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Wild Bob Hicok Takes On “This Clumsy Living”

On the Acknowledgment page of his collection This Clumsy Living, poet Bob Hicok writes, “I’d also like to thank Gregory Fraser, Thomas Gardner, Austin Hummell, and Matthew Zapruder for reading different incarnations of this manuscript. You fools.”

Two thoughts: Humor, first and foremost, and an indication of the wry and insightful stuff Hicok writes. And this: how often do I read of successful manuscripts having not one but multiple readers providing feedback to sharpen the final product? One undeniable advantage, I’d say, to academia (for teachers) and MFA programs (for students).

Here’s an example of Hicok’s associative wordplay:

 

Duh

My father is silent and distant.

The moon is up though sometimes

to the side which is also called

over there. Coffee is better brewed

than eaten straight from the can.

When someone is dying

we should unpack the clever phrase

I am sorry. Wrenches

the wrong size should be distracted

until the right bolt arrives.

Inside your head is a map

of your house and inside that map

is where you actually live.

People doing jumping jacks

look like they’re trying 

to start a fire by rubbing

the sticks of their body

together. Vague nomenclature

is not the correct response

to thank you. It’s surprising

that pencils and erasers get along

as well as they do. When dogs meet

it’s the scent gland not anus

they sniff. There’s the conviction

in every head that someone else

is happy. This is why we drool

from jets at green rectangles

of earth, why when we kiss

we push hard to reach the pillow

of the tongue. If we swapped

mistakes they might fit neatly

and with purpose into our lives.

I’ll lend you the day I locked

my keys in my mouth

if you give me the night

you got drunk and bought

a round of flowers for the house.

Whatever my father wants me

to know he tells my mother

who tells me. This reminds me

that if I put my ear to the ground

I’ll hear the stampede

of dirt no cowboy can keep

from rolling over my head one day.

 

The title gives Hicok license to go wherever he wants (which he does) in this stream of seemingly unrelated consciousness until, of course, he returns to his father at the end of the poem. Meanwhile, the reader is treated to a list poem that shows off his cleverness.

Hicok can do serious, too, as he does in this college-related poem:

 

ROTC

A bugle wakes the sky as boys hold hands over their hearts

and aim their eyes at a flag giving wind the only stars

it will ever touch.

trying to take off made of human flesh and crewcuts.

 

My new envelopes taste of peppermint.

I will write and ask their mothers to send the blankeys

their sons went to bed with and held soft to their faces.

They will find in their attics the photo albums and baby shoes

that are the beginning of pacifism.

 

On weekends, the cadets wear clothes like the rest of us

wear and drink too much with the rest of us and scream

from the back of moving cars like everyone I know

is screaming and the Museum of Fire is burning down

and when they march on Monday, I think we’re being attacked

by leather shoes and hangovers.

 

The Museum of Ashes opens next week.

 

In their fatigues, the practice generals

look like shrubbery moving around campus and I’ve painted

my face over my face so hiding is what I do naturally.

 

When one of the cadets turns out not to be alive anymore

in Iraq because of how rude bullets are, they lower the flag

half way and speak of avenging blood, a name is chiseled

into stone, which is how the stone is moving

to the other side of town, piece by piece by name.

 

Little shadows live inside the names.

I’ve been trying to think of something more intimate

than the grave, possibly getting in there with the body

or carrying it around on my shoulders and stinking

of a perfume I like to call “What’s Our Hurry?”

 

 

Like the shadows living inside names chiseled in stone, this is a darker brand of commentary on war games on campus that come home to roost in foreign countries stealing otherwise long lives from young men. You can see some of the stream of consciousness bubbling in the narrative, too. Licked envelopes tasting of peppermint. Practice generals resembling shrubbery moving about campus. In retrospect, sad.

This 2007 outing was my first Hicok. Its generosity and unexpected semantics ensures it won’t be my last.

Reincarnation & Other Savings

Far be it for me to explain Amazon dot all-is-calm (in the Ridiculous Profits and Not Paying Much in the Way of Taxes World), but recently they’ve cut the price of my latest book, Reincarnation & Other Stimulants, by 22%. I would add that they offer “free shipping,” but that’s only if you are yet another member of Prime Nation (I am not a citizen but, like Ponyboy and Dally, prefer to be an Outsider).

Better still, I have cut the price of the remaining books I have on hand for readings, which pretty much haven’t happened due to that funny thing that happened on the way to the forum called “Covid-19” (you may have heard of it).

