A Horse, Of Course: When The Tragic Hero Has Hooves

Copyright © by SuZi, 7/31/10


  Horses  are archetypes: our Eurocentric culture owes everything to the horse. Much of our American mythology is equine indebted; however, American mythology is romantic in its philosophy—the individual is always at center—and the current infantile narcissism of our culture reflects a virulent extrapolation of the romantic ideal. Conversely, the equine profession itself follows naturalistic tenants-- the factors of climate, skill, the nature of caretaking  are an equation where all elements must be in balance. Equine agribusiness is such a consuming enterprise that its practitioners do not exist within the same social framework that characterizes our mostly urban mentality; horses do not take holidays: they must be fed on time, their needs attended to without fail. Thus, a romantic myth has been sustained by those who do not keep horses, and horses have become symbols of grace, of power, of other-worldliness.

  The equine business, as a whole, has an economic impact upon local and national economies that has not been sufficiently scrutinized, because horses require larger tracts of land, thus requiring a rural landscape, and this does not fit into our endemic urban mentality. Nonetheless, equine events of all types involve interplays of fiscal exchange and few equine events have as much of a public profile as Thoroughbred horse racing. Also, in few equine events is the binary between the romantic  public and the naturalism of the professionals more apparent than at the racetrack: the swooning peasants are even kept separate from the owners, who have private, operatic boxes; whereas the horses and their retinue of grooms, trainers, jockeys, the track veterinarian, are kept away and on the backside. Adjunct to this relationship are the intermediary businesses that both inform (or supply) the professionals of doings in the industry, as well as create a rich source of all things horse upon which the starry-eyed public can feast. The horses themselves are mostly seen as livestock: thousands of registered Thoroughbred horses are born each year, are sold at auction, are run on tracks throughout the nation, are sold as breeding stock, are sold as sport and hobby horses, are sold to be sardine-crammed into freight boxes to face the horror of slaughter for their loyalty. Occasionally, an especially talented, well-tended race horse will rise to the public attention, will become a star, an individual, a romantic hero.

  History is not always kind to heroes, for after the glory comes the inevitable obscurity. The tragic hero faces no such humiliation, their glory is romantically immortal. In the realm of Thoroughbred horse racing, immortality is also possible through pedigree and the names of  its heroes becomes horse history: Native Dancer, Secretariate, In Reality, Halo, Fair Play. Yet, the Thoroughbred industry has its tragic heroes as well: Ruffian, Barbaro.

  The tragic hero has a long, symbolic history within literature, so much so that tragedies have rules for its characters, fatal flaws that lead to the undoing. In a horse, a fatal flaw is genetic, an anomaly in bone density or joint formation. Herein lies a philosophical quandary: is the equine tragedy a result of disharmony—thus in keeping with naturalism’s rules of balance—or is the equine tragedy romantic—a doom of predestination.

  In her research-based, episodically structured poems about either Ruffian (The Licorice Daughter: My Year with Ruffian) or Barbaro (Barbaro:Beyond Brokenness), Lyn Lifshin alternates between  naturalistic imagery of both horses’ biographies and an unabashed romanticism. In the poem “Weaning Day –1”, the aural image “ hinges creak on the gate” quickly becomes the metaphorical line “Something is/unlatching the every/day” .

  The poem ends with:

[…] or that in the

new barn with only the

moon and stars for

company, in days they

            would forget their mothers(19).

  Compressed in these five lines, and in the first fifth of the book, are notions of both a romantic and naturalistic philosophy gracefully entwined: that celestial and disinterested formations would anthropomorphically be company, that  young horses are harshly removed from their mothers’ care, or that these young horses would forget their mothers when equine research proves the precocious nature of equine intelligence (they remember everything from birth on—horses will recognize a horse or human after years of absence). In service of both the researched biography and of the poem, Lifshin intertwines both the naturalism born of her research and the romanticism of her interest in the subject, either Ruffian of Barbaro. To her credit, the gruesome nature of Ruffian’s injury, following most of the book’s careful delineation of Ruffian’s raising and racing career, is told  as image-driven naturalism:

            […] She wouldn’t

            stop. She ignored him, ignored the

            pain. The skin of her fetlock

            ripped, the bones bursting through,

            the wound was opening, tearing her

            up, tearing her ankle, her ligaments

            then her hoof dangled, useless (77-78).

  Yet, Lifshin’s research on Ruffian concludes with the blisteringly romantic, “Ruffian was/black fire”, which sets the stage for the fatal flaw via a remark provided by Ruffian’s trainer:


couldn’t stop using

herself up. The best

run hardest no

matter if it kills

them (109).

  In this case, the tragedy is the hubris of the humans who created such a creature as would not have the sense of self-salvation, although horses are intrinsically beings who fly to survive any threat. In Ruffian, the heroic deed is not only her history-making speed, but the transcendence of her own nature as a horse.

  In the Barbaro text, Lifshin’s speculation—although researched based, biographical, and also filled with the images of horse farms and veterinary hospitals—is on what the horse symbolizes to our culture, our passion for this species. The series of poems that take place during Barbaro’s hospitalization have the resonance of any memoir of prolonged illness, of the dying process. At once point, the jockey visits the hospital room the way any relative visits any hospital:


            is smiling that Barbaro

            has put on a little

            weight, has bright eyes […](71)

  Lifshin even quotes Barbaro’s owner as describing the jockey’s interaction with the stallion as “ a true/relationship”. While some might view this as dismissible anthropomorphism, naturalism’s logical extension would be the egalitarianism of all living things--a philosophy more preached than practiced, even by neo-pagans and AmerInd imitators.

  Lifshin, in an email exchange, says she followed  Barbaro’s story as it was taking place, and this sense of the immediate changes the philosophical nature of the text to a speculation on our choices for emotional attachment. Lifshin dwells on this in the latter half of the book, and she says there were many personal poems cut from the final text. The concluding poem , “To Hold On”, is a concise meditation:

greatness walks

hand to hand

with grief. It’s

the way beauty

greatness, dissolve,

are ephemeral,

part of the price

this essence

that makes

it so hard

to loose(112).

  Overt in romantic language, in a conversational tone, this last poem solves the dilemma posed by the subject, by the conflict between the romantic myths of horses and the muck-bucket reality of their caretaking. To truly have a relationship with a horse is exactly that: the romance of emotion inextricably intertwined with the biological realities of our lives—our sweat, our feces, their feces, our injuries—and the what or who of the relationship, the object of our daily devotion, becomes transcendent by the very ordinary nature of our practice and the extraordinary demand upon our dedication. What fascinates most about these two books is that Lifshin tackles these protagonists, has thoroughly incorporated the research, finds time to think about the subject and never compromises the genre of poetry, and of a poetry that’s conversational and readable. Additionally, the apparent split — for equine professionals do not often boast of their far-ranging poetic–area knowledge, nor do those with deep knowledge of poetry profess to have equal knowledge of the details of the Thoroughbred racing industry – is seamlessly transversed in these two innocuous-seeming texts, and fans of either would find themselves well-served to acquire copies for a more full experience.


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