, the pistols snug
inside their holsters, sleeping leather
against steel. Violence, like a baby,
awakens with a start. You are afraid
of the boots, filthy and hard as the men
who fill them, mean as the whisky
that tanks them. You are afraid
of the horses that trot down the street,
their tails swishing like whips, their
snorts and whinnies reminders that
you have no leverage, nothing to push
against with your legs raised in the night.
You are afraid of your hands, which take
the tokens, and your palms that turn
their fumy mouths away. You fear next
week, next month, next year, when gravity
and time invite your tricks elsewhere. You are
afraid of the room with the flickering light, but
you are also afraid of the flame. Most of all,
you fear the cold, which squeezes the breath
right out of your neck, like the boulder
that flattens the soil, like a pastor’s glance
that sets you back. Everything you touch
hardens as anxiety tumbles
in your stomach like
a stone, presses up, shoves your heart between
your ribs, splintering the bone.