Not to be outdone by Amazon (even though I am past my Prime and still paying my unfair share of taxes), I’m offering what’s left of my stockpile of Reincarnation for $12 (that’s 35% by my sketchy math) with free shipping as well if you’re living within the States. Not only that, these books will be signed, meaning they may someday be worth something… or not. All you have to do is click BOOKS on the upper right hand corner of this screen and, voila (minus an accent aigu or grave or some such), you are there on the “Add to Cart” page.

It doesn’t hurt to mention that I have a few of my two earlier books available, too. These are on sale as well — while supplies lasts, anyway. What can I say? Christmas in September? Black Friday every day? Whatever marketing coinage (“Pennies a day, Mr. or Mrs. or Miss Customer”) works!

If you do choose to support your local (if you live in Maine) or far-flung (if you don’t) poet, all appreciation goes to you. Like small independent bookstores, up and coming (read: not household names yet) writers need your support more than our friends at Amazon, Barnes, & Ignoble. It keeps sites like this available. It also keeps me writing more poems.

Cheers, and thanks in advance if you choose to support poetry. I’m almost sure you’ll like some — maybe even a lot — of the poems that will come your way, Snail Mail Express.

Ada Limón’s Stretch Drive

Ada Limón

Ada Limón’s book, The Carrying, is divided into three parts, and those who believe you should save the best for last will be pleased to hear that the strongest set of poems hide behind Door #3, the stretch drive.

Thematically, it covers—in its own novel way—such well-trodden territory as love, nature, sickness, sexuality, feminism, horses, and death. I might add “time,” but there’s something in my head saying, “Same as death, brother.”

Oh. OK, then.

The first poem from section 3 I’ll share shows Limón’s talent with description, specifically the way she can weave concrete observations from nature into more abstract ones about life:

 

Instructions on Not Giving Up
by Ada Limón

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist, I’ll take it all.

 

The title poem is in section 3 includes a little projection between woman and horse. This is that rare instance when a poet (not known for Fortune-500 incomes) owns a horse (a small fortune or 500 to own, they say):

 

Carrying
by Ada Limón

The sky’s white with November’s teeth,
and the air is ash and woodsmoke.
A flush of color from the dying tree,
a cargo train speeding through, and there,
that’s me, standing in the wintering
grass watching the dog suffer the cold
leaves. I’m not large from this distance,
just a fence post, a hedge of holly.
Wider still, beyond the rumble of overpass,
mares look for what’s left of green
in the pasture, a few weanlings kick
out, and theirs is the same sky, white
like a calm flag of surrender pulled taut.
A few farms over, there’s our mare,
her belly barrel-round with foal, or idea
of foal. It’s Kentucky, late fall, and any
mare worth her salt is carrying the next
potential stake’s winner. Ours, her coat
thicker with the season’s muck, leans against
the black fence and this image is heavy
within me. How my own body, empty,
clean of secrets, knows how to carry her,
knows we were all meant for something.

 

While on the theme of horses, it’s quite an exercise in creativity to compare spontaneous love with the birthing foals: ready to go; microwaved in the momma, practically. I like the leap! Even more fascinating, she gets away with using a “thou-shalt-not” word in poetry, “liminal.” Is she on a roll or what?

 

What I Didn’t Know Before
by Ada Limón

was how horses simply give birth to other
horses. Not a baby by any means, not
a creature of liminal spaces, but already
a four-legged beast hellbent on walking,
scrambling after the mother. A horse gives way
to another horse and then suddenly there are
two horses, just like that. That’s how I loved you.
You, off the long train from Red Bank carrying
a coffee as big as your arm, a bag with two
computers swinging in it unwieldily at your
side. I remember we broke into laughter
when we saw each other. What was between
us wasn’t a fragile thing to be coddled, cooed
over. It came out fully formed, ready to run.

 

And finally, politically speaking, the following sacred object. As a man, the thought of some asshat verbally assaulting you while you’re gassing your car is, well, as foreign as Mars. Reading this poem gives men a taste of life on Venus, and it’s a bit nauseating.

My mother, who brought up four sons, always said, “Any man who hits a woman is not a man.” I think we can extend her wisdom from physical to verbal applications. Real men treat women with respect. In every way. Period.

