Loose Horses: Winter, Northern Ireland
Four horses cross the field in a row.
The draft horse, color of leather, in front,
hooves skirted with long white hair. Head down.
The cold has made his halter stiff as plaster.
I am behind him, his strong body blocks
the blowing snow. Not far behind, two clay
geldings trailed by a nut-colored mare.
The snow blinds. Hooves break the snow’s
ice crust. Our breath warm engines, a dry sound,
sudden huffs of steam. My fingers crack red.
I cannot see, but the horses know the way.
They have always known: In them are the ragged
mountain passes, the battlefields where men stretched
long blades between them to sever a charging horse’s legs.
Listen and you will hear the shrill siren in their throats,
the heavy sound of their strong bodies falling.
Later, the scuffle of hooves on the decks of ships
in the Tropic’s still air. Close your eyes now. See it –
the fear in the whites around their chestnut eyes. Now
let go the thick lashing ropes and the deck rushes past.
See them from beneath the blue surface of the sea,
how they run with their strange jerked gait, chins up,
nostrils flared in tough circles of soft flesh, the sun
glazing the water as they turn to the horizon,
to some safe land away from ships and men.
They looked on as we built and built, shied
as the cannons scorched the air, strained across rough roads
pulling carts of blasted rocks and men—Kiev, Flanders—
pulling wagons weighted with the frozen children
from Bastogne, Belzec, Dachau. They fell from the shots
as they dragged their insides, their ruined limbs, jerked
their long necks back from firing squad tats. They grazed
beyond broken stone fences as the dead of Gettysburg lay
on the fields all summer, the corpses rooted open
like sacks by black birds, swine, and rain.
And after, left to the meadows trailing their reins,
the loose horses waited. They cropped the new grasses.
They swallowed around their snaffle bits. They huddled
in knots beside shattered houses, their saddles’ girths
rotting away, moved on when the fences came down at last.
We crossed impossible oceans.
They waited in ships’ holds for the beach.
We built our empires.
They watched from the forests, the hills.
This morning on the Antrim coast, I lost the trail
along the Sligo Mountain as the storm moved in.
There I found the clay geldings, the fragile mare, the draft,
snow falling on their canvas blankets, the cold Atlantic
pounding the shore. They have always been with me.
Look to the hard fields of our history and you too will find them,
standing in their silence, somehow persisting, the pools
of their eyes—dark as earth itself—looking back.
for Liam Rector
On the plain, a round table
made of ice and on it, a silver
telephone ringing. I answer.
“Blue night is coming,”
an earthen voice says.
“Blue night with a green river
of light running through it.”
I look up. Beautiful north.
The wind is a long white note.
He tells me the story:
“Here the raven came
when he stole the moon.
Here he changed
himself into an emerald leaf.
Here he dropped
into the woman’s mouth and was born
a dark baby with oily eyes.
Here, he spent the cold nights
in the shelter of his mother’s arms.
Here he lay beneath a bear’s hide,
his thin long fingers clutching bone
toys his grandfather carved. Here he slept,
warm and safe, but dreaming of flight.
His mother kept the moon hidden
inside an ancient jeweled box. One night,
he crept from the bed, his mother asleep,
and opened it, the moon’s pearl glow
lighting his dark face. His arms stretched
to black wings again, his nose to beak.
The woman awoke, cried, ran to catch him
as he flew up through the smoke hole,
the bright moon clutched in his mouth.”
Now the brown voice, bear voice
is lost in static on the long-distance line.
Above, the blue night is coming,
the cold moon wide as a child’s eye,
the darkness shot with the green river
of the northern lights. And the man
with his black-quill stories is moving off
now across the snowy plain,
a lone bear vanishing into all that white.