November 2007

Brendan Galvin


Brendan Galvin's Habitat: New and Selected Poems 1965–2005 (LSU Press, 2005) was a finalist for the National Book Award. His Ocean Effects will appear from LSU Press this fall. Brendan Galvin lives in Truro, Massachusetts.

Horse of Chernobyl, Horse of Lascaux


The black I could scavenge from char
around the edge of any firepit, but not the red:
the old man my teacher pointed me across
the flatlands and forest to where a