I grew up going to the track. Well, that’s a slight exaggeration. My stepfather—a writer and a wonderful human—likes to bet on the horses. Every time I go back to Sonoma, my hometown, he and I take at least one day to drive up to OTB and lose a little money. I lose. He wins. So, it’s only fitting that I’m thinking about him today as the Kentucky Derby gets underway and I still need to get my bets in before post. Mostly, on the drive to the races we end up talking about language and poetry in one way, shape, or form. These long drives up Warm Springs Road to Bennett Valley and back has done very serious things to my brain. For starters, it has linked horses and poetry forever.

Perhaps this rumination doesn’t offer any good insight to those who have explored the reoccurring themes in their own work, and in the works of others, but I have found that for the past 10 years, if a poem has a horse in it, well, I pay attention. (Let me also say that my mother is a painter who often paints horses and is a caretaker of a 40-acre horse ranch, so the landscape of equestrian power is indelibly woven into my creative identity.)
So, today with the race getting started and the people reflecting on Barbaro’s death and the nature of horse racing, I am thinking of poetry. More specifically I am thinking of poets who like to have a little skin in the game. Who don’t mind betting the whole wad on a trifecta just to see if the perfect triplet comes in, in the perfect order. Poetry and horses=a natural pairing in my crooked book. And to quote my dear old favorite horse lover, Larry Levis “I refuse to explain.” Except that I just attempted to explain. Didn’t I? Now I must go place my own skin in the game and bet. I leave you with an excerpt from Levis’s book Elegy:
Anastasia & Sandman
The brow of a horse in that moment when
The horse is drinking water so deeply from a trough
It seems to inhale the water, is holy.
I refuse to explain.
When the horse had gone the water in the trough,
All through the empty summer,
Went on reflecting clouds & stars.
The horse cropping grass in a field,
And the fly buzzing around its eyes, are more real
Than the mist in one corer of the field.
Or the angel hidden in the mist, for that matter.

Originally Published: May 3rd, 2008

Ada Limón is the author of Lucky Wreck (2006), This Big Fake World (2006), Sharks in the Rivers (2010), and Bright Dead Things (2015), a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Books Critics Circle Award. She earned an MFA from New York University, and is the recipient of...

  1. May 5, 2008
     Emily Warn

    In light of Barbaro’s death and your post, I thought of the tenderness of horses in James Wright's A Blessing, about the power of horses in Robinson Jeffers' "Roan Stallion," and the intelligence of horses in poet and philosopher Vicki Hearne's essay "Crazy Horses," published in a remarkable book called Adam's Task: Calling Animals By Name.