 

Sacred Objects
by Ada Limón

I’m driving down to Tennessee, but before I get there, I stop at the Kentucky state line to fuel up and pee. The dog’s in the car and the weather’s fine. As I pump the gas a man in his black Ford F150 yells out his window about my body. I actually can’t remember what it was. Nice tits. Nice ass. Something I’ve been hearing my whole life. Except sometimes it’s not Nice ass, it’s Big ass or something a bit more cruel. I pretend not to hear him. I pretend my sunglasses hide my whole body. Right then, a man with black hair, who could be an uncle of mine, pulls by in his truck and nods. He’s towing a trailer that’s painted gray with white letters. The letters read: Sacred Objects. I imagine a trailer full of Las Virgens de Guadalupe—concrete, or marble, or wood—all wobbly from their travels. All of these female statues hidden together in this secret shadowed spot on their way to find a place where they’ll be safe, even worshipped, or at the very least allowed to live in the light.

 

Great stuff. A poem every man should read, especially the wonderful line “I pretend my sunglasses hide my whole body,” which originally included the unnecessary add-on, “and I’m made invisible.” The other minor revision I liked was the alliterative change of “secret shadowed place” to “secret shadowed spot.”

May Ada and all women, too, be allowed to live in the light.

Of Wu Wei, Idylls, and Other Escapes

idyll

Idyll. It’s one of my favorite words, bringing to mind, as it does, a perfect and simple world, pre-industrialization, pre-technology. Heading out to the country always sounds like good advice, like the perfect escape, like Huck Finn lighting out for the territories at the end of his book.

Then there’s its homophone, idle. Yes. When we find our rural idyll, let’s be idle, shall we? The Taoists and ancient Chinese poets would approve. It’s the concept of wu wei, or doing nothing. Non-action as purposeful goal.

All this comes to mind when preparing for a wedding, when a gathering is to occur at your home, when the grounds and the house itself must be “prepared.” At some point, in all the madness leading up to the big day, you begin to yearn for the simplicity of an idyll, an escape to the country. Wu wei, if you please.

These are the thoughts that drove the creation of my poem, “Idyll.” The narrator’s escape? A Breughel painting, where peasants are at rest from their simple work, looks quaintly beautiful (Tolstoy would approve).

 

Idyll by Ken Craft

Each day brings the wedding closer.
Clapboard and trim painters.
Window washers, florists, a house
under siege.

I wish
I were a Breughel peasant
far away, under a sky pricked and paled
by August sun.

Scythes whistle. Sweat-soaked muslin
kisses our backs. Kerchiefed
maidens swing in rhythm, while a rick
wagon with wheat-strained ribs
waits in back. Swaddling its shade.
Its cool, corked jugs.

Let us stop here
and rest, limbs splayed
with the sweetness
of fatigue. Let us drink this wine.
Open these wicker baskets.
Find the airy white hearts
of crust-cased loaves with our thumbs.

 

© Ken Craft, The Indifferent World, Future Cycle Press 2016

“No Poem Is Ever Ended…”

ruefle

I am perversely attracted to philosophy books, but the rewards are few. As a rule, they speak their own language, which runs circles around mine. Straight talkers like Marcus Aurelius are one thing; trying to divine Descartes, Kant, and Heidegger another.

Barring philosophers, a good substitute for musing on the meaning of life has been reading collections of essays by poets. Give me a poet who is equally adept at prose and I am a happy man. Certainly this was true of a slew of Tony Hoagland books. Ditto Jane Hirshfield. And now I can add Mary Ruefle to the list.

Though I don’t know how she pronounces her name (is it “rueful” like a pot of rue?), Mary Ruefle’s poetic collection of speeches slash essays, Madness, Rack, and Honey, is a relaxing and thoughtful exercise in reading, especially if you enjoy embedded quotes.

The drill, then, goes like this: Mary adds quote to essay, Ken highlights and annotates said quote. What more could any writer (her) and reader (me) ask? Here are a few I have noted:

“Paul Valéry, the French poet and thinker, once said that no poem is ever ended, that every poem is merely abandoned.”

Comment: Any poet who has read his published poem realizes the truth in this. The itch to improve through revision cannot be satisfied.

“Paul Valéry also described his perception of first lines so vividly, and to my mind so accurately, that I have never forgotten it: the opening line of a poem, he said, is like finding a fruit on the ground, a piece of fallen fruit you have never seen before, and the poet’s task is to create the tree from which such a fruit would fall.”

Comment: There you have it. If you have tried but failed to write decent poetry, perhaps you should make like Johnny Appleseed and stop barking up the wrong tree.

