Language of Horse
By Glen Sorestad
The Language of Horse
To a ten year old boy from the city
the Belgian draft horses of his uncle
were humungous beasts, ominous,
their looming nearness disturbing
and fearful as steam locomotives
when you stood on the trembling
train station platform. It was just one
of the many fears he had to overcome
in this strange new world of farm animals.
In time he realized the horses
were gentle, despite their daunting bulk
and the greatest danger to him
could result from their not being
aware of his presence. Once, he tried
to squeeze between Big Jim and the stall,
only to be flattened against the stall wall
when Jim expanded his substantial girth.
At nearly two thousand pounds, Jim
was not merely a large horse;
in a small boy’s eyes, Jim was gargantuan.
It took his sudden loss of breath
and near suffocation to teach him
always to announce his presence,
call out their names whenever he
sought to approach them and never
to take for granted that they knew
he was there. But learn he did.
It was the language of horse
that baffled at first. He recognized
each horse had its own harness,
the contraption of leather and rings,
buckles and straps horses worked in.
But harness wasn’t good enough –
it was the skeleton and you had to know
the names of all the bones.
It was words like halter and hames,
bit and bridle, collar and reins,
words his uncle threw at him as if
they were self-evident—this language
so foreign to him. It was a childhood
epiphany that each new landscape
he encountered from that point on
would come with its own language,
its own lexicon to be snapped
or buckled into place, for him to become
part of and in turn for it
to become a part of him.
Saskatchewan winter nights
black and cold, a dark
full of dread, an accosting
presence that clutched
at your youthful throat,
its impenetrable thickness
a foe you’d never faced
in those lamp lit city streets
you’d left behind forever,
though you didn’t know this.
Near stifled in unaccustomed
layers of wool to address
winter’s bodily abuse, Coleman
kerosene lantern in hand you
confronted fearsome night
with a glass-captive sun
you could swing as far
as the arm would reach.
On your walk to the barn
you bore your Promethean fire,
confronting night and its creatures,
carrying light to the denizens
of the barn, your Coleman
illuminating the pathway—
trodden snow, trampled contours
that squeaked and scrunched
beneath your winter boots
in protest against being stepped on.
The long shadows tossed across
the whiteness before you
dimmed away to lose themselves
in obscure blackness beyond which
the world you knew did not exist
unless you willed it so.
In the evening the barn, lit by
Coleman lantern, tossed its
feeble gleam into the dark
dank warmth redolent with
the rich scent of cows and horses,
pungent steam of fresh droppings,
the strewn straw that bedded
stalls where two by two,
the animals stood silent
but for the sound of mouths
moving in the mangers.
Add to the earthy animal pulsing
the scents of summer captive
in forked hay bunched in each
manger, focus of the undivided
attention of the beasts. If you
could separate this summeriness
from the mélange of aromas
filling the barn to overflowing,
perhaps you might also detect
the measure of chopped grain,
an autumn harvest mix of oats
and barley, sometimes wheat.
This was barn in winter,
a dense living presence that left
with you and clung like
new skin. To step from frigid
night into the thick warmth
of animal air was to step over
a threshold into a world where
your intrusion was always tolerated
with patience only animals
possess and daily offer.
The Ice House
It wasn’t much, perhaps eight feet square,
walls of poplar logs from nearby woods.
Hardly six feet high, its raison d’être was
what you couldn’t see, the depth below.
Open the door in summer. A whiff
of sawdust fills the nostrils—a reminder
of the saw ripping through aspen logs,
its wails biting chill January afternoon.
Below the sawdust surface, your fingers
probe its layered depths, you discover cold—
blocks of ice laid down in winter, hauled
from a distant lake—captive through summer.
The ice house was a crude refrigerator
for cream shipped weekly to the creamery.
Modest and inauspicious, it locked winter
deep beneath its tiny chips of wood.
We burrowed hard-packed snow
like frenetic Richardson ground squirrels
awakened mid-hibernation to find
a strange world of white,
crystals of ice the only medium,
and now transformed into tunnellers
crazed with snow blindness.
If there was an unsullied
snow bank we claimed it for our own
and into it we dug to create
below a surface glazed hard
and within the insulating warmth
a warren of passages, snow caves
we traversed on hands and knees,
overgrown wool-clad field mice.
In this long looking back, what still
lingers on the fringes of recall is
how joyous we were—freed from
looming drudgery to claim snow
as our own world, too small for adults,
a Lilliputian winter world where
all that existed was what we
brought to it. It was whatever
we deemed it to be.
Like today’s parking lot Bobcats
we moved snow, but below the skin
of the world, claustrophobia unknown,
in search of perfect snow, the perfect
grainy drift that would allow a room
we all could gather in, out of sight,
and never be summoned by the bell.
Each was a succulent treasure
wrapped like a bright round doll
in its pale green tissue paper jacket,
packed in a compact wooden box.
The arrival of Japanese oranges,
sweet summer suns of winter cold,
was one of the most anticipated
Yule season joys the child I was
remembers. Edible Magi gifts
of the Orient, the quick-peel treats
highlighted the morning ransacking
of our stockings hung Christmas Eve.
No other fruit could compare
with the mandarin. We seldom gave
a passing thought to the miracle—
their mid-winter appearance, how they
traveled half the world to reach us
on a remote farm in equally remote
Saskatchewan, how they survived
the rigors of brutal cold to be
a feature of our Christmas memory.
We hurried apart the delicate
segments of our days and swallowed
them, piece by piece, heedless
of anything more than that
these small marvels were ours
to enjoy, as children will.
As I still do.
Neilson’s Map of Canada
My vision of Canada
has always been chocolate-flavored.
