Poetic Justice For Billy the Kid?

Jun 12, 2013

The only authenticated photograph of Billy the Kid sold for $2.3 million at a 2011 auction.

A picture may be worth a thousand words. But how many of us write down the words inspired by an iconic photograph, such as this one of Billy the Kid?

NIU poet John Bradley is familiar with this photo, the only authenticated image of the Wild West outlaw.

"I've studied that many times," Bradley said. "I think it's just one of the things a writer needs to feed the imagination."

Bradley borrowed details from the photo ("Blue eyes," "buck teeth") and from his letters ("Beautiful handwriting," "couldn't spell"), and transformed them into a collection of poems called The Cosmic Chronicles of Billy the Kidder.

Some of the poems involve real-life characters from Billy's life, including Pat Garrett -- the Sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico. In 1881 Garrett ambushed The Kid at a ranch, killing the 21-year-old.

Billy the Kid's headstone at Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

Another character, Sister Blandina, had three encounters with The Kid. In one, she writes about visiting him at the Santa Fe jail before he escaped. "She sees something good in this young man," Bradley says, "and she's thinks if she could just change this one thing, his ability to operate a gun, that she could save his soul."

That jailhouse visit inspired the poem, "Sister Blandina and the Kingdom of the Maggot," in which Bradley imagines the nun performing an exorcism on The Kid:

"Be gentle with him, Sister," the demon spoke

from somewhere deep between the boy's rib

and hip bone, as demons often do.

How long he dwelled inside this child

they call Billy the Kid, I cannot say. Boy

without beginning, death within

my own end. "We meet again, friend,"

I bid the demon, staring at the kid's trigger

finger. So much damage

from such a slender slip of flesh.

Sister Blandina tricks the demon into leaving the boy, and picks up his gun:

What I did I can never undo.

I bent the child's fingers

back into his palm, but for the one

that strokes the trigger.

With the gun butt, dear God,

did I beat upon that vile finger.

"I had a Catholic upbringing," Bradley says, "so I'm sure some of this is coming through the poem."

John Bradley in the WNIJ studios.
Credit Dan Klefstad

The Cosmic Chronicles of Billy the Kidder was released by Longhouse in what the publisher calls a "three color unfolding concertina format."

John Bradley will join two other Summer Book Series authors -- Chris Fink and Joe Bonomo -- for a reading and panel discussion at Books on First in Dixon, Saturday, June 29, from 3 to 5p.m.

Next Wednesday, the series continues with Chris Fink's debut novel, Farmer's Almanac. Listen after NPR news at 6:30 and 8:30 a.m. Then return here for more information.