The least used punctuation in all of poetry, Ruefle asserts, is the semicolon. Some poets think they should be all-out banned from poetry.

Comment: As noted by my faithful readers of these pages before, I oppose any banning of anything: dog poems, poems that use overused words like “dark” and “darkness,” even poems about cicadas (sorry, Sir Billy of Collins, but that rule is fit for fools).

Among the last words Emily Dickinson wrote (in a letter): “But it is growing damp and I must go in. Memory’s fog is rising.”

Comment: Those last four words are awesome. I wonder if she ever considered poetry?

Charles Simic once said, “The highest levels of consciousness are wordless.”

Comment: Strange for a man who makes his living with words.

“Keats said only one thing was necessary to write good poetry: a feeling for light and shade.”

Comment: I like words like these because they are so cryptic. I can fashion one meaning from them, you another. It’s like getting a pencil to trace the exact spot where light ends and shade begins, then returning to find it the next day.

“Pablo Neruda warns us: ‘We must not overlook melancholy, the sentimentalism of another age, the perfect impure fruit whose marvels have been cast aside by the mania for pedantry: moonlight, the swan at dusk, ‘my beloved,’ are, beyond question, the elemental and essential matter of poetry. He who would flee from bad taste is riding for a fall.'”

Comment: Neruda creates a rule against rules (good), but isn’t this itself a rule (bad)? I leave you with that conundrum because, if you’re going to bang a drum, you can’t do better than a conundrum, thoughtful and chewy.

 

Jay Hopler’s Green Squall: Awash With Light and Color

According to the notes, the title poem of Jay Hopler’s book comes from green squall, or rashmahanic (West Indian Creole), which means unruly or unruly behavior. As this poetry collection is mainly concerned with gardens and is introduced by one of the author’s poetry teachers, Louise Glück, who counts herself a fan of gardens in verse, maybe the title tips its hat to plants’ rather unruly habits (including weeds, of course, which sprout up in any poetry collection, no matter how pretty). 

Sadly, we lost Jay Hopler last month to metastatic prostate cancer at age 51 (this is where we say, Too young!). This book, winner of the Yale Younger Poets prize, came out in 2006, however. The opening number signals Hopler’s willingness to play with words and parts of speech the way Dylan Thomas once did:

 

The Garden

 

    And the sky!

Nooned with the steadfast blue enthusiasm

Of an empty nursery.

 

Crooked lizards grassed in yellow shade.

 

The grass was lizarding,

Green and on a rampage.

 

Shade tenacious in the crook of a bent stem.

 

Noon. This noon –

Skyed, blue and full of hum, full of bloom.

The grass was lizarding.

 

Also like Thomas, Hopler marches out the hyphenated adjectives as eye-catching descriptors: “soot-blackened collapse of brick and timber,” “grief-crazèd mother,” “the sky – loud-blue and cloudless,” “the birdbath: choked-out, cracked, a-wreck with weeds,” “Her voice so soft…, so far-off-hearted, like the sound of the grass lying down.”

In addition to colors (green especially), light is everywhere in these poems, almost as if photosynthesis is essential to the poetry’s well-being. Sunlight, moonlight, figurative light. One can see why Yale’s judges determined a bright future for the young(er) Hopler. 

Here, in a classic “morning” poetry form, Hopler invokes both plants and sunlight:

 

Aubade

 

1

 

Standing next to a large white pot

Filled to overflowing with orange

 

And yellow snapdragons, my old

Coonhound looks across the dew-

 

Strewn lawn at the magnolia tree.

Suddenly, from somewhere deep

 

Within the squall of all those big

And sloppy blossoms, a desolate

 

Call rings out.

 

2

 

    This morning, still

And warm, heavy with the smells

 

Of gardenia and Chinese wisteria,

The first few beams of spring sun-

 

Light filtering through the flower-

Crowded boughs of the magnolia,

 

I cannot conceive a more genuine,

More merciful, form of happiness

 

Than solitude.

 

3

 

In a single, black and ragged line,

The shadow of the magnolia tree

 

Draws nearer to the flower pots.

The coonhound lowers her snout

 

To its dark edge –. What was it

We heard call out so mournfully?

 

To what heartbreak would a call

Like that be heir? The air is still,

 

But differently.

