Somewhere beyond García Lorca’s Andalusian ponies and Galway Kinnell’s “blue milken” sow, I found this horse poem by Ross Gay, creative writing professor at Indiana University Bloomington. We poets project ourselves into the minds and bodies of animals for so many reasons. For Lorca, the fierce Andalusian horse brought to mind regional, sexual, and poetic identity, all beyond taming. For Kinnell, the swollen sow, an icon of motherhood, allowed him to find beauty even among the “fodder and slops.”
Gay’s horse suggests what it would be like to live fully in our bodies, without the zooming off into past and future, fantasies and fears, which keep the loop of consciousness spinning:
Becoming a Horse
It was dragging my hands along its belly,
loosing the bit and wiping the spit
from its mouth that made me
a snatch of grass in the thing’s maw,
a fly tasting its ear. It was
touching my nose to his that made me know
the clover’s bloom, my wet eye to his that
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. 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.
The poem begins inductively, rather like the tale of the blind men and the elephant. The speaker is outside the animal at first, ministering to it as humans do. But already in line 4, he is changing into something else, first the grass on which the horse might feed, then a fly tormenting it. Soon eye to eye and heart to heart with the horse, he is moving beyond the human into the “sorrow of horses,” but also into a kind of freedom, a refuge from the pesky buzzing of language and the need to be vigilant against the threat of violence.
Of course, no poem is truly beyond language. And every poet makes certain choices and disallows others. Here Gay selects plain words, none longer than two syllables, to evoke the thinginess of the horse’s world. This free verse terrain is not without cadence, as we hear in the “dragging” of “hands,” the “sheen of unshod hooves.” This is no stampede in the manner of Lorca. Wishing to be free of human desire, it is almost still.
This poem originally appeared in The Sun, July 2012.
Ross Gay is a Cave Canem Fellow and the recipient of a 2013 fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He is the author most recently of Bringing the Shovel Down (Pittsburgh, 2011). Gay is very involved as a board member of the Bloomington Community Orchard.