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Stewart Cole on That One Poem: “Horse in Void”

April is National Poetry Month, and to mark the occasion we'll be sharing some of our favourite poems from collections we've published over the years. Today's poem is "Horse in Void" by Stewart Cole from the collection Soft Power. And, as a special treat, we have an essay from the author on his inspiration for the poem!

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"Horse in Void"
by Stewart Cole

on George Stubbs’s painting Whistlejacket (ca. 1762) in the National Gallery, London

The temptation — nay
Compulsion (as though ridden
By imperious ghosts)
To take the horse’s viewpoint
Is nigh-on irresistible
Something in the painter’s rendering
The life-sizedness
Particularly of the eye
The way it orbs out darkly toward us
Like a crystal ball portending
Projecting alarm perhaps
But more likely something less effable
Daunts the would-be interpreter
(Not to mention the seeker-after
What of the fellow animal
Might persist as empathic residue)
The ten-foot canvas thwarts computation
Like trying to ascertain in a man of forty
The precise shape of the scar left
By his parents’ divorce when he was five
The horse rears in stasis
As though startled by a gunshot
That will never stop resounding
In his soft responsive ears
Unsettling his blond mane
His tail aflounce with something
Between indignation and astonishment
One’s gaze is especially drawn
To those places on his tautened body
Where bones press close against skin
The cheek lines from orbit to nostril
The almost skeletal fetlocks
And to those places where his chestnut coat
Seems almost to push against the canvas
Threatening to fur the painting’s surface
The muscled rump and hindquarters
Engine region of his racing success
At last the eye finds the subtle shadows
Extending from his back hooves
The only sure sign that he is earthbound
Rather than suspended in a beige ether
Yet if his frogs (yes that is what
We have called them) do indeed touch a ground
It is somehow a landless surface
A horizonless monorama
In which the absent rider
Could never draw breath much less set foot
A void in which the prized horse
(Arabian importantly not Arab)
His image poised as a paean
One might mistake for a warning
Stands consigned to win admiration
For his nobility of form and/or
The skill of he who captured it
Depending on the cast of mind
A given human brings into the gallery
Though perhaps some few will find the space
Amid the painting’s vidscreen immensity
And the crush of other gawkers-up
To think of it as a nude portrait
A kind of sado-erotic mugshot
A naked creature innocent of any crime
Compelled to pose for his prison oats

From the author

“Horse in Void” is an ekphrastic meditation on George Stubbs’s painting Whistlejacket, which is held at the National Gallery, London. In a way it’s odd to have written a poem about this painting because I think a laugh burst out of me (like a guffaw or chortle, something vaguely derisive) the first time I saw it. It depicts a beautiful chestnut horse, life-sized, tightly framed against an oddly coloured monochromatic background, something between taupe and olive. And the horse, Whistlejacket, has this alarmed look on his face, as if to say, “What am I doing here? Why are you looking at me?”

George Stubbs (1724-1806), Whistlejacket, 1762, oil on canvas

On the surface, then, there’s something ridiculous about the painting — not just that look or the vomitous background, but the whole blue-blooded genre of horse painting, the aristocratic striving it represents, and this example in particular as a kind of gigantized apotheosis of a certain expression of class power. And I guess that’s where it gets interesting to me. Because despite laughing when I first saw it — which was back in maybe 2007, 2008 — I’ve found myself haunted by the Whistlejacket, finding something more and more profound in it each time I’ve gone back to see it, seeing it increasingly as a painting about power.

By the time I was back in London leading a study-abroad program in January 2018, I knew that I wanted to explore this idea (and the more ephemeral feelings of poignancy and sadness the painting evokes in me) in a poem. Unusually for me, then, “Horse in Void” was planned. I set aside my day off for it, visiting the Gallery and sitting on a bench in Room 34 for an hour or so with my notebook, jotting down words and impressions. Afterward, I walked in the rain to Covent Garden and one of my favourite pubs, The Cross Keys — a dark, warm, inviting refuge from the biting damp of London in winter. I scored the prime spot, a little table in the far back corner and sat there nursing two pints for hours, trying to shape my thoughts, using the postcard of the painting I’d bought in the gift shop that day as a spur to memory.

Looking back at my notes now, I’m struck by something I’d forgotten I’d thought: “Ekphrasis — to capture the captured.” This isn’t super insightful, but it gets at two crucial aspects of how the poem took shape. First, part of why the painting haunted me as it did (and does) has to do with its status as an act of captivity. I’m reminded of John Berger’s wonderful essay “Why Look at Animals?”, where in discussing the anthropomorphized animals in the drawings of the French satirist Grandville, he remarks, “These animals have become prisoners of a human/social situation into which they have been press-ganged.” This seems to apply, mutatis mutandis, to Whistlejacket and to the whole genre of horse painting, which depicts horses not as and for themselves, but as expressions of the status of their “owners.” Second (and following directly from what I’ve just said), I had to work to subdue this polemical aspect of my thinking — not to keep it out of the poem, because I often think poems could use a little more polemic — but at least to prevent it from overwhelming the poem’s imagery or music or my own imperative to really look closely at the painting. So flat, didactic lines from my notes like “So used am I to helping myself / To snap apprehensions / Of other creatures’ feelings” had to go. On the other hand, I now notice some stuff in my notes that’s kind of interesting but didn’t make it in — “His nostril flaring black like a soldered wound,” for instance. I was going to close with a sentence about the stuff we leave on the cutting-room floor, but that made me think of butcher shops and then glue factories, so I’m going end it here, hoping that what I’ve said might arouse people’s curiosity enough to have them read the poem.

Grab your own copy of Soft Power by Stewart Cole here, or check out the rest of our poetry collection here.

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