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REVIEW of Horses and the Human Soul

By Barbara Drake, Calyx, Winter, 2005

In a world that frequently assesses bad behavior by describing people as animals, Judith Barrington rights the equation. These stunning poems find moral high ground in the world of nature and animals without falsifying that world. The book begins with a defining work, “The Poem,” as she searches out metaphors to define the art of poetry and finds them in her love of horses: Like a chestnut horse, it hides in shadow,/one white sock and the moist gleam of an eye. Art merges with love, the rider with the ridden, as she imagines the still-to-be-realized poem lodged in my heart like a stone in the shoe. Throughout the book, horses become touch points for life’s verities, whether the horses are ridden, remembered, seen from a distance, or imagined. In “Harvest” she defines personal responsibility and consequences in terms of remembered guilt:

When you’re young and out at night
searching for your lost pony
the black sky leans on your shoulders
like a rucksack full of sins.

Another poem, “Living without Horses,” splendidly conjures presence by absence: Living without horses/ is like breathing into the lungs/ but never further. And,

To live without horses
is to slow down on the Sunset Highway
at a glimpse of chestnut rump
or a pair of pricked ears
above a bay face with a kind eye
that gazes toward the forests
draped like shawls over the Coast Range.

Things get more complicated when Barrington draws on childhood memories and poignantly analyzes the power relationships between young girls in the context of the much loved children’s classic, Black Beauty.

For two years at least
Shirley Kipps and I were horses—
I was Black Beauty of course,
Shirley was Tiny—
sometimes a lowly carthorse,
sometimes even a donkey
kept as company for Black Beauty.

In “Adolescence,” a transitional poem, Barrington contrasts the awkward subjugation experienced in teenage ballroom dancing to the freedom of riding horseback. Although riding is a prevalent motif, Barrington is clearly delving into the difficulties of human relationships: conflicted memories of early sexual confusion and seduction in “Body Language”; a misguided marriage in “The Nature of Memory.”

In “The Dyke with No Name Thinks about God” she recalls watching Spanish women express their passionate, bodily felt love of God and enviously compares it with her own repressed passions. Moving toward acceptance of her own lesbian sexuality, the poem “The Dyke with no Name Thinks about Landscape” is a long, six-part, nuanced progression of couplets and images across the landscape of memory: riding a horse through an open gate, driving a car on a twisting Spanish road, making love in a meadow under beech trees, sunbathing on a sandy riverbank. As time and maturity alienate her from nature, nature becomes landscape and she is the other. The poem is resolved when she rejects the hostility of some others to her own genuinely felt and natural sexuality and regains her sense of belonging in the world: The trouble is not nature, she thinks/ but the people who say I’m not part of it.

In “Beating the Dog,” Barrington brings together various themes of the book: nature, human-animal relationships, questions of dominance and submission, instinct, societal taboos, cruelty, and the loss of innocence. In a harrowing series of quatrains laced and restrained by subtle rhymes and rhythms, she tells the story of hiking with her young dog who breaks away and pursues a flock of sheep, a major crime in sheep country: there were farmers with guns in my mind/ as I yelled NO. I was young too. But it is not only this simple justification, rather an instinctive fury, that drives her to attack the dog:

She heard me at last, left
the sheep heaving and bleating
by a gorse bush. Her eyes softened,
she crouched, and then I was beating

the dog with the leash,
farmers and guns in my mind
as rage washed over the hill
like a storm's hot wind.

Her fury passes in a moment and turns into tears, but as she says at the end of the poem, How could things be simple after that day?

From childhood and adolescence through maturing questions of sexuality and personal responsibility, the book broadens to include a world of difficult subjects including the early years of World War II in England shortly before she was born, memories of her parents who drowned in a cruise ship accident while she was still a girl, environmental disaster, the murder of Matthew Shepard, and the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center.

While the title poem, “Horses and the Human Soul,” returns to the world of horses, it is primarily concerned with questions of responsibility and evil in the human world. Based on a true story of an insurance scam that involved criminals breaking a thoroughbred’s leg while undercover investigators watched in order to make their case, the poem asks with heartbreaking clarity: Did it occur to them then, as the man led the mare back to his friend with the crowbar, that they could stop this before it happened?

How to stop wrongs before they happen is a profoundly moral question. Barrington makes powerful poetry of that question.

Barbara Drake
Barbara Drake’s most recent book is Small Favors, a poetry chapbook from Traprock Press. She is also the author of Peace at Heart, a collection of country essays from Oregon State University Press, Writing Poetry, a college textbook published by Harcourt/ Heinle, and other works. She teaches at Linfield College.


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