I happened to be staying in a visual artist’s studio during my July writing residency in Costa Rica. This meant gorgeous, silky light: sky lights, side lights, and a huge front wall that was all glass. Usually poets get the cave-like inner rooms at writing residences, which is honestly just fine. Who cares when you have all this time to write? My studio also perched on the building’s top floor, putting me at eye-level with the motmots, banaquits, and tinamous. (Yes, these are bird names, not the beginning of a Dr. Seuss story.)
With my bird’s eye view, I could look out through the canopy of trees and see a patch of dirt road that led into the village. Usually, there is nothing on this dirt road. One evening, however, a white horse arrived—without a rider, but with a saddle.
At about five p.m., she strutted up with a high prance, and then simply stopped. She looked behind her, in front of her and, I imagined, realized the road looked the same either way. She kept standing. Looking, swishing her tail. Not moving. This continued for about half an hour until I understood that whatever grand escape she might have made, it was coming to an anti-climactic ending in front of my window.
Being near the equator, night arrived around 6:30. And that’s when I began to worry. Who was her owner? Was this person frantic with worry? Was the horse afraid and feeling lost? Do horses, our grand symbols of freedom, even feel lost? What I knew for sure as a walker of this narrow, mud-slick road is that cars and motorcycles speed down it entirely too fast, and also hug the sides in case another car is passing around the next curve. Here, however, stood a white horse, unknown to any driver, standing by a sharp curve in the road. I have seen pictures of crushed car hoods after collisions with 125-pound deer, but a collision with a horse that weighs a thousand pounds? This could be fatal.
I tried to work on a poem, but I couldn’t. Whenever I looked at a line, I thought, “What if…?” and I envisioned all sorts of disasters. Each return to the poem resulted in more wasted minutes. Whenever the growl of an engine echoed over the valley, I would tense, waiting to see if the traveler would safely pass, and if this horse, would safely remain. She tensed as well at the distant rumble and would pace in place, head down, almost as if she were ready for the collision.
As the night sky blackened, this horse brightened, her white coat gleaming like a ghost out in the distance—a ghost, however, more afraid than frightening. I wanted to do something, yet every solution I could think of ended with: “That won’t work.” I didn’t have a safe place for her, much less any rope. And I doubted that any of the other colonists would have any rope, either, seeing as how in that limited suitcase, we will trade off deodorant for one more book. Furthermore, all stores in town close early, and I had to admit I didn’t really know the town’s ways. No one else was stopping…. So, I did nothing. Eventually, I went to sleep and wished her well, not that she knew or should care that my thoughts were with her.When I woke the next morning, she was gone. I asked some construction men, who are the last to leave this mountain and the first to arrive, if they had seen her. No one had.
As I sat down with my work that morning, I saw the utter lack of progress I had made the night before because of my worry with the horse. Now that I guessed the horse was safe, I could begin thinking about poetry again and could see the parallels between the writing process and that lost white horse. Granted, such parallels also concerned me. The horse’s life undoubtedly mattered more than the poem draft I was working on. Neruda’s poem “Listen” reminds us how reaching for comparisons can sometimes diminish the particular:
the blood of children ran through the streets
without fuss, like children’s blood…
To echo Neruda, a lost horse standing in the road is like a lost horse. That image alone represents a sense of waste, confusion, and isolation.
Still, the horse embodied what I could not know—and the only solution I had was to accept that fact. Hasn’t Keats been talking from his grave about this very idea? That little thing called negative capability: the ability to be one with fears, mysteries, and doubts without the tight-fisted attempt to reach fact and certainty? I thought about how I couldn’t progress with the poem because I kept thinking about potential disasters, but that is no way to live or write. As Dean Young explains in The Art of Recklessness, “Anything fully known offers us no site of entry, no site of escape, no site of desire.” We all know this, yet we must be reminded. It is the new with the known, the unveiling of the veiled, the fear with the fearlessness that create poems that speak to us. It is the horse that grows whiter as the sky grows blacker.
Charlotte Pence is the author of two forthcoming poetry chapbooks, winner of the Black Lawrence Press chapbook prize and Flying Trout’s prize. She is also editor of the forthcoming essay collection, The Poetics of American Song Lyrics (University Press of Mississippi, January 2012), which analyzes the similarities and differences between poetry and songs. She is married to the fiction writer Adam Prince and currently lives in Knoxville, Tennessee.