A poem that draws anxiety to the widths of a wire, Henri Cole’s “City Horse” is achievement in both run-on form and Romantic voice.
Note the tenuous balance of the first six lines: abstractions (‘concept’) and quasi-abstractions (‘trying to raise herself still’) labor hard to lever de trop adjectival phrases and proximal parallelism (‘sucked out to sea and washed up again,’ ‘facedown in dirt, and tied to a telephone pole’)—the sentence wills itself, by torque alone, to pause at ‘grotesque unbelievable landscape.’ In this mix of flashback and de facto flash-forward—we know a victim lay someplace—the tenderness of colors washed to ‘powdery gray’ and the vocative ‘O, wondrous horse; O, delicate horse—dead, dead—’ absolutely blindside with their brilliant Keatsian aplomb. (Just see if Mr. K.’s [O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell] doesn’t speak hauntingly, compellingly to “City Horse.”) The poem simply refuses to fail, though its one-sentence gambit closes on exhaustion. And following:
“She was more smarter than me,
she just wait”
acts like a vernacular, hard-won transcription of the Romanticism that came before: it has true purchase, and is difficult to fully unpack. ‘Wait’ for what? is it childish wonder that imagines the horse’s waiting ‘smart’? is it childish wonder that imagines ‘smart’ involves loving?
In “City Horse,” then, Mr. Cole’s goal appears to be the manic contrapuntal: how alive the young boy’s ‘stroke’ is, alive on the ‘majestic rowing legs’ that themselves have stiffened; ‘the heavy, black, frothing water’ might as well have petrified the horse as actively drowned it. This poem, in the tradition of Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” and Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” reminds us that disasters which fail to scribe themselves on the guts of us—as urgently my loss, my disaster—expire quietly in textbooks, whatever wreckage stays the world.