My Father Is a Horse That Tells the Truth

The part he liked to tell was about the horses:
how you could hear the bubbling thunder of their approach
             in the moonlit night,
how the pointed white hoods and draping cloaks floated
             over their snort and canter,
the fog of each equine breath a fleeting, gentler ghost;
how it was they, the animals, who gave up the names and faces
             of their riders—
the little man, his grandfather, standing alone in the porch light,
             recognized the horses,
then called out the names of their riders one by one;
one by one he faced them down, told them who they were,
who they really were and what they were, what history does,
how it will tar and feather and lynch and dismember their memory
and nobody not even God can do shit about that.

He liked the part about the horses because it was the punchline
             to a good story,
and because it disguised his moral pride, his glee in the triumph
             of good over evil,
and his love for an old man he hardly knew.
He’d sit over an emptied dinner plate and deliver that line,
             “He knew their horses!”
and he’d smile, eyebrows arched, like he did when he told you
             how hearts pump.
He liked that the man, his grandfather, was little.
He—my father—was not little, but he was thin, frail even,
his injuries, a herd of them, coming mostly from another man,
             his father.
Like me, like you maybe, he had to use his imagination
to find a man he could embrace, and a dead man at that,
a man who used the printed word to fight the stink of evil
and then stood, literally stood behind those words
alone on that empty porch, facing a disgraceful white cavalry.

It was the horses. Sweating, rumbling, farting, whining,
smelly beneath damned white-sheeted souls in the Colorado night,
the horses: voicing the simple destiny of flesh on the move and
giving the game away. They say the body doesn’t lie—
that even as the mind flaps and soars the vagarious realm
of ideas, of language, of honor and the hereafter,
the body chews forward doing its wormy work,
its slow meal of living and dying.

My father must have disliked his own body,
it was so often at odds with his words, his thoughts,
with itself even, its wan handshakes and reluctant embraces,
its brittle bones and solitary wheezing lung—
he would have liked a body that could leap and swim and dance.

The little man, his grandfather, used to jump up
and do chin-ups from the molding over the doorway.
Railroad man, newspaperman, publisher, secretary of state,
a pillar of the prairie town of La Junta—
he lived a big life, rose to big occasions, thrived, died old.

The next in our line, father of my father, a mining engineer,
left Colorado for Chicago—in and out of jobs,
tuberculosis, drank badly, fought, sometimes cruel,
             sometimes crazy,
didn’t talk much, died old, left my dad with a pile of heartache.

And my dad.
A doctor who was uncomfortable around healthy people,
a biologist who didn’t like animals,
a parent who didn’t touch his children—
he knew flesh and blood up close,
palpated strangers, yet the bodies he loved
moved him to sober awkwardness.
I can’t imagine him on a horse.

And yet. I want to tell you what he gave me,
but so much of what he gave me is the telling itself,
this funny organ that needs to get it right and say it,
this persistent indignant hungry ruthless calm little voice
that thrives on evidence and stammers to name the nameless.

And more. He hammered his own damaged body into a
             gentle shield
to protect us from the cruelty of his childhood, and from
             the desperation
that waits outside every door. The home he gave us was real,
though I don’t know how fully he could live there.
I can see him standing on the patio in the balmy
             Santa Monica night,
relaxing from the hard work that built our easy life—
pale blue pajamas, maroon slippers, beer in hand,
alone with what he has and what he can’t get.

One time he got so angry I thought he would hit me.
He stood shaking, fists clenched, saying he’d do it, “I’ll sock you,
             I will!”
—and then I thought less of him because he didn’t, wasn’t
             mean enough;
or maybe I just blamed him for not doing something strong
             and swift
to shatter the wall of terrified love between us.
Now I want to thank him for being a wall, for standing
between me and the legion of fathers who clobbered their kids.

Now that he’s gone I want to get closer,
smell him, dead lung and all, get drunk with him, try to see
             with his eyes:
Los Angeles in the fifties, south Chicago in the forties,
my mother when she was a teenage Jewish amazon.
I want a man with a man’s body to show me what to do
with my shy teenager’s intrusive body
that is nothing but appetite, nothing but fear and possibility.
Or maybe I want him as he was, quiet, serious,
awkward, quick-witted, passionate about knowledge,
             justice, honor,
afraid to sing or cry or dance or speak his love.

My old man, so decent and so far away—
who had barely enough love for one person at a time,
who gave what he could to his children,
which was precious, which was meager, which was immense—
died stoically and with a sweet squeeze of his hand,
an imperceptible sigh of that airy white body in
             the charcoal night.

But listen: the studio orchestra crescendos, then fades,
             as a dim but rising
rumble of hooves enters this room of vital signs and
             stainless furniture,
dragging in dust and cow shit from the east Colorado plain.
A little man, easy as death in the saddle, prances
through the bad hospital air, saying nothing about horses,
saying nothing in words or sounds even.
The little man—who is now my father and his father and his
             father’s father
and will one day be me, stern as Gary Cooper, ridiculous
             as Harpo Marx,
riding for truth and justice and some comfort for the few
             souls he loves,
grinning as only a voiceless man can grin—
beckons to all who can see him, and is gone.

And then I hear it, from this bed, breathing from this
             frail warm corpse
with its hairy belly, its flared nostrils, its brown sideward eyes,
I hear the shudder, then the silent shout of departure,
             then nothing.
And now the gentlest flutter, like moths abandoning a porch light.





Michael Pearce’s poetry has appeared in Threepenny Review, Yale Review, Nimrod, Spillway, Gettysburg Review, and The Sun, among other publications. Additionally, his work has won several national prizes (from New Ohio Review, Oberon, Dogwood, and others). His collection of poems, Santa Lucia by Starlight, won the Brighthorse Prize and has just been published.

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