Tuesday, April 16, 2019

30 Great Poems for April, Day 16: “Dead Horse” by Thomas Lux

Read “Dead Horse” on the Academy of American Poets site here.

I told you there would be more horses! And while a poem called “Dead Horse” wouldn’t normally be one I’d be drawn to (how macabre and insensitive might it get?), Thomas Lux had a way of combining the heartfelt with the eminently practical. And really, that’s how most horse people are, at least the ones who’ve been at it a long time; they’re used to dealing with big animals and lots of land and the very hard work that keeps that all together.

Look how this poem starts: the death, right there. We see it as the speaker saw it. And what is going on with that strange line that ends in an ellipse (“before he hit the...”)? Honestly, I don’t know, but this poem just has me in so deep, so fast, that I’ll pretty much take whatever it’s giving. And the backhoe “grinding towards us”—only someone who’s lived that would know that “grinding” is the perfect word. And note that the trench, not the grave, is cut, not dug—all specific words of this work. And the stones never seen before, and the “one dumb cow.” (I swear, every person who has horses thinks horses are the smartest animals. Unless they also have mules.)

But the kicker, the thing I love most about this poem, is the last three lines. The part that has nothing to do with horses. The flatness, the frankness, the banality* of those lines. For me, this pushes the poem into a higher realm, the voice of true memoir.

On my drive to work, I pass several ranches with cattle and horses. One has a lone horse that shares a large field with several enormous cattle. I think about this poem every time I see that field, which is every single day. This poem also makes me think about a stable-owner I knew in Massachusetts who owned a 200-year-old barn, a solid stone building set into a hillside. She once told me that her mare had died in that barn a few years earlier, and they hadn’t been able to drag the body out of there—too heavy, and too many corners to get around—so they had to bring in a crane, tear off part of the roof, and lift out the horse’s body. I love how this poem documents the kind of effort that takes—the real, and unglamorous, side of living around these beautiful animals.

*A little Thomas Lux trivia: I saw him teach a workshop a few years back, and he said the word “banal” at one point—which he pronounced “BAY-nuhl.” Maybe I’m too West Coast, but I’d never heard it pronounced like that. I’m a “rhymes with canal” type. I can still see him saying it, with me thinking, “What the hell is that word?”

[All through April, I’m featuring a favorite poem every day, along with a link where you can read it. Some are classics, some are newer, but each one is the kind of poem that I read, love, and immediately want to tell all my friends about. What better to time to share them than National Poetry Month?]

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