The country school that steered me
through the early seas of learning had
just one large map of our nation
at the front of the classroom,
the map supplied by a candy-maker,
and apart from the predominance of pink
that transformed the Arctic North into
a gigantic midway candy floss, I don’t
recall much about the colours,
except each province had its own
distinctive hue and Saskatchewan
may have been green,
which we would knew to be appropriate.
I can still see
the four Neilson’s candy bars tucked in
the map’s four corners, subliminal
treats encouraging us to regard
Crispy Crunch or Jersey Milk
as valid cartographic rewards. I was
inculcated in Neilson’s sensual pleasures
before I’d even tasted my first bar.
But all through my adolescent years
and into my twenties, my fidelity
to Neilson’s chocolate goodies
remained unshaken, undiminished.
Whenever I have cause
to create in my head the Canada I know
even now, over fifty years later,
it’s hard not to see Crispy Crunch
or Jersey Milk or Malted Milk
somewhere in that image and I know
that I am not alone. I also know
long after the last Neilson’s chocolate bar
has been eaten, no matter that some
multinational corporate food giant has
eaten and excreted Neilson’s for good
and the name disappears into the same void
with Brylcream and Lux and Ipana,
there will still remain a few of us
scattered across this chocolate-flavoured
nation who will keep forever fresh
on their internal image of our land,
somewhere off the western coast
of Vancouver (Crispy Crunch) Island
or in the Beaufort (Jersey Milk) Sea
or off the Grand (Malted Milk) Banks
or Cape Breton (Jersey Nut) Island,
those chocolatey treats that created
a delicious confection of our country.
My Uncle Justin would insist,
whenever I wasn’t able to perform—
lift a boulder, or a fork load of hay,
pull a harness strap or stretch a wire
snugly enough, anything that defied
my young unbridled strength or skill—
what I needed was a few more
To this day I have no idea
what these may have been,
whether the term might at some time
have had common parlance,
nor whether such contrivances existed
at all beyond the imagination of my uncle.
“We’ll have to get you a few
more buggywashers,” he’d insist,
though he never informed me
where to get them, where to put them,
or how to use them.
Even as I grew to a muscular teen
who could pitch hay all day
under a barbecue sun, grunting
heavy fork loads of hay up atop
the rack load he was building,
if I farted under the strain
of an extra-heavy lift, he’d call out,
“Better tighten those buggywashers!”
These days when the poems refuse
to come, or balk in the birthing
and I need some encouragement,
I think of my Uncle Justin,
long dead, but his voice still
echoing in my head. I imagine
him grinning at me, having delivered
his favorite image of work.
Then I just check my buggywashers,
tighten them a few twists
and I know I’ll get on fine.
Sometimes as I turn away from
the gleaning and gathering of words
on the LG monitor screen in this room
where I write—and as my eyes roam,
as eyes tend to do when the mind
is grappling with the intricate
pursuit of precision and they take in
the overflowing shelves, volumes
lying atop the spines of others
in this artificial socializing of authors
nudging one another alphabetically,
I never for a moment consider that
this might be excess, that no one
ought to possess this many books,
that libraries are the proper repositories,
that I should not be seen as
a competitor with public good.
But every now and then when
the mind percolates and the eyes
idle over shelves of volumes, I recall
that first rude bookcase of the farm lad
I was, whose meagre books, those few
he got as Yule or birthday gifts,
were astutely arranged in a schema
only he determined—two shelves,
the divider and base of a wooden packing box
that once was filled with apples, pears,
or peaches from the Okanagan Valley.
Emptied, standing vertical, bottom to the wall,
it became a bookcase housing his first library—
adventure fiction: Zane Grey and Jack London,
the tales of Silver Chief, Dog of the North,
pulp westerns and war stories, piracy
and buried treasures, one-eyed trappers
and heroic deeds in sports. All gone.
But never the passion, the desire
to gather around him a wall of comfort,
or a beacon of inspiration, books
and writers that whisper
from their shelves to urge him on,
to point the way to the exact word
that will make the difference.
Books set their hooks
and there’s no escape. To be enclosed
within their company is to prickle
with vibrations from ghosts of authors past,
from voices of the present, is to be
sparked and fired, though there
are times I look around and wonder
what I can possibly add to what is here.
But the thought lasts only until
the word I’ve been seeking
whooshes forth, a genie from the lexicon
lamp I’ve rubbed and I’m back
on the line, following the new word
and the next, and the next,
wherever they lead.
Glen Sorestad is a Saskatoon poet, a Life Member of the League of Canadian Poets, who has published 18 poetry books, the most recent being Blood & Bone, Ice & Stone (Thistledown Press, 2005) and Halo of Morning (Leaf Press, 2006). He was the first provincially appointed Poet Laureate in the country and served as Poet Laureate of Saskatchewan for two terms (2000-2004). Sorestad was also a co-founder of Thistledown Press and served as its president until 2000 when he and his wife Sonia retired from literary publishing. He has given readings of his poems in every province of the country and in 17 states, as well as in France, Norway, Finland and Slovenia. His poetry has been broadcast on national radio in Canada, Norway and Slovenia; his poems have been translated into a half-dozen languages.
Although Sorestad was born in Vancouver, when he was ten years old his parents moved back to Saskatchewan and on a remote farm in the midst of a severe winter he discovered a totally different world from the one he’d left behind on the temperate Pacific coast. From the age of ten Sorestad has lived in Saskatchewan, earning a Master’s Degree in Education and spending over 20 years in Saskatchewan classrooms. He began his writing career in 1968 in Saskatoon and was active in the founding of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild, from whom he has received a Founders Award. Glen Sorestad is also a recipient of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal.
Copyright © Glen Sorestad 2012