I have always been haunted by the plight of horses on the Front in World War 1. It was bad enough seeing Irish carthorses fall between their shafts uphill from their heavy loads of coal – in my childhood in Ireland. I couldn’t help but imagine the trauma of my own treasured horse being requisitioned for war, as happened to many pets. This horror was instilled into me further when I taught GCSE students All Quiet on the Western Front. Neither the students nor I could read aloud the bit about the crying of the horses being worse than the cries of the men. I have had three horses, over the years, die in their fields. Terrible to see such a noble animal go down. The latest trauma was the death of my little soul mate, Polka Necta, whom I had for twenty-eight years, outside her stable. The first poem in the sequence I wrote after an exhilarating ride in the woods the day before the school year started. I adapted it for this sequence, but it was an authentic experience. The second poem I wrote about her and the mare I have been given who was her close friend: imagining grooming them for the last time. ‘The Requisition Yard’ contains my knowledge of horses and of old horse fairs; I saw the whole scene clearly in my head in all its detail. The last poem tries to deal with loss.
Another War Horse
(a privately-owned horse about to be requisitioned for World War 1)
‘…and I whispered to the horse: trust no man in whose eye you don’t see
yourself reflected as an equal.’ Don Vincenzo Giobbe, circa 1700
The Last Ride
I ride you, my little other half,
as if on the Day of Judgement maybe,
where summer is rolled into late stooks
and winter lurks, hoary, drenching
the ground with mists at which you spook.
The breeze, fly-ridden, whips the ferns
into gangrenous fingers of admonition
lest a delay in shady copses should lead
through powdered paths to procrastination.
The better going suggests speed
and we canter along, extended between
breath and season, you on a long rein,
in outline only: the wood’s bay stain.
Who was it said we never should
play here? We leap the abyss of a sett
spiked by brambles that jab your sides
with spurs meant for me rather than you.
Lengthened shadows have climbed trees to hide
from autumns that bleed. Nothing is new
except our mutual trust as we slide down
a scree to an old pond bay where hurricanes
and hail slosh in a black treacle brew.
Then gallop off, past unregistered stallions
and wall-eyed trotters you do not pursue
out of a life-long loyalty to me
despite your herd instinct. Where mists part,
we reject easy divisions of good and bad flocks
on each side and continue into the heart
of experience – through docks
which calm stings from the horizon
lassooing you. In this world
of segregations in fur, feather, fold,
we steady each weald, each wold.
I never need take a hold.
Then we float off, a single streak
through war cries of vixens, pheasant cocks
practising you for worse. With your hocks
under you, we chase off fear
of the call-up, jumping stooks
away from where I will have to sacrifice you.
The Last Groom
Your summer coat I brushed, stroking one way
the velour of its velvet so that my image
reflected there would brand itself onto you
and I would be your amulet on The Front
keeping you from drowning in slurries of mud,
from cannon bones snapped by shell holes,
from ligaments left on barbed wire spools.
My Polka, my Darcey, Bess of my dreams,
splotched by bullets that removed your sheen.
My fingers I wanted as your nose plugs
in mustard gas attacks, the imprint of my face
your gas mask to prevent you trashing it
like a feed bag as you grabbed mouthfuls of air.
One last time I combed your well-pulled mane,
plaiting into it my own brown hair, then breathed
slow, into your neck till you exhaled long breaths –
My Polka, my Darcey, Bess of my dreams,
splotched by bullets that removed your sheen – .
in time to mine: a duet to fill your manger
when you’d be gone. Into the stable’s corner
I pushed you gently, darkening you
into a shadow that no call-up would want.
I could not prevent the ghosts of herds gone
whickering wild for rescue through the slats,
fistulous withers, tendons bowed, racks
of ribs far too pronounced. As I picked out
your feet, oiled your hooves, I pretended
we were off to a show, beribboned, buffed.
But No. You had to be broken in – to War.
My Polka, my Darcey, Bess of my dreams
on livery in my heart, fit always for queens.
The Requisition Yard
No prayers, no rituals for the break of bonds
between horse and man; just commands
like whips on the flanks of the horses lined up
for suitability by size, breed, colour. No choice
but to resign you to this mock parade-ground,
blurred by steam from the sweat and loose droppings
of terrified mounts, ears twitching forwards
and back, by some sixth sense seeing into
their stunted futures, tolerating pain. Just as well
I could not hear you whicker to me when I retreated,
as if stabbed in the back; nor watch your nostrils
flare wide at the inspection: a punch on a back,
pinches down a leg, flexion tests for soundness.
Better too that I could not catch your eyes weeping
from something other than flies, the flash
of their whites amid the buzzing as, with scissors
and knives, manes were hogged, tails docked,
uniforms disembodied in the gloom, irrespective
of rank. I could imagine panic spreading
like an infection through the ropes while splints
got fired, straw wisps banged, burnt rinds
of hooves scavenged by strays. I could not look back
and, in a slumped fraternity of private owners,
I bowed my head in premature bereavement.
What officer would have you, I wondered,
with racing winners in your blood, your light mouth
unspoilt by harsh hands. Would you halt four square
at a braced back, as I had schooled you, dance
laterally over mud as through grass, knackered, with colic
from the sand? In the distance the clatter up a ramp
I tried not to hear; then carriages on a rail shunted
through an engine’s steam. I could do nothing but stare
at your hairs preserved in silent dandy brushes,
pull from my pocket a strand of your tail teased out
to sleep on under the tarpaulin of a merciless khaki sky.
I would have preferred you to die as I held you,
loved, safe in the munch of an apple, in the forehead
a bullet – rather than pray in vain to find your noble face
over the stable door. Not lost in the annals of war.
Coming to Terms
Months I have not been able to look at the fields.
Your absence has stood there like a presence
in the most boggy corner, tethered to the rope
of my loss weathering slowly to a strand frayed
with the long scutch grass. Tonight there is
no moon, only snow squeaking like a mind
resisting amnesia, giving me its eerie light
to detect you sheltered by your favourite holly,
icicles serrating your mane. Your ears
are pricked, your white blaze an exclamation mark,
of delight, as always, at my approach. From tall clumps
ungrazed too long, I pick your hoofprints to hang
about my wrist. Your droppings that outlive you,
in a pile, have hardened into bullets of knackers
who will shoot again for expedience and not preserve
the copper radiance torn from your coat as you slump.
Best to let you graze in memory, myself your rubbing post,
as this expanse blots out boundaries, erases misdeeds.
Your long red mane sweeps the snow which blanches you
with its deeps, teaching us both to withstand extremes.