My Dark Horses
Liverpool University Press
Reviewer: Erica Goss
A torrent of shocking and revelatory poetry simmers between the covers of My Dark Horses, pulling the reader in with the very first poem, “Splitting and Fucking”: “My mother, / poor woman / somehow she was / always the victim / of splitting and fucking.” Talented, unpredictable, and dangerous, this mother is a malevolent force of nature, pitting her children against each other, ridiculing her husband, and “always the victim” of her bad decisions, lusts and passions.
Poet Jodie Hollander’s parents were both professional musicians, and their children grew up in a world of classical music. Many of these poems include references to composers, instruments, performances, and practicing. In “The Metronome,” the metronome is a metaphor for the control the mother exerts over her family, “her children the pendulum, rocking / back and forth from Mother to Father.” The children flip from parent to parent until “they walked sideways… / they looked dizzy, even / possessed,” and eventually become unable to form lasting relationships, “passed from this / lover to that lover, from that lover to this.” Music is a deadly language Hollander’s parents use to inflict pain on each other. In “The Ferret,” for example, the mother plays “Chopin’s Fantasie in F Minor— / Father’s least favorite piece of music,” while in “The Talking Tree,” the father seems unhinged, “muttering things… / about Mother, or perhaps Rachmaninoff.”
The father in “The Talking Tree” is a savant whose carelessness about his attire – “mismatched socks, / his ears still white with bits of shaving cream” – indicates something more disturbing than simply scatterbrained genius: “he was always talking / to someone, but there was never anyone there.” In the poem, the daughter concludes that her father converses with the “talking tree” he once told her about, one “that spoke only to children.” Between his preoccupied demeanor and his skill as a musician, this father seems both present and detached, “his long arms sprouting / magical hands, moving across the keys.” Even at a young age, the daughter understands this about her father:
People said my father was a genius:
he’d lean back in the piano bench
and hum something that must have made its way
from another world, then close his eyes and dream.
“The Humane Society” follows “The Talking Tree,” and these two poems aptly illustrate the experience of growing up in this polarized atmosphere.
My mother brought home
the strangest creatures:
a lamb wearing a big white diaper;
a blind raccoon; a wolfhound
with a broken hip…
The collection of strange creatures includes humans; the mother brought home Mary Lou, “two hundred sixty pounds / and bruised,” Lucy, who slept in the mother’s bed, and, most tragically, “a man who beat her.” As promised in “Splitting and Fucking,” here is evidence that everything this mother does, from playing the cello to these inexplicable rescues, results in pain, and even violence; in a scene from her second marriage, her husband attacks her at a movie theater: “He started kicking / her so hard / Mother screamed.”
The mother’s cruelty whips through the book with a demonic force. In “Mother’s Wrists,” “those little wrists / could alter in an instant— / / Once those little wrists / hurled a dish at me— / dark red blood / all over the kitchen tile.” In “The Sound of Scissors,” she cuts horrific articles from the newspaper and hands stacks of them to her children, saying, “You know you kids could end up out on the streets!” In “Migraine,” she praises the bruised neck of her accompanier: “The mark of a good violinist, / she said, stroking it gently.”
“The Red Tricycle” gives us a clue as to why the mother behaves so abominably. The poem focuses on an incident from her childhood: instead of giving her a promised bike, her father “brought her back to his bedroom / and had his way with her young body.” Late in life, the mother buys herself a red tricycle, which ends up as a story in the newspaper with the ironic caption, “Woman’s best friend.”
Throughout the book, horses serve as knowledge-bringers, symbols of life and death, spirit animals, and finally, in “My Dark Horses,” the book’s last poem, sources of comfort and calm. In “The Storm Horse,” lightning spooks a horse the daughter in the poem rides with her mother, injuring the daughter but filling her mother with a wild energy:
it seemed at last I truly saw my mother:
her long hair plastered onto her neck,
and her skin glistening in the pouring rain;
she threw back her head and opened her mouth,
and I watched how she drank in the storm.
In spite of what happens in “The Storm Horse,” Hollander forms a kinship with horses, as suggested in the line “perhaps I was a horse in some other life” from “Feeding the Horses.” Still a little intimidated – “how do I explain that I am afraid,” – she realizes there’s some purpose at work just outside her ability to understand. “White Horse” is part myth and part flying dream. The speaker lets us know that this is a fantasy: “Now here’s where you may not believe me / but the white horse offered me a ride.” In the middle stanza, she almost turns back – “I was wrong / or I was right to accept such a ride?” – but decides to give in and let the fantasy take her wherever it wants to.
The mother’s death from cancer evokes a tumult of emotions: clarity and relief, but also an unexpected grief. In “Hawthornden Cemetery,” “amidst these flowerless vases / filled with moss and bugs and lichen,” the mother’s presence is as strong as ever, undiminished by death; in “Horse Bones,” the speaker asks, “what am I to do with these colossal ruins, / and how to reconstruct this beast again?” as she tries to put a horse together from its scattered bones. The “beast” is not only the horse, but also the side of her mother she explicates in the book: erratic, volatile, cruel: “I never quite knew when you’d be you / or when you’d become that beast again.”
As those of us who’ve lost a parent know, death does not end the relationship between parent and child, a fact Hollander alludes to with the lines,
And now, Mother, what am I to do?
And what about all those bones you’ve left?
It takes great courage to write of love, grief, abuse, and survival with such unflinching honesty. My Dark Horses rewards us with fresh, tough, and powerful poems.