May 11, 2008

A Poem My Mother Taught Me

By Liz Adair

I first remember hearing my mother recite the poem ‘Lasca’ in my grandmother’s living room. Several of my aunts and uncles were there, and one or another would break in to take up a stanza and carry the narrative for a while. It was obvious that they all knew it by heart. I came across a handwritten copy the other day. It’s written with a fountain pen—probably long before ball points came into being, as the handwriting, though my mother’s, isn’t quite as flowing as it was when she was a mature woman.

The next time I heard mother recite ‘Lasca’ was in our kitchen. I was nine years old, and we were living in a log cabin in Alaska. It was the beginning of a project, and housing for Bureau of Reclamation people was scarce, so we had three of Burec bachelors living with us. They sat at the table in rapt attention as she spoke, and when she finished, each had to drag his handkerchief out and dab his eyes.

I committed this poem to memory when I was in the fifth grade, and I can still recite it, but I found it on the web in a couple of places, hoping I could copy and paste so I wouldn’t have to type it. It's by Frank Desprez, an English playwright who lived three years on the American frontier as a cowboy and wrote this poem when he returned to England. He died in 1916.

I'm sure this poem is old enough to be in the public domain by now. At each web site, the poem starts as my mother’s copy started, but when I was in the fifth grade I found it in an anthology, and it had a prolog that went like this:

It’s all very well to write reviews
And carry umbrellas and keep dry shoes
And say what everyone’s saying here
And wear what everyone else must wear
But tonight I’m sick of the whole affair.

Here’s the poem, as I heard it from my mother:

by Frank Desprez

I want free life and I want fresh air;
And I sigh for the canter after the cattle,
The crack of the whips like shots in a battle,
The medley of horns and hoofs and heads
That wars and wrangles and scatters and spreads;
The green beneath and the blue above,
And dash and danger, and life and love --
And Lasca!

Lasca used to ride
On a mouse-gray mustang close by my side,
With blue serape and bright-belled spur;
I laughed with joy as I looked at her!
Little knew she of books or of creeds;
An Ave Maria sufficed her needs;
Little she cared, save to be by my side,
To ride with me, and ever to ride,
From San Saba's shore to LaVaca's tide.

She was as bold as the billows that beat,
She was as wild as the breezes that blow;
From her little head to her little feet
She was swayed in her suppleness to and fro
By each gust of passion; a sapling pine
That grows on the edge of a Kansas bluff
And wars with the wind when the weather is rough
Is like this Lasca, this love of mine.

She would hunger that I might eat,
Would take the bitter and leave me the sweet;
But once, when I made her jealous for fun,
At something I'd whispered, or looked, or done,
One Sunday, in San Antonio,
To a glorious girl in the Alamo,
She drew from her garter a dear little dagger,
And -- sting of a wasp! -- it made me stagger!
An inch to the left, or an inch to the right,
And I shouldn't be maundering here tonight;
But she sobbed, and, sobbing, so swiftly bound
Her torn reboso about the wound,
That I quite forgave her. Scratches don't count
In Texas, down by the Rio Grande.

Her eye was brown -- a deep, deep brown;
Her hair was darker than her eye;
And something in her smile and frown,
Curled crimson lip and instep high,
Showed that there ran in each blue vein,
Mixed with the milder Aztec strain,
The vigorous vintage of Old Spain.
She was alive in every limb
With feeling to the finger tips;
And when the sun is like a fire,
And sky one shining, soft sapphire,
One does not drink in little sips.

The air was heavy, and the night was hot,
I sat by her side, and forgot - forgot;
Forgot the herd that were taking their rest,
Forgot that the air was close oppressed,
That the Texas Norther comes sudden and soon,
In the dead of night or the blaze of noon;
That, once let the herd at its breath take fright,
Nothing on earth can stop the flight;
And woe to the rider, and woe to the steed,
Who falls in front of their mad stampede!

Was that thunder? I grasped the cord
Of my swift mustang without a word.
I sprang to the saddle, and she clung behind.
Away! On a hot chase down the wind!
But never was fox hunt half so hard,
And never was steed so little spared,
For we rode for our lives, You shall hear how we fared
In Texas, down by the Rio Grande.

The mustang flew, and we urged him on;
There was one chance left, and you have but one;
Halt, jump to ground, and shoot your horse;
Crouch under his carcass and take your chance;
And, if the steers in their frantic course
Don't batter you both to pieces at once,
You may thank your star; if not, good-bye
To the quickening kiss and the long-drawn sigh,
And the open air and the open sky,
In Texas, down by the Rio Grande.

The cattle gained on us, and just as I felt
For my old six-shooter behind in my belt,
Down came the mustang, and down came we,
Clinging together -- and, what was the rest?
A body that spread itself on my breast,
Two arms that shielded my dizzy head,
Two lips that hard on my lips were pressed;
Then came thunder in my ears,
As over us surged the sea of steers,
Blows that beat blood into my eyes,
And when I could rise--
Lasca was dead!

I gouged out a grave a few feet deep,
And there in Earth's arms I laid her to sleep;
And there she lies, and no one knows;
And the summer shines and the winter snows;
For many a day the flowers have spread
A path of petals over her head;
And the little gray hawk hangs aloft in the air,
And the sly coyote trots here and there,
And the black snake glides and glitters and slides
Into a rift in a cottonwood tree;
And the buzzard sails on,
And comes and is gone,
Stately and still like a ship at sea.
And I wonder why I do not care
For the things that are like the things that were.
Does half my heart lie buried there
In Texas, down by the Rio Grande?


  1. My mother also used to recite long poems but I love that you memorized it also. What a gift to pass on.

  2. That is a wonderful gift! My grandmother likes to recite poetry, too. We used to learn storied and poems...before TV and video brothers will carry on complete conversations with quotes from movies and other shows....makes me a bit crazy sometimes.
    Thanks for sharing that beautiful memory and poem.

  3. I've never heard this poem, Liz, but I enjoyed it. It made me think of some old cowboy songs that my mother used to love to sing. They all ended extremely tragically, just like Lasca. It's interesting, isn't it, how popular tragic themes have been through the ages? What is it, do you think, that draws us to such sad refrains?

  4. Too sad for my taste but well done. You could just picture yourself there.

  5. Sad, sad. Death was so close on the frontier. We sometimes forget how tenuous life was--and is!

  6. I'm just amazed you memorized the whole thing!

  7. Hey! I don't know who you are, but I was just searching for this poem on the internet because MY grandmother learned this poem from her mom or grandmother when the wagons pulled into a circle to camp at night - so my grandma often recited it, then taught it to ME as we traveled cross country one summer! so I can sure relate to tearing up, etc..! thanks for posting it~!

  8. Hi! My name is "Lasca". I was named from this poem as was my mother (June Lasca) and as was her mother (Nellie Lasca). I called my first daughter "Angela Lasca", so it has been in our family now for four generations. Up until recently no-one I met had ever heard of my name before but just this week my 2nd daughter got married & her 'father-in-law' used to have the poem recited to him as a bedtime story!!! I love the poem & every time I recite it my mother cries... Nice to know so many other people have got pleasure from it.


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