Mary Kennan Herbert

A Baptism Of Travel and Other Poems


Homer, is a long bus journey essential to a poet’s production? Perhaps
ship or train or plane would do if we agree it should be in the dark in a
narrow tube of thought flying or floating west into the promising night of
raucous catcalls and hints of insight

or I could attach myself firmly to glaucous gull wings and swim through
waves of discovery until at last we catch up with Viking ships that plow
through the slate sea with Churchillian confidence that the edge of light
the line over there will not be the end

of the world at all no not at all but just the beginning of the end the
first chapter of becoming and dying as good stories reveal and conceal as
we always knew and want to hear yet again flap flap breasting gray waves
into the curl of birth and the best of the rest.

Homer, if I am paralyzed here unable to travel or dream any more can I
still write the epic and carve out letters and pictures to make stories and
dreams dance their dance for rows of children in the kindergarten of my
past? Can I do it if I lie here unmoving

not lazy but frozen in time sublime pelted by rain from civilizations past
while setting the table again with freshly washed and recycled images and
thumbnail sketches from an old sketchbook saved even though soaked but
still offering up ideas for endless journeys.

—published in the Fall 1997 issue of COLLEGE ENGLISH NOTES (USA)


Surrounded by yellow and pumpkin orange
and too much gold,
I suffer from autumn’s wealth—
too much, too much. Enough color!
This morning I saw geese flying resolutely
away,away from all this ochre. A traditional
clean line efficiently honks their announcements.
Last call. My husband is draining the pipes
at our summer cabin, closing shutters against
wild color. I need to head south,
or something. Excuses, excuses. The peak
weekend of flaming maples hectors us:
lost sheep, geese with clipped wings,
move on, move on.

—published in the February 1999 issue of LUCID MOON (USA)


Jimmy’s Dad bought a tin bucket full of beer
for the evening’s respite on his front porch,
after the dishes were washed and his worn wife

would join him on the swing and I would watch
their silhouettes become darker and thicker,
as the dark came in warm folds to hold us closer.

Under the swing sat the bucket and by dark
it would be empty, and Jimmy’s Dad would on a bad
night go fetch another and on a good night went

inside to talk on the phone to their newly married
daughter. Then he might make love to his worn wife,
or so I was told, and what I was able to figure out

looking at this pre-TV scenario from our kitchen
window with the flaking paint and no screen to hide
our desires or our front row view of American life.

The tavern across the street featured three fine
thoroughbreds in the window, a cutout cardboard
profile of a trio of champion racehorses in their

winner’s circles of roses. A splendid die cut
and four color lithographed dots to impale
my tender imagination when I dreamed of horses

and winning. The best pictures of equine
achievement were to be found in the window
of the tavern and in Jimmy’s father’s Irish tales

of disappointment and glory, especially noticeable
at his darling daughter’s wedding. The whole
neighborhood was invited, including me age seven

and a half, half in love with Jimmy and life
in St. Louis, even in summer, in the thickest days
of late summer when the hum of planes overhead

reminded us daily of the power of America
and the end any day now of WWII. Home would come
heroes including young husbands and boys whose

silence we had heard every night on the porch
when without television or air conditioning
it was necessary to wait out the evenings

from supper to sex, waiting on the porch
or racing across August browned lawns to catch
lightning bugs and thunderheads and freedom

in that sweet time when wives waited for husbands
to bring home the bacon, the sudsy bucket, victory
over the Nazis, or some soapy daydream worth keeping.

Then, one dusk when almost dark an owl came to rest
from his predations on Japs and was foolish enough
to perch for a bit of R and R on overhead wires

silhouetted like a bomber’s target he loomed
all too symbolically over all of us until local
of boys and men arrived with rifles from some pioneer

Boone past in our Midwestern closets. They used him
as target practice and general excitement ensued
until the sun plummeted into the night and we were

grabbed by adult hands to be hurried to bed
and the mortally wounded owl fell into our circle
amid hoots of joy. We got ‚im and we got ‚im and we—

why did you want to kill him I asked, drowned out
by the sudden joy of macho victory of lads and tall
warriors too old for WWII— with a kill, after all.


