I once had a secret vacation where I visited a friend in London, while I was living in Rome, and for three days did nothing but walk the streets, sit in parks, drink pints before five in the afternoon and go to films. I cannot tell you anything about one museum or a national monument from that visit, nor can I indulge any historical facts or have even one photo. But what I do have are hours of doing nothing, but peacefully walking mostly through Northern London.
We'd weave through the boroughs and fumble upon blue plaques on houses left to tell us who had lived there and when. We found most of them by accident where famous writers, politicians, and even poets had spent some time. I recall coming upon a tidy little square in Camden, all of the houses white and almost identical gardens in each front yard. It didn't have the same smug sense of sterile living as a subdivision. The houses were well-kept, lived-in and for the most part seemed well-loved, all except one. This house hadn't been painted in years, the once rose bushes were just naked stalks, and the porch was a collection of forgotten wicker furniture, no grass in the lawn. It stood out. It didn't seem haunted or deprived as much as it needed to recoil from its surroundings. I couldn't figure it out. It looked like it could have so easily fit in, been part of the sensible lot, but the house or maybe its inhabitants refused. As I stared at the neglected lawn, my British friend, with a hint of sarcasm, miffed, "That's where your country's beloved poet lived." And sure enough, I walked closer to the gate and squinted to see the blue plaque inscribed : Sylvia Plath lived here from 1960-1961.
We walked on. Later, we passed more plaques of poets such as William Butler Yeats and made jokes about obscure plaque facts such as where Yeats had taken naps, sneezed, or simply had tea. It seemed silly and all the while we tried to forget about the lone house in Camden. Neither of us said anything about it, but I couldn't get it out of mind. How could such a beautiful house not recover or maybe it just needed to be let go, let it be put in some field to be overtaken by grasses and dust, the way barns can collapse and appear beautiful and slowly return to the wild. As if the souls of trees take them back.
Even today as I think about that house, my reaction is the same. That house needs to be set free somehow. Perhaps this is an odd leap (no pun intended) but this is how I feel about horses. In my mind, horses aren't meant to be kept as pets, saddled or even fitted for shoes, and they surely never seem fit for cities. Even when I see a horse behind a fence, they make me feel tired. I find myself sleepy, not because I'm overtaken by the bucolic vision of the animal, but mostly because I feel horses need to be wild. Aren't they tired too of being tamed?I am by no means suggesting animal rights here, horses go too far back for me to start fighting. They have been domesticated since 4000 BC and all except one breed in Mongolia is considered wild. There are even facts of equine intelligence with spatial discrimination and the chariot remains in North Kazakhstan are prized as some of the oldest facts of these animals living close to man. Horses are the ubiquitous force of civilized man, so perhaps my plight is more of a neurosis than a cause, more of my own myth than a collected fact.
Maybe I need to take a secret vacation and go horse back riding, but wait, I already have. I have taken lessons, gone on a camping trip where we rode horses into the Snowy Mountains, and still I just felt like I wanted to let them be free. Is it enough for them to be prodded and pulled by someone's foolish need to feel like a cowboy? Can some things never be tamed? Or maybe people like the horse whisperers and great Arabian or Mongol riders are merely trying to ride to another world, a world where wilderness reigns and where it is actually the rider at mercy to the beast.
Regardless of history or equine facts, horses, like poetry, thankfully do contain something of another world. I cannot speak about horses directly, but I do believe poetry takes us to a place in each of that we sometimes forget about, keep quiet or kept closed until we have some time to be quiet, take a vacation, take time away from noise and return to rhythm, either iambic or maybe even a canter. Sylvia Plath's famous collection, which a bulk of it was written in that Northern London home, was titled, Ariel. In the poem of the same title, she herself or the narrator becomes one with the galloping horse, merging to rise and run. Maybe she knew something about the nature and myth of horses too. I'd like to think so. I'd also like to think it is important to read and remember her poems, more than her house, the plaque and her neglected garden.
In fields in the noon sun, they look tired
from all the work they haven't done,
left alone too long from boys who only fall
in love with women sixteen feet tall, screened
skin with lips that are nothing but light
fragments flickered red. Even in Montana,
horses look silly in cities, slowing traffic down,
parading some past, like a pow wow on a college campus
where the horses stand only in steel. Up river,
children grow in houses without barns, built on fields
that furrow trailer parks instead of growing apples
for Appaloosas. The west is an open space left
for one lone billboard to try and hold the hills
down with words burnt from some church's Christ
speaking down the barrel of a shot gun
held in the hands of someone's twelve year old
son. Maybe horses too, just need fields
to be alone, to just run.