Poetry | March 01, 2004

Featuring the poems:

  • Horses
  • The Rest of Us
  • To The Reader
  • The Last Supper



Still, the horses are beautiful and their grace keeps me occupied.

-Linda Hogan

We pass them being wheedled

and cajoled around small corrals, a confetti

of spit across each wide breast and the sweat

between their legs worried up into foam.

Their hooves flash in the dirt like polished bells.

We pass them as they sleep, standing up,

among the dandelions and tasseled grasses

gone to seed. They enter our lives


like fragments of Eden: the place that’s always been

our most difficult, elaborate dream; and once seen-

even from a freeway when you’re doing sixty,

aware of your own peril-it’s an effort of will

to take your eyes from a horse

in a field. Grace is like that. No other animal


occupies its skin so precisely, or walks forward

so carefully, as if pushing through great hauls

of dark water, chest deep in a stiff current.

I don’t believe we are meant to think about death,


even on those evenings

when a thin mist rides on the fields and their hooves

waver beneath them like votive flames. A horse


becomes its own myth and religion: out from the dark

machinery of its body something better,

and more beautiful, is always about to begin;


and if you ever need proof that it’s good

to have a physical body, touching

a horse in this life is the closest you will get to it.


To catch grace off guard: a lone horse

dozing in a field with the long reach of its neck

presented to the world, its thick

bottom lip fallen away from the fence of its teeth

and there, beguiling as god’s empty pocket,

pale skin of the inner mouth. Before you die look

into the eyes of a horse at least once

and discover how each is an immense, empty room

lit by a single candle. The emptiness of waiting.


Because if the gods ever come down to walk among us,

this is where they’ll live. And so when a horse,

seeing nothing about us it can recognize, lowers

its soft, deep mouth to the grass, and when that grass,

appearing wet in the sunlight, rises to greet it,

as if the lips of the dead were puckered skyward


for its kiss, it should be no surprise. How can we not

love an animal that spends so much of its life

with its mouth so close to the dirt. That they take,

with such tenderness, the mints

and the carrots we offer-as if the world


were ours to give-is the miracle; that they let us

slip on the sky-blue halter and lead them

through the cool of the evening.


The Rest of Us

for Roger

I’d always suspected the body was a dwelling,

a house that only children or the truly insane,

unafraid of returning to find doors barred against them,

enter and leave at will, that the rest


of us simply wait beneath the lintel of the threshold,

pondering the fields swept clean and polished

by the wind. And even though there are times

when the brave and the foolish among us step forward


to stand exposed beneath the sulk of sky,

we never go far; we simply look around a bit

before coming back in. Just to say we’ve been there.

But what of you, evicted


from the body by violence, snapped free of the flesh

for seventeen years only to return, lease in hand,

with rumors of heaven, which you remember

the way the rest of us remember childhood-


with great effort, out of sequence, one artifact

at a time: cuckoo spit, cat’s eye, that perfect cleft

in the tip of a pen nib, the small, carved shields

of a pair of cufflinks. The empty mouths of buckles.


The shiny boat of a shoe. And all those years

you spent in a coma add up

to a separate, complete life: a slim boy of seventeen any girl

would love for his mystery and aura of exile. And yet


after all those years, after leaning

with your lips against the locked doors of your life

you can no longer walk but have acquired a new language.

And now when you speak I swear you are speaking


with your mouth against the lid

of a casket. And so, heaven is built: one

thick mouthful at a time. And, yes, I am bitter and resentful:

being mortal is payment enough. There should be no


extra charge to mistake this world for heaven;

but god, you now tell me, is a casual flame

burning about the trunk of each tree and under

the shelf of every leaf, and how


can I not think about Blake, who saw angels

bleating with fire in the trees and then lived his life

with the lord’s bright body caught in his throat

like a hymn. There is no heaven;


only birds and wind. And your mind

flirting with its own absence. And the late-

blooming flowers sending out dark fleets of blossom.

Roger, I think one day you just


woke up and turned over, as we all do, to face the view:

outside, summer trees and the wink of visquene

and paper among the mute, busy mouths of the leaves;

small planes ascending from a distant airfield, scaling


and then slipping inside

the grip of the wind; that a strained

film of brightness was over all things, as if the world

were the hem of a long, pale robe caught

on a branch and pulled taut. That having been away

for so long, you mistook such things. There is no god;

just the limned and tooled body of the wind at play

among the plumes of the lilac; and trust me,

there’s a warmth deep down in the grasses, right

where they enter the soil, and it will line your throat

like a hymn. Come, let me wheel

you out through the streets of the world,


where the rest of us live, where there are no angels;

only girls on every corner baring their beautiful limbs.


