Pushcart 2015: Henri Cole, “City Horse” from Threepenny #134

At the end of the road from concept to corpse,
sucked out to sea and washed up again—

Rhythm is usually the last thing I notice in a poem. Yet it was the overriding impression I got here (the poem is available online, thank you Threepenny Review), perhaps with some help from the second line: a shoreline, waves coming in and out, at first with a comforting rolling pace. That can be very comforting, even at the corpse end of the road. Or it can be the indifference of the universe to the death of one creature (life on earth depends on death, after all), in spite of how deeply that death affects one little boy. But the indifference doesn’t last long; starting in the third line, the smooth regular rhythm becomes more chaotic, more choppy, as the swells break up into crisscrossing, overlapping crosscurrents:

…the color around her eyes, nose, and mane (the dapples of roan,
a mix of white and red hairs) now powdery gray—

Then, the turn. It’s a fourteen line poem, and I’m still in the freshman lit fourteen-lines-equals-a-sonnet stage of poetic development, but I can feel a distinct turn here, after the first eight lines, the last six going from description to disembodied apostrophic paean ” O, wondrous horse; O, delicate horse—dead, dead—” followed by a much more personal view, in a completely different style of diction, of the scene so vividly, artfully described. After the poetic voice of the orator, we hear the pained cry of a child:

                                  “She was more smarter than me,
she just wait,” a boy sobs, clutching a hand to his mouth,…

Rhythm, grammar, composure, all waysided by grief. But the rhythm resumes in the final lines, particularly the last line; but now, instead of a broad, rolling tide, or irregular chaos, we have a funeral march: “the heavy, black, frothing water.”

In spite of my focus on rhythm, my attention afterwards remains on the boy’s exclamation: it doesn’t quite make sense. Is he so distraught the words are just tumbling out? Is this his everyday speech pattern? Is “she just wait” a description of having left the horse briefly tied to a telephone pole while completing some footbound task, or is it a sentence broken off in midstream followed by a plea – “She just… no, I can’t speak, wait a minute…”? In either case, it leaves an unanswered question for the reader: was the horse waiting for him when she was swept out to sea? Was it some other interrupted thought we’ll never hear – “she just always knew what to do” except for now, her own thought interrupted permanently. And what happened here anyway? What is the catastrophe that resulted in this scene? Because Henri Cole was born in Japan, I keep trying to overlay it with the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, but there’s nothing in the text that particularly supports that. The poem, like the end of every life, leaves unanswered questions.

I discovered another Shark Pack Poetry analysis of this poem in my travels – why is it I’ve never stumbled over this site before and now twice find a gold mine of high-end discussion (“We believe deeply in the power of the poetic imaginary and in the intimate revolt”) – this time by Joseph Spece. In addition to a detailed discussion of the linguistic finesse, he relates it to one of my favorite poems, my favorite tropes: Auden’s examination of Breughel’s rendition of the fall of Icarus in “Musée des Beaux Arts”, the way a personal catastrophe might barely register on someone not directly affected. It was not my horse killed, not my child heartbroken, not my son fallen from the sky – until poetry makes it so.

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