 

Nature, once a bountiful source, has been relegated to darker quarters in poetry these days. It lies east of Eden while the garden is given over to cultural, political, and social issues of the day. If you need a break from modern fads, you can do worse than take a walk through Hopler’s Green Squall. The poetry may lean unruly, but overall, the sights and smells should please you.

Talking to a Trumpy Who Watches Fox “News”

 

This could go south (as in Dixie) very fast

knowing as I do he watches the American News Agency Tass

a.k.a. Putin’s Propaganda Arm in the Formerly United States

a.k.a. Fox Air Quotes News

but really I want to try

to change my ways, to not refer to rich rightwing Rupert’s Fox as

Bug Juice Mixer for the Kool-Aid Krowd

and not wonder why it’s always “Don’t Tread on Me, I’ll Tread on You”

(personal freedoms being “Me,” community concerns being “You”)

with those snaky yellow flags.

I really don’t want to have to stand between my beautiful blue line flag

and my beautiful Black Lives Matter flag

to make the obvious point: “I support good cops everywhere and the safe neighborhoods

they help create and enforce, and it certainly goes without saying

(but I’m going to say it, anyway) — that Black Lives Matter As Much As Others, not More Than Others!”

No, I don’t say any of these things. Not today.

Instead I tiptoe around the trigger topics we know so well.

I play it safe and say it’s a beautiful day and, score! We’re in agreement

that the sun is still in the sky and still shines warmth on the lot of us

because no conspiracy theory or rogue letter from the alphabet

has said otherwise and it’s a start, I’ll tell you, meaning

I am on a roll like ham and cheese,

so I take a slight chance and go there (I know, I know — there are so many “there’s”)

into 2nd Amendment land which was seized from the poor minutemen and other state militias

somewhere along the line, but hear me out, I say any day people can go

to the movies Friday, the grocery store Saturday, and church Sunday

without hearing the sound of rapid gunfire is a good one because,

damn it, bullets kill red as well as blue, young as well as old, citizen as well as militia,

my loved ones as well as yours

and the Trumped One is nodding, yes, in agreement, and we’re two for two

so I say what the hell, go for baroque, and mention

I want a better America for my children,

want them financially secure with more affordable

roofs over their heads and food in their stomachs,

want them healthy and to be able to afford both medical visits and prescriptions.

And while I’m wanting stuff, I want them safer than we are,

want them to be able to breath cleaner air and drink cleaner water than we have

because that’s what people should be blessed with in God’s World (conveniently

leaving out partisan gods assigned to a country),

and he’s liking the big-time credit (world class) I gave God there

and he has kids, too,

and they’re polite kids like mine

and they know right from wrong like mine

and we don’t like it when they lie to us so we know what the hell truth is

deep down, no games, because it’s personal in that case, see,

and when it’s personal we see quite clearly and we don’t truck in these reindeer games

(Fox and Friends again)

and we’re in agreement, red nod and blue nod

merging to purple nods with the sun setting behind purple mountains majesty

and the wind blowing fresh, pine-scented air

and me wishing him goodbye and talk again real soon because, you know what,

there’s even more common ground

to be traversed — much, much more — and when you talk about

personal things on a common sense level, seeing eye to eye

feels pretty good for once and yes, there’s always this —

it’s nice, damn nice, to talk outside an echo chamber 

because I’ve been inside this media bunker too long

and am beginning to tire of this pandemic

of hatred led by partisan politicians of division

who care more about power (theirs) than country (ours),

so who can blame a guy, right?

Or left.

 

 

Hemingway on Good Poetry: “There Won’t Be a Hell of a Lot”

Sure, Ernest Hemingway was no poet, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t read poets or lack opinions on poetry in general. While reading the third volume of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway (Cambridge University Press), I came across this amusing aside written in a letter to Ernest Walsh on 15 January 1926:

“And finally I don’t think that good writing or good poetry has anything to do with our age at all — makes no bloody difference…

“To me it’s not a question of Keats and Shelley having been great and we having changed since then and needing another kind of greatness. I could never read Swinburne, Keats or Shelley. I tried it when I was a kid and simply felt embarrassed by their elaborate falseness. But of real poetry, true poetry, there has always been, rymed (sic) and unrymed (sic), a very little in all ages and all countries —. That’s another large statement. I don’t know about all countries etc. All I can say is that I believe there has always been good poetry and with a little luck there will always be a little. But there won’t be a hell of a lot.”