To The Reader

Out here, in darkness, the rain

knocks against the earth, unlocking tiny doors

in the dirt of the garden. You have spent

your whole life so far trying to bear your body

as a blessing. Now you are waiting,

with an empty suitcase, between your father’s

tool shed and the high, rough fence

of the neighbors’ garden, and whatever


it is the rain sets free from the soil, it tastes

like the vacancy of the grave, like the hunger

you discovered as you entered this world—released

from the grip of your mother’s body and passed,

fully condemned, into the slack cage

of your father’s arms: the brand-new loneliness

of the body you were given. This emptiness

is the only thing you have that will always


belong to you. You watch your mother in the thin

bone-light of her kitchen: she is singing,

but you can’t hear it. You watch her red mouth

pulse open like a wound. And then close. She looks

like a butcher in her shiny apron, shaving the skins

from the carrots and potatoes. You want her to abandon


the peels stacked like scrolls on the counter and walk,

weeping, out into the rain in her new slippers;

you want her to crawl, weeping, on her knees

in darkness, turning every stone in the garden, to part

the tall stems of the hollyhocks weeping

and calling your name. You want her to believe


you are lost like one of the dead. just once

would mean everything and be enough. You were born

in darkness, your mother once said, before dawn

she remembers the milkman whistling up the drive,

the scrape of bottles on the grit of the top step;


that your father was out, at the bottom

of the garden, his torch tossed down in the grass,

digging a hole in which he’d set your placenta

and a sapling that would later grow waxy, long-

throated blossoms no one can name.

Even in summer those flowers will fill

with shadow and not once will the bees ever enter

their slick hallways. Soon you will go inside


and say nothing, and your mother will go on believing

the appetite you have is literal. You came into

this world, she once said, without a single

sound. There’s a prayer we send out,

in darkness, toward darkness. And your heart,

out of habit, keeps on saying it: Mother, it whispers,

mother, mother. Meaning: my jailer and my liberator.

I never worried, your mother will tell you

years from now; I always knew you’d come home

when you were hungry. Meaning: I’m not sure


how to love you now that I have turned

you loose from the prison of my body, into this greater

and less literal darkness.


The Last Supper

It was Mary, felled by grief, on her knees

in the dirt, who mistook a man newly risen

from the dead, the only man she’d ever really loved,

for a gardener: Sir, if you have carried him away,

she cried, tell me where you have laid him, and I

will take him away. So it’s true: what we observe

sometimes betrays us. It was raining, heavily,


slowly, making the leaves of the silver ash

outside my window genuflect and bow down;

and the mirror on the dresser with its slender,

seductive dishonesty reflected

and carried into the room many things

from outside my field of vision: a few boats


approaching the hard, welcome arms

of the harbor, a short run of washing left hanging

in the garden next door, and the rain closing its lips

around the yellow flag and the fuchsia.

I’d always suspected the rain to be full


of such rooms and enclosures. I’d woken up jet-lagged

in the late afternoon in the thin bed I’d slept in

when I was a child; woken feeling sad and lonely

even though I was neither sad


nor lonely—that was just my old self, the past

and its various disguises. I’d been dreaming

about that poet in New York City who walks

through the busiest streets all day, recording,

in a spiral-bound, pocket-sized notebook, nothing

but the observable world. To do so, he said,

keeps him honest, and he is never seduced

by his own ideas. Strange, I’d always thought art

was a series of small deceptions

performed in the service of the truth—a collection

of lies, like a set of knives; that even the vigilant

among us give ourselves away by choosing

certain things over others. Already the rain


and the late afternoon were moving

toward that time of light when the quiet

benevolence that has watched us all day like a parent

turns away, and I knew I should be outside

walking, resisting any intimation of ending,

otherwise I’d feel abandoned all evening, otherwise

I’d fall back into sleep abandoned. But


it was almost dinnertime, and I was held

where I was by the music my mother made

striking her carillon of copper-bottomed saucepans,

by the breathy glide of drawer after drawer opening,

then closing, opening, then closing; by the galloping

of many knives across the marble cutting block.


During dinner my’parents slipped

me what they insisted they could not finish: a thin

sheaf of salad greens, more garnish than meal,

boiled leeks and pork medallions, a few glazed,

sliced carrots, glowing like a handful of change.

Such provisioning, of course, was metaphorical:

it was simply my permission to finish

the journey without them. And what ruined

my heart was not the thinness


of my father’s thighs, or the dark inlay

of veins around my mother’s ankles;

it was not how they forgot things, or remembered

what had not yet happened. It was how little


they ate; it was the way my mother rallied

all day in the kitchen and then arrived at the table

with platters and great dishes that were always

almost empty. It was the way their portions


became lost in the vast, pale arenas of their plates.

If observing the world keeps us honest, what truths

do we glean watching a body we love

going into the ground? The body is both everything

and nothing.

It was the way they’d come to need so much

less of the world. And how this, perhaps, was enough.

If you are a student, faculty member, or staff member at an institution whose library subscribes to Project Muse, you can read this piece and the full archives of the Missouri Review for free. Check this list to see if your library is a Project Muse subscriber.