Still Life with Heart Extracted from the Body of a Horse
Question: what has two heads, yellow teeth
and eyes made of grape jelly?
What has green stripes, nostrils that flare like caves
and a tail that dissolves like a braid of smoke?
At the community center in the center
of Detroit, the kids draw the strangest horses.
The greatest racehorse of all time was Secretariat.
We don’t see horses like Secretariat in Detroit,
so if one kid imagines a stallion that gallops through McDonalds,
and another has purple wheels instead of legs,
no one asks any questions.
When Secretariat ran a race, he usually won.
The horses the kids make, here, are different.
Some have manes that whip
like flags or confetti or streamers in the breeze.
Others look more like deformed dogs.
Every single horse is running.
Secretariat ran like no other horse. The Derby,
The Belmont, The Preakness—all of them saw
this horse explode across the finish line
far in front of his rivals. Applause. Lonelier than God.
Aaron says his horse runs from the devil.
And Tania says her horse runs from the prince.
Their teacher tells me, for Aaron, the “devil” is a city of rust,
a house empty and charred and tasting like gasoline.
For Tania, the “prince” is a father whose temper
rumbles like trains in those old movies—it barrels through
the dark, unstoppable, and everyone
knows the tracks ahead are splintered, and everyone
knows the sound of the wreck.
Jason says his horse runs from an ambulance siren
that sings its song a little closer every night.
Dana says her horse runs straight to heaven
to be with her brother: his body
no longer a doorway opened by the heel of a boot.
I’m a guest in this classroom, and feel like a tourist
in a country where all the postcards are made of pain.
They ask me if I have any poems about horses.
So I just tell a story of a horse
that ran until it was no longer a horse.
Then one child hands me her drawing.
Around it, she’s made a massive heart,
and this makes sense because winning jockeys
always talk about how much “heart” their horses have.
How can you measure heart?
I have never seen this much ache in a single room.
After the class has ended, the teacher pins
each drawing to the board.
She is so careful, her hands shake.
“When they come back,” she says, “I want them to feel
like they’ve built a museum,
like they’ve accomplished something amazing.”
On the day Secretariat died, they cut his body apart.
When his heart was removed,
it should have been comparable to a small melon,
it should have weighed six to seven pounds.
It was over three times that size.
by Matthew Olzmann
Matthew Olzmann’s first book of poems, Mezzanines, received the 2011 Kundiman Prize and was published by Alice James Books. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in New England Review, Kenyon Review, Poetry Northwest, The Southern Review, Forklift, Ohio and elsewhere. Currently, he is a Visiting Professor of Creative Writing in the undergraduate writing program at Warren Wilson College. (matthewolzmann.com)