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3rd-Generation Florida Rancher is also a Poet

Sean Sexton, Vero Beach Rancher and Poet

Sean Sexton is still working the cattle ranch in Vero Beach that his ancestors settled more than a hundred years ago. WGCU's Cary Barbor talked with him at the Miami Book Fair in November about his new collection of poetry, May Darkness Restore.

“My grandfather came to Florida in 1912,” says Sexton. “He decided to see the world, so he came to Florida. The first name for Vero Beach was cross-tie pile number 121 on the Florida East Coast Railroad. That was in 1898.”

These days, that scrap of land is a fully functioning, 600-acre ranch that keeps Sexton busy with seemingly endless farming tasks. So how does he manage to write too? He grabs any time he can. And he takes advantage of old and new technology.

“I keep a notebook with me always,” he says. “And as I’m driving, the stuff is just coming to me. If I stopped, it would stop coming to me. So I took my phone and hit the little microphone and drafted a poem.”

Still, the demands of a working ranch will not wait. Sexton missed the opening party of the Miami Book Fair for more urgent matters.

“My last chore was to check the heifers. We had a heifer with a prolapsed uterus. We had a bull with a broken back the day before that we had to call the abbatoir and harvest. You know, there’s heartache,” he says.

But no matter how bracing, Sexton finds inspiration in the daily work of the ranch.

“That stuff, it makes me write,” he says.

Here, a poem inspired by that work. It’s called Semen Testing the Herd Bulls.

We get an early start.

Each, driven from seclusion,

congenial as flood-staged rivers

they set in motion on lumbering trajectories

to the gate. We push them in trios and quartets—

bellowing down the lane, a rider betwixt 

to stage them strategically in the pens. Once

arrived, the usual upstart gets thrown though a fence. 

And they fill the hopper one by one, brought up 

the runway, a bull at a time for the test, as others 

wait like the elderly on their scripts at the chemist.

Some barely fit the squeeze, poled behind, palpated

before insertion of the probe, then three moments,

three rocking pulses, a crystalline slide of half-lives 

in the lens— I see a whole semi-load of calves! 

is the shout. Boss says, Worm him and turn him out.

More poems from Sexton's new collection, May Darkness Restore: 

Black on Black, White on White

They emerge from the womb's prism

into shining light—

yea black by black,

red of red, white from white,

and strike the ground like lightning,

in dazzling color: cream spilt in the grass

beige, terra cotta, coffee and coal. Heaven's

fawning kiss, deepest, darkest twilit pelts,

strewn with stars, phases of the moon, setting

foreheads, sorrel horizons, brockle-faced,

pieded and bald, two-toned, watermarked,

whole legs of alabaster, pizzles dipped in ivory,

deckle-edges, roan underlines, lace and finery,

The old cow conventions in every hue, done

in mauve, pink, saffron, and circles round the sun.

Have you never seen a purple cow?

All the while as

we put black with black,

white on white, red to red

thinking to have our way

in this world—

we were breeding rainbows.

Pine Heart

Thank God for pine knots!

Mary Chestnut, from A Diary from Dixie, during the siege of Richmond

Those hard amalgamations

from a former state of the world—

the years concentrate like love, scattered

over whole tracts, remains

of when, they say, a squirrel could run

through stands of ancient pine

branch to branch gulf to ocean.

Relics the cold brings to mind,

unearthed, or gathered like eggs,

when chill breaks upon the days

and with the light, rises

recalling the true universe:

all warmth fugitive, fleeting.

Yet that sweetened air

returns to neighborhood evenings

in smoky malinger.

The fallen tree, driven around

two summers since the wind,

cut and stacked with rotted-

off posts, the pile revisited.

Quickly a wood-yard, made in a clearing,

and confection again,

opening from split chunks of pine

flayed and strewn like something slain.

With sharpened steel, angle, and swing

that searches the grain, all our wanting

illusory. We only need find that door

between each knot, great things in store.