by John Peck
Night deepening, frost leans on the stables
of thoroughbreds, west wind splitting their hooves.
— Li Ho, Twenty-three Poems about Horses
Steed out of my dusk and a dusk, now, for the species,
veins deltawise down your silky inner thigh,
veins trickling from one eye down the roan cliffside
of a nose vaulted and chanceled for winds of the Pleistocene,
you have come, you paw patiently, that is the main thing,
the fields between stretch wider and we, the restless, are everywhere
save where your nostril quivers, arches, and you snort in the night.
We who debouch into all places dream of you now nowhere.
You come to a woman’s hand: that smile. You come to a
child’s hand, giggling and shivers. Your hot breath pleasures soldiers.
Harnessed to caisson with bannered coffin, to the barouche
at a state wedding, you are ambassador from the eldest kingdom.
The King of Brazil sent a forest of teak to pave the streets
girdling the Pantheon, to muffle the clatter you hauled there.
When we spurred you against Wellington’s infantry squares,
you side-ran them or reared back. The god of catastrophes took note.
Sad banner you were in the prophecies of Sweet Medicine,
the whiskered whiteys bringing and spawning your manes and tails
among the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Lakota, Kiowa,
your speed between their loins a drumming into decline.
Under Tutankhamun, the generalissimo who rode you hummed
his tenth title: Overseer of Works in the Hill of Gritstone,
while there in those Works among the pulling men pulled also
your brother, sent down because of a freakish temperament.
Muir knew you on both shores, and van der Post knew you,
mufti lords recognizing a lord in service. Nuzzle them both.
They say that Poseidon at Onchestos, breaking you as a colt,
had your driver leap off where the road entered forest,
and watched to see what you’d do, the rig rattling—smash
against the trunks on the run, or walk it through tall shadows.
Where you linger for shade on the veldt, branches level,
a tree is the only tree. Your water, the only water.
Flickers of hair along your neck’s crest release
the only signal. Which staggers from storm cloud to browse oats.
Stubby melted candle, your recessed phallus makes
no howitzer but glistens a coat whose sheen ripples off.
For I imagine that Li Ho, seeing good men misused
as you were, foresaw your withdrawal from our night grasses.
For your standing here re-ordains neither Akhilleus
nor Cuchulain. Dew braids your mane with fresh constellations.
For what shall we make of you, made into goddess, mare
sacrificed but receiving cult also among the footloose
on the Steppes: mother ridden by god-spear, great mam thus
captured, cinched, spurred? though your flanks shudder unfettered.
Through mists we flash bits of mirror, but from them
you pound abreast, neither parent, eyes orbing the two sides.
For that demigod’s eye, tiding, capsizes anyone
who would turn trainer. And this goes on into the bond.
A trainer aims at one thing, but what tingles him is force
hinting at the uncontainable, the opponent.
And the top tamers, spook-soothers, the whisperers,
will write their books but miss the appointment. It is not inscribed.
The two grooms beside you in Hokusai’s whitewater cascade
lave you with splashes of it, currying your bulk,
hoisting your nosebag—and no one has set the timer, everywhere
it is one sound, stampede steadied and rocking in it.
Your great-grandparents, unicorn wild asses
from Persia and Scythia, fostered childbirth but also pissed plagues,
the unharnessable summum totium browsing in ocean,
an eye-spangled three-legged mountain. Hell and cloud in your seed!
It was your miniature stature at the beginning, Maria Tallchief
at ten, that wedged you between giants into the straightaway.
And the reindeer modeled from smudge in the Font de Gaume Grotto
at Les Eyzies, fading across your body, trails a third antler
like a skater’s scarf through your head, broadening out,
a dancer’s arm rippling after the total gather.
Looking back from the pass at his mounted escorts, flashing them
three turns back down the corkscrew, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
saw them slumped on your back, the red of Rahu in splashes
and trickling stillness. And dripping you still awaited their nudges.
In that patience the kernel of the twister moan-lifting
over Kansas, the shrapnel clatter of your take-off.
Across that aftermath, bubbling through wind-sound or the mind’s
rise from its cringe, the flubber-flutter of moody-moodlessness.
So the unforeseen from you opposes the blindly seen in us—
your fuse as a spurter, jump-taker, yet a curb also
to our unsnaffled berserkness. For the berserking Greek says
that only that ass’s horn or hoof, cut off and cupped upward,
can hold any of the cold torrent under the world,
implacable Styx. All else, graces or muons, it crumbles.
And every jot which that flow dissolves, the images
with their assessors, has rolled in us. And you have stood
calmly beside us, your shot breath a bloom in the cold,
your hooves hammers yet also the last and only chalice.
The unreached-for cup, beaker for world-toxin,
breast englobing ground-zero. And so we know you not.
And I realize: though I have walked drenched in spring rains
my bare thighs have not hugged your warm bellows in a downpour.
For though your manic tribe is mine, the boreal chargers,
mere rooms, a migrant’s mangy stations, have detained me.
For while historians of cultures hot on the spoor of roots among
their root clans have heard you drum past, they looked up only briefly.
For though engravers assumed you would stay, given their way with
musculature, accoutrements, wavy harness, tiptoe grooms,
gear draped over your cruppers like an evening gown, its ratios
and metalwork continuous with Genghis Khan’s and a jockey’s,
their inky mastery frames cozily misleading questions:
which posthouse this evening, what pasture tomorrow?
Whereas you inquire into rupture and the unfenced: what thunder
between flesh and ground, what surge from the cells even past sundown?
John Peck’s Collected Short Poems 1966-1996 will appear soon from Northwestern University Press. His poem “A Liquid Denser Than, a Meal” (AGNI 51) was chosen for Best American Poetry 2001.