When I think about horses I think of Jack Yeats’s horses, with and without riders, exultant, galloping out of their frames.
I think of the horses in the rain at the end of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, rolling over and over.
I think of a tethered horse on the side of Bray Head I came upon in the fog, that had walked its tether into a horrible tangle and could scarcely move.
I think of a traveller’s horse, tethered by the old lead mine on Ballycorus, kicking and bellowing fearsomely.
I think of Lavinia Greenlaw’s ‘No Particular Horse’:
I can offer no greater sign of trust
than to say you are someone with whom
I would steal horses.
I think of Edwin Muir’s ‘The Horses’:
We saw the heads
Like a wild wave charging and were afraid.
We had sold our horses in our fathers’ time
To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us
As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield
Or illustrations in a book of knights.
We did not dare go near them. Yet they waited,
Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent
By an old command to find our whereabouts
And that long-lost archaic companionship.
I think of Seán Ó Ríordáin’s ‘Malairt’, and Ciaran Carson’s translation of it, Ciaran Carson who includes so many horses in Breaking News, along with a poem ‘after Isaac Babel’, and I think of Isaac Babel. It seems odd to use the word ‘picaresque’ about stories set in the Russian civil war, but when I pull down the Complete Works I can follow my own picaresque route through it – a two-page story here, a diary section here, a screenplay there – and throughout it, on the march across the endless steppe, are Babel’s horses. In ‘The Story of a Horse’ Savitsky takes Khlebnikov (no that Khlebnikov)’s horse, a white stallion. Khlebnikov is given a black mare instead, but he wants his stallion back. He complains to his army chief of staff, who writes him a letter authorising the retrieval of his horse, but when he travels to see Savitsky, Savitsky laughs at him and refuses to give it back. He goes to see his chief of staff, who tells him he has spoken already and the matter is closed. In despair, he writes a thirty-page petition: ‘He spent the whole day writing it, and it was very long.’ He throws himself on a tree stump, injuring himself badly enough to receive a discharge:
That’s how we lost Khlebnikov. I was very upset about this because Khlebnikov had been a quiet man, very similar to me in character. He was the only one in the squadron who owned a samovar. On days when there was a break in the fighting, the two of us drank hot tea. We were rattled by the same passions. Both of us looked upon the world as a meadow in May over which women and horses wander.
Isaac Babel and his horses. I love them.