This week in the PEN Poetry Series, PEN America features an excerpt from a book-length poem by Brian Laidlaw. 

Author note: This sequence is an excerpt from Summer Err, a book-length erasure of John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra. The source-text has a character—Muir’s boss on the sheep-driving trail—nicknamed “The Don,” who is a wealthy and incompetent shepherd. It feels especially timely, with the government shutdown having caused Muir’s beloved Yosemite Valley to become inundated with human waste.


The Don Cannot Agree About the Methods of Herding 


                        The Don         after some dispute

                        loudly claimed the right       —as often as he pleased

                        to do the herding himself,

                        then return to the lowlands          rich.


                        Beyond the forests,            

                        the head of the general 

                        killed    everything he saw or could think of.




            flour,     bread,     sugar,     tobacco,     whiskey,     needles

                 abundance,      calm,        indolence,       action

succeeding each other in stormy rhythm like winter and summer


                these go far to cover     the grossness of their lives.




                                    The    shepherds

                                    concluded:     sad

                                    and were so discouraged they

                                    helped themselves to

                                    several of the flock.


                                    In   their   standpoint,

                                    words     had eaten all the sheep.




                                    All sheepmen carry strychnine

                                    to kill coyotes,   bears,   panthers,

                                    little dog-like wolves,

                                    and      shepherds

                                    that have learned to like mutton.




                        A gun loaded with buckshot       fired excitedly,

                        without waiting to see the effect

                        on    the   wounded.


                        The shepherd   seemed anxious to fight.

                        He   stood glaring up,  

                        threatening   the flock,





            After these disastrous experiences the   shepherds

            gathered  a glorious bed of diamonds.

            All was quiet.

            They   —   near midnight  —  walked boldly to the corral,

            climbed in,           killed sheep,   and smothered   the frightened watcher,

            saying   he got a good clear view of them.


                       They lamented,  “See my poor dead sheeps  —  all dead.”



Once a week, the PEN Poetry Series publishes work by emerging and established writers from coast to coast. Subscribe to the PEN Poetry Series mailing list and have poems delivered to your e-mail as soon as they are published (no spam, no news, just poems).