part pooper O hater of dance
vampire outlaw of the milky way
The return of the outlaw cowboy is in fact the return of art to the arena of effective
cultural struggle since earlier in the poem the exile of the outlaw hero is defined as the
exile of art:
the temple i bide my time. The price on the wanted
poster was a-going down, outlaw alias copped my stance
and moody greenhorns were making me dance;
while my mouth’s
shooting iron got its chambers jammed.
It is the poet’s voice, the "mouth’s / shooting iron," that is
[. . . ]
The unjamming of the "mouth’s / shooting iron" narrativizes the release of
the creative and playful potential of language and simultaneously stages this release as a
moment of self-genesis for the poetic persona.
[. . . .]
The action of "I am a cowboy" begins to turn in the seventh stanza. Though
still in exile, the poet no longer has his mouth’s shooting iron jammed. He is now writing
"the mowtown long plays for the comeback of / Osiris."
[. . .]
The return of the exiled hero is no longer imagined as Horus’s revenge. Instead of
the more familiar and culturally more distant mythology of Egypt, Reed now turns to a New
World transformation of African folklore and works his own syncretic changes upon it. In
the eighth stanza the sexual union of Osiris and Isis is re-formulated in more traditional
occult and astrological terms as the coniunctio of Pisces and Aries. But the
product is "the Loup Garou Kid," "Lord of the Lash," not Horus, a
"half breed son," a reincarnation of the Afro-American divided self, not an
incarnation of national unity. . . . [W]ith Loup Garou he makes the representative hero of
the age a figure of aggression and outward confrontation.
Loup Garou, derived from the French, is the name given to werewolves and vampires in
Haiti. Though the werewolves can be male, loups garous are more commonly known to be
female vampires who suck the blood of children, as they are generally in West African
societies. . . . Reed’s hero is also "Lord-of the Lash" but Reed, with his
characteristic penchant for the humour of the incongruous, reincarnates a now-forgotten
hero from B-movie westerns in the grim shadow of the Petro cult. According to The Film
Encyclopedia, Al La Rue, a.k.a. "Lash" La Rue, was
Born on June 15, 1917, in Michigan. Cowboy hero of miniscule-budget Hollywood Westerns
of the late 40s, known as "Lash" for his principle weapon, a 15-foot bullwhip,
which he used on his enemies with great skill. His film career was brief and unmemorable.
He later performed in carnivals and toured the South as a Bible-thumping evangelist,
preaching the gospel and contemplating astrology and reincarnation. He had several brushes
with the law, answering charges of vagrancy, public drunkenness, and possession of
marijuana. He claims to have been married and divorced 10 times.
[. . . .]
Following Yeats’s occult model for a poetics of history, Reed’s poem figures history as
the incessant alternation of conflict and coniunctio. This pattern is already
present in the larger narrative of the poem where war is a prelude to the restoration of
order. But each stanza repeats the drama as an almost independent unit. While the
Horus-Cowboy narrative of exile and return shapes the poem, an over-emphasis on the
overarching structure of the poem can undermine the experience of local transitions and
image by image progression. The links between (and within) stanzas follow no principle of
logical or historical connection. The violent juxtaposition of diverse materials which
disrupts the linear flow of narrative is held together by formal principles derived from
I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra. I bedded
down with Isis, Lady of the Boogaloo, dove
down deep into her horny, stuck up her Wells-Far-ago
in daring midday getaway. ‘Start grabbing the
blue’, I said from top of my double crown.
The rapid transitions in this third stanza are representative of the procedures of the
whole poem and extend the flamboyant punning of the poem into a collagist aesthetic. A pun
reminiscent of the sexual innuendos of blues lyrics allows Reed to leap from Egyptian
mythology to nineteenth-century America and from an image of sexual union to a history of
political and economic conflict, a parody of the rape of Leda by the Swan, used here to
engender North American history. Isis’s "Wells-Far-ago" is a distortion of the
name of the Wells Fargo company, established in 1852 by Henry Wells, William G.
Fargo and associates, founders of the American Express. The company carried mail, silver
and gold bullion and provided banking services. "In less than ten years," Alvin
F. Harlow explains, the company had "either bought out or eliminated nearly all
competitors and become the most powerful company in the Far West." Wells Fargo later
extended its operations to Canada, Alaska, Mexico, the West Indies, Central America, and
Hawaii, as well as the Atlantic coast. The economic monopoly of Wells Fargo parallels the
monotheism of Judaism and Christianity which not only banished other gods (Osiris and the
Voodoo loa) but also suppressed its own heretical traditions. The outlaw cowboy’s cry,
"start grabbing the / blue," is slang for "put your hands up" but also
refers to "blueback," an archaic term for a bank note of Confederate money, so
called for the contrast of blue ink on its back with the green ink used on the Northern
"greenback." With Horus speaking from the "top of [his] double crown"
in the next line, the blueback carried by the Wells Fargo Company can be taken as a symbol
of the division between North and South in the "United" States. This is
confirmed by the double crown as symbol of a unified Egypt in Egyptian iconography, and
one of the manifestations of Horus was "Har-mau," or "Horus the
uniter," upholder of the unity of northern and southern Egypt. The aggressive lover
of Isis is of course Osiris (the "longhorn" in the previous stanza refers, among
other things, to the horned crown of Osiris, and the rather obvious sexual pun on
"longhorn" and "horny" completes the link). The product of this
intercourse is Horus, whereas in Yeats the rape leads to the birth of Helen and
Clytemnestra, Love and War. The outlaw Horus initiates the fall of the Confederacy and the
rise of the Union, while Leda hatches the fall of Troy and the ascendancy of Greece. The
same pattern is repeated in the next stanza.
I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra. Ezzard Charles
of the Chisholm Trail. Took up the bass but they
blew off my thumb. Alchemist in ringmanship but a
sucker for the right cross.
Here each sentence is a yoking together that, like the rest of the poem, brazenly
defies the facts of history. The conjunction of Ancient Egypt and the American West is, by
this point in the poem, familiar. The cowboy then appears as the Afro-American heavyweight
boxing champion from the early 1950s riding the famous 19th-century cattle trail that
stretched from south Texas to Kansas City. His transformation into a musician, linking
back to Sonny Rollins in the second stanza and to the "Lady of the Boogaloo" in
the third, is aborted by gun law. The last sentence is a characteristically condensed pun,
welding together boxing and alchemy–again, confrontation and synthesis. Not only is the
allusive hero’s boxing prowess weak, but his "talismanic rings [are] no match for the
symbols of Christianity." The alchemist’s dream of coniunctio, of the
philosopher’s stone, is defeated. The ring, occult symbol for such unity and wholeness but
also representative here of the boxing ring, encapsulates the balance of conflict and coniunctio
throughout the poem. But this very balance is shattered by a blow from the cross, a
re-match between the gnostic traditions and Christianity in which the later once again
emerges as victor. After being knocked out by "Jersey" Joe Walcott in seven
rounds in Pittsburgh in 1951, Charles was never able to make a successful comeback in
boxing. He was defeated again by Walcott in 1952 and by Rocky Marciano in 1954. In the
next stanza the artist-hero accepts that an "outlaw alias copped my stance" but
the exile is only a temporary set-back: "Vamoosed from / the temple," he
explains, "i bide my time."
[. . . .]
At the end of "I am a cowboy," the returning hero seeks to chase out Set, the
"imposter RAdio of Moses’ bush."
[. . . .]
Reed’s personae are his masks. Through them he too enacts the drama of dual or multiple
selves caught between the constraints of history and the promise of heroic action and
self-genesis. The imperial self retrieves its own projected self as its sanction and
inspiration. It is through this poetic device that Reed overcomes the experience of
history as absolute fate.
Excerpted from "The Artist as Prophet, Priest and Gunslinger: Ishmael Reed’s Cowboy
in the Boat of Ra." Callaloo (Fall 1994), 1205-1235.