He praised my perception, my honed skills, my astute
vision, my alert eyes in spotting my own spots, basal
cell carcinomas which are easy to spot. You don’t
have to be a brain surgeon to find these babies. Wayward
flesh doesn’t even try to lie low, it tramples the garden
and kicks small children and puppies. These pimples
lie, they lie, I discovered. These zits tell admirers it’s
nothing, it’s nothing at all, the pearly swelling persists;
it tells the world it’s a pearl, a beauty mark, or something
else (ignore me, it sez), whatever goes with the territory.
I’m easy, but I wearied of bumps in the night that bled,
monsters under the bed, too easily insulted, knobs
that refused to give way to either love or discipline.
Naturally I became an expert. But I don’t need praise,
just heal me, and kill the bastards.

—published in the 1999 issue of Downtown Brooklyn (USA)


Ladies, in every chapter of Ulysses,
equine references can be noted,
always a part of the ambience:
The sound of hoofs.
Mr. Bloom
is not so busy with his own thoughts
that he ignores the hansom cab horses
having their lunch—
a nostalgic „nosebag time“—
he is equally observant of their sexual status,
the equine equivalent of eunuchs.
Honey, no doubt
he empathizes with their state
of nonsexual existence,
He feels their toil,
he shares their burden,
almost Sisyphean
in their interminable task
hauling humanity
ever onward back to Eden.
Bloom notices the „dull eye“
of a horse with a funereal job
hauling coffins
to a cemetery,
as if the animal in turn perceived
the futility of its mission,
in an anthropomorphic statement
of equine/human
resignation. Or nostalgia.
I remember Blackjack,
the ceremonial stallion
in President John F. Kennedy’s
funeral procession,
a black horse, shining black,
with symbolic cavalry boots
placed backward in the stirrups.
Clip-clop, clip-clop,
and then came beautiful white horses
bringing us the president’s coffin
on a caisson, the same vehicle
had borne President Lincoln’s remains—
somehow, you know, the horses
seem so much more appropriate
for grief and mourning than
a Cadillac limousine hearse.

But we digress. Neigh, neigh.
„Dun for a nun,“ he wrote.
He could not resist this rhyme,
and his choice is meaningful
in more than one respect.
Dun is not a highly regarded color
for a well-bred horse.
Dun: primitive blood,
ancient genetics,
not the high class
of a bay thoroughbred.
Baby, most well-bred Irish horses
were not dun,
it more likely would be found
in crossbred cart horses
or wild ponies,
indicating Northern (Viking) influxes.
Horses of prehistoric times
often were dun,
their coats reveal the blood
of the Tarpan,
now extinct,
and Przewalski’s Horse
(also called the Mongolian Wild Horse)
of central Asia.
Equidae relatives—
the Onager, Kulan, and Kiang—
are all dun, the basic black
of original models of the genus Equus.
The blood of these ancient ancestors
shows up
in the Norwegian Fjord and Icelandic ponies
which, in turn,
contributed their dun color
to the pony breeds
of the British Isles.
Hon, dun has other connotations
which Joyce may have had in mind for
his nun.
And don’t forget, luv,
the word Dun referred to
a cart-horse per se,
of any color.
The sounds of rolling carts
and carriages
and the sound of hoofs
are mentioned frequently by Joyce.
Plus, given his penchant for
excremental images,
how could Joyce resist adding
at least one reference to
equine defecation?
Our heroes step carefully over
turds symbolically plopped down
three times,
in a trinity,
a triad of dung.
Girls, when Bloom conjures up
his ideal way to travel,
it is with a „solidungular“ horse,
a Joycean word
in which you can see
both „dun“ and „dung.“
Dong. Well hung or sung out,
rung in counterpoint
with the sounds of hoofbeats,
Mr. Joyce always chimes in
with the last word, sweetheart.

—published in the Fall 1996 issue of WOMEN AND LANGUAGE

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