The Patience of Horses
Poems by Rick Lott
The Ledge Press, 2010
A passage can refer to a portion or section of a written work. In the opening poem of Rick Lott’s 2009 Ledge Poetry Chapbook Award winner, The Patience of Horses, a passage from the Holy Bible is read by a preacher who is also the speaker’s grandfather. But a passage can also be a journey from one place to another, even if that journey is a short drive from a nearby church to a familiar front porch. And we also understand a passage as a passing of time, as in the passage of time between childhood and adulthood, wherein an inclination to question the nature of the world may lead to profound poetic revelations. Even if that profundity simply means an acknowledgement of the mysterious nature of the world itself, this passage allows one the space to dwell within the poetry of both the everyday and the extraordinary.
This understanding of revelation is made clear in The Patience of Horses by recognizing the priority of the image. Lott dwells within memories only to transform them into a series of highly imagistic and poetic events. As the poet was born in Alabama and raised there and in Florida, not only are the images of people, places, animals and actions that a southern landscape produces alive and well, so are its emotions, its poetry. Spawned from his topography of past homes and events, Lott’s thematic territory reveals an attentive respect for the subjects of memory, home, ritual, work, hope, spiritual questioning, nature, love—all the things that keep us living and keep us dying.
The book opens with, “Passage,” a poem which ventures immediately into a specific memory. For the speaker, this memory becomes a relived event that holds all the ingredients necessary for poetry. Here we are introduced to the content that, by the book’s close, reveals that the emotional resonance of everyday experiences can provide poetic revelation. We are faced with a speaker who knows that the poem itself yields an internal journey, and that this journey is realized externally by recognizing the priority of the image. Lott’s poems affirm that there is a mysterious force hidden within us, and that the connection between ourselves and the world around us consists of a quiet questioning that prompts us to seek out the poetry of everyday experiences.
Interestingly, the book moves from the spirituality of a remembered event in “Passage” directly to “The End of the World.” In this poem, the end of the world is a metaphor for the trajectory of a single life that requires devout attention to detail and the images indigenous to a distinct place where the landscape itself provides sustenance:
At dawn I left a tangled bed.
Crossed dunes anchored by sea oats,
Drawn by light as thin
And blue as mother’s milk,
And I remembered that even the earthworms
I dug for bait as a boy could tell
Whether they travel toward light or dark.
Not only is the landscape here a personified caregiver, but also a venue for the speaker to consider the similarities between humanity and nature: “I found a melting jellyfish, / Composed mostly of water so salty / That to drink too much would kill. / Yet seawater and blood are chemically alike.” Here a consideration for the plight of a stranded jellyfish to cling to life reminds the poet that we are always inching toward the light or the dark. Manmade machines like midnight freights are also personified in “The Watchers” as they search for something lost while the very hills lit in their distance become pieces of our dreams.
“Shorebound, the Drunken Sailor Considers” is a poem in which “…the past steams away” as the presence of “the sun bores through / our days until the bottom falls out.” In this poem we are asked to reconcile the forces that push us through the light toward the dark, making us sometimes literally drunk from the demands of the course, and on others spiritually dazed from eating our own shadows until there is little of ourselves remaining.
“Still Life with Cat” uses the senses to observe a rainy day that, at the poem’s end, reveals to the speaker that what keeps us inside is never enough to keep us out: “What the hell, cat. Let’s open the door.” In this poem we see Lott’s extraordinary ability to take us from the everyday to the highly poetic in a matter of a few lines; he is not afraid to point out that what we experience daily inherently holds a kind of poetry, that the rain gathering in a puddle provides the possibility of revelation and emotional resonance.
In Lott’s poems memory itself becomes a series of past events that exhibit the vivacious agency of the present. These poems are rich with southern imagery and the southern living of a poet who knows that where he comes from is a place of wonder, mystery, and perpetual discovery. Lott shows us the possibility of revelation and emotional resonance in the everyday by wedding the two in a poetic formula: image-making equals meaning-making. This simple praxis, adhered to throughout the book, reveals possibilities for revelation when “the purple martins that come back, / like wings of smoke in the spring dusk,” carry with them the haunted whisperings of an abandoned home. Although revelation is a word easily attributed to Lott’s work, his poems deal in questions rather than answers:
I drove for the old man, his right eyelid
gummed shut over the cavity of an ancient loss.
What drove him to this place week
after week, to stroll the rows
of weathered stones, some broken
or tilted like dolmens?
It is refreshing to see that a poet, in the midst of an era of extreme experimentalism, is still at home with a poetry that is firmly rooted in the priority of the image, a poetry which allows for an inquisitive conversation with the world. A passage from “The Farm” is one example of Lott seamlessly wedding image with meaning:
Up the hill, the barn leaned
on the sky, a black shaft sunk
in the mysteries of dung and warm horses.
At evening, swallows gasped
from the eaves
like the breath of darkness.
The poet revisits the past to dwell within the mystery of memory and its images. At the same time Lott adds light to the dark landscape of memory by actively seeking out the possibility of revelation prompted by the very process of remembering. In other words, memory and imagination are always linked.
In short, the images do the work for these poems. And the title poem is perhaps the most astounding example of Lott’s use of nature imagery. Here the poet looks upon horses “…nibbling / brown wisps among the stones” and realizes the image of this action alone can remind us of the simple beauty that can be seen in the way “light will fill the windows / of the white farmhouse on the hill.” Horses eating at dusk display a patience which is aligned with the human desire to add light to the dark. The speaker of these poems desires to experience the mysterious light of the living that seems always in a process of reconciliation with the darkness of the dead. This process of reconciliation gains climactic momentum to the very end of the collection, where the reader may experience a state of reflection somehow akin to the patience of horses.
Lott has given us a collection of poems that doesn’t need to venture away from the priority of the image to show us what poetry does best, that poetry by nature is an experiment with the self in relation to the world. And a world rich with the imagery and characters that populate a southern landscape is truly alive in The Patience of Horses.