What, exactly, are examples of good poetry to the 26-year-old Hemingway? In the same letter, he cites “Andy” (as he calls him) Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and a couple of poems by the much-revered poet, Anonymous: “O Western Wind, When Wilt Thou Blow” and “I Heard Twa Corbies” (“twa” being anonymous for “two”).

And what can you, gentle reader, take from Hemingway’s frank talk on a trade he didn’t traffic in? That it’s cool to not like revered big shots like Keats and Shelley if their writing does nothing for you. But it’s not cool to make generalizations about poetry as a whole. For every reader from every age, there’s something out there that appeals. You just have to beat the bushes to see what comes out.

Who knows? Maybe a corbie or twa.

Funeral for a Poem

Sea-Joy-by-Jacqueline-Bouvier-690x490

Sometimes you meet poems in the strangest ways. I still remember how I met C. P. Cavafy’s poem, “Ithaka.” It was in reading about Jaqueline Kennedy-Onasiss’s funeral. The poem was read at the service by her longtime companion, Maurice Tempelsman.

Some don’t know that Mrs. Kennedy was a great champion of poetry and even wrote her own (read “Sea Joy” in the photo above). Her daughter, Caroline, would grow up to be an admirer of the genre as well, helping to put together a collection that is now out of print but garners high marks on book review sites.

I’ve since explored a lot of Cavafy’s work, but nothing seems to strike me the way this poem does. Using Homer’s Odyssey, the extended metaphor works perfectly. We are all headed toward our own separate Ithakas, and none of us is terribly intent on arriving at our home port. This poem captures the essence of that thought. “If not the journey, what?” it seems to say.

Here it is, to cheer up your Wednesday. The translation is by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard from C. P. Cavafy/Collected Poems,(Princeton University Press, 1992):

 

ITHAKA by C.P. Cavafy

As you set out for Ithaka

hope the voyage is a long one,

full of adventure, full of discovery.

Laistrygonians and Cyclops,

angry Poseidon — don’t be afraid of them:

you’ll never find things like that on your way

as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,

as long as a rare excitement

stirs your spirit and your body.

Laistrygonians and Cyclops,

wild Poseidon — you won’t encounter them

unless you bring them along inside your soul,

unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.

May there be many a summer morning when,

with what pleasure, what joy,

you come into harbors seen for the first time;

may you stop at Phoenician trading stations

to buy fine things,

mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,

sensual perfume of every kind —

as many sensual perfumes as you can,

and may you visit many Egyptian cities

to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.

Arriving there is what you are destined for.

But do not hurry the journey at all.

Better if it lasts for years,

so you are old by the time you reach the island,

wealthy with all you have gained on the way,

not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.

Without her, you would not have set out.

She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.

Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,

you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

 

 

The Sorrow of Horses

horses

As a kid reading Jonathan Swift’s classic, Gulliver’s Travels, I marveled not so much at the Lilliputians as at the Houyhnhnms, that society of horses blessed with reason—a society far above the Yahoos, Swift’s derisive name for humankind.

It all came back to me as I read Ross Gay’s wonderful poem, “becoming a horse,” in Tracy K. Smith’s collection, American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time.

It contained lovely ideas, such as the poet becoming “a snatch of grass in the thing’s maw” or “a fly tasting its ear.” It contained lovely concepts, such as the poet coming to know the world as a horse knows it: “the sorrow of a brook creasing a field,” “the small song in my chest,” “the slow honest tongue.” All that from the simple act of “putting my heart to the horse’s.”

Empathy. The world through another’s eyes—even another creature’s eyes. More than anything, it teaches us the sorrow of being human. Don’t believe me? See for yourself:

 

becoming a horse
by Ross Gay

It was dragging my hands along its belly,
loosing the bit and wiping the spit
from its mouth made me
a snatch of grass in the thing’s maw,
a fly tasting its ear. It was
touching my nose to his made me know
the clover’s bloom, my wet eye to his
made me know the long field’s secrets.
But it was putting my heart to the horse’s that made me know
the sorrow of horses. The sorrow
of a brook creasing a field. The maggot
turning in its corpse. Made me
forsake my thumbs for the sheen of unshod hooves.
And in this way drop my torches.
And in this way drop my knives.
Feel the small song in my chest
swell and my coat glisten and twitch.
And my face grow long.
And these words cast off, at last,
for the slow honest tongue of horses.

 

As a writer, you might try it yourself: becoming a dog, a red fox, an owl—whatever stirs the wonder and sadness in you. It is an exercise in empathy and beauty.