Kevin’s Much-Loved Poems–“The Love of Aged Horses”
This is the second in a series of columns that feature a much-loved poem, and a poem that speaks to, or resonates with, that poem. This week’s poem is “The Love of Aged Horses” by Jane Hirshfield, first published in The Atlantic in 1994.
Jane Hirshfield’s poetry speaks to the central issues of human existence—desire and loss, impermanence and beauty, the many dimensions of our connection with others and the wider community of creatures and objects with which we share our lives. She is the author of eight much-honored collections of poetry, including the recently published The Beauty, which was longlisted for this year’s National Book Award.
David Baker, in The American Poet, has described Hirshfield as “one of our finest, most memorable contemporary poets.” In 2004, Jane was awarded the 70th Academy Fellowship for distinguished poetic achievement by The Academy of American Poets, an honor formerly held by such poets as Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Elizabeth Bishop. The award citation noted: “Hirshfield has elaborated a sensuously philosophical art that imposes a pause in our fast-forward habits of mind. Her poems appear simple, and are not. Her poems clear a space for reflection and change.” The comment is echoed by the Nobel Prize poet Czeslaw Milosz, who wrote, “A profound empathy for the suffering of all living beings… It is precisely this I praise in the poetry of Jane Hirshfield. The subject of her poetry is our ordinary life among other people and our continuing encounter with everything Earth brings us: trees, flowers, animals, and birds . . . In its highly sensuous detail, her poetry illuminates the Buddhist virtue of mindfulness.” In 2012 she was elected to one of poetry’s highest honors, a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
I’m including two links. The first is of Hirshfield reading a recent poem, “My Skeleton”:
The second is of a talk she did on Metaphor, which has been viewed thus far over 300,000 times:
When horse lovers think about poetry, their minds often jump to cowboy poetry. I try instead to get them listen to “The Love of Aged Horses,” which I have stored on my phone. Every time I’ve done so, they’ve been delighted. One cried. When I recounted that to Jane, she said, “Oh, good. The poem is out doing what it should in the world.”
“The Love of Aged Horses” is a poem that builds on the loving relationship of two horses in a linguistic crescendo that culminates with a killer last line. “Poems of the last line,” as I think of them, have endings that drag the reader back to the beginning to see how the magic has been done. Ms. Hirshfield adroitly uses many other literary devices, beginning with foreshadowing in the first line. She uses repetition, in lines such as “His long teeth on her withers.” She personifies the horses throughout, including line 15, the “sureness of horses” line from which I took the title of my novel. She uses alliteration and onomatopoeia, in “will whinny” and “whinnying wildly.” She uses a literary device, “chiasmus” (a criss crossing of word order), to evoke the way the horses are standing, one’s head at the other’s tail and vice versa. She makes us feel time’s grip, and also the ways we escape it, by the shifting tenses of the poem’s verbs. The poem’s close, where its words expand to speak about the transcendental nature of love in the world, is a present-tense but also lasting assertion that is also hyperbole: “No luck is as boundless as theirs.” By these technical means, slipped in under the surface, meaning and feeling are made.
The Love of Aged Horses
Because I know tomorrow
his faithful gelding heart will be broken
when the spotted mare is trailered and driven away,
I come today to take him for a gallop on Diaz Ridge.
Returning, he will whinny for his love.
her white parts red with hill-dust,
her red parts whitened with the same, she never answers.
But today, when I turn him loose at the hill-gate
with the taste of chewed oat on his tongue
and the saddle-sweat rinsed off with water,
I know he will canter, however tired,
whinnying wildly up the ridge’s near side,
and I know he will find her.
He will be filled with the sureness of horses
whose bellies are grain-filled,
whose long-ribbed loneliness
can be scratched into no-longer-lonely.
His long teeth on her withers,
her rough-coated spots will grow damp and wild.
Her long teeth on his withers,
his oiled-teakwood smoothness will grow damp and wild.
Their shadows’ chiasmus will fleck and fill with flies,
the eight marks of their fortune stamp and then cancel the earth.
From ear-flick to tail-switch, they stand in one body.
No luck is as boundless as theirs.
Here’s one of my poems that appeals to our love of domesticated animals. Like Jane’s, this poem leans heavily on its ending—in my case, the last two lines.
Cats, horses, and dogs know our voices.
If we say their name, they sometimes
jump, taken out of themselves.
They know other words too—stay and
come and no—and horses understand their
rider’s coded language of tongue-clucks.
Cats, horses, and dogs know whose hands feed
them and bathe them, and who offers them a
treat, perhaps their favorite word.
Even consistently reticent cats like to be
scratched, gently, behind the ears. Patient
horses let you brush their bellies with soft
bristles or sometimes a rough currycomb.
Like us, what they know best
they know through being touched.
Next week: Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”