618: Elegy for Kentucky

618: Elegy for Kentucky

618: Elegy for Kentucky

I’m Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.

In Kentucky, horses are everywhere. When folks come to visit, even the young kids grow weary of yelling out, “horses!” every time we turn a corner on some pastoral vista just a minute out of the city. I will never get used to them. Those enormous animals swaying in the field. I love them and sometimes they scare me. They scare me because they are more than me, stronger, larger, more in tune with the grass under their hooves.

Once, where I used to walk every morning, there were a bunch of yearlings in an adjacent field. I’d say hello to them and they’d keep their distance, until they’d slowly meander over warily. It felt like we both needed it. The daily greeting. The head nods. The sun coming up. The idea that maybe we’d do this again tomorrow, this thing called living.

In today’s pulsating poem, we see how the speaker needs to acknowledge an old horse every day, and how that need becomes doubled when trauma occurs. We watch too, as the horse and the speaker become almost united in their need for escape.

Elegy for Kentucky
by Joy Priest

Nowhere to drive, night upon night
     that last summer, but back back

to the cokey couple I was crashing with
     in their 26-year habit. On the way there 

the same horse always dying at the curve
     before I turned, like a kitschy disco ball,

onto their street, name I can’t recall.
     There she lay toppled like a toy figurine.

Calm but huffing, a laboring machine
     making steam, though the cold air

belonged to June, its grief. A filly
     done before becoming a mother, great belly

black & wide as all surrender
     & that magnificent face still against the grass

waiting on the end. There she was every time
     whispering something to me, a line

throbbing, a visible heartbeat I watched
     in the mirror for hours with my huge horse eyes.

I needed to see her, to make sure
     she was still there. I went the same way each evening

wanting to feel something, to see
     this once-immortal creature get up. Any weak thing

was welcome to finish me then & when he came
     into the room with bridle & bit, 

on his 26-year high, when he came
     up on me where I was lying at that curve

in my mind, arms & teeth numb,
     I did not resist. Just a muted yell inside for months

before it lit on me like an ancestor.
     As a child, I followed my grandfather

across the street behind our house
     —Longfield Avenue, backside of the track

where the thoroughbreds for that May’s Derby
     were trapped, bored of what they were bred for,

all their royalty within a corral.
     My hand, a child’s offering, was empty

when they snorted & drew their worn noses
     across my palm, yet, it was in their nature to remain

friendly toward me. My home did not keep
     its promise after my grandfather died.

There was no protection for what I was 
     without him. Lone black filly. Finished

before becoming. She must have tired
     of standing there high-headed, waiting for me

to ride her out of that war, to call out
     let’s go. We are done here.

"Elegy for Kentucky" from HORSEPOWER by Joy Priest copyright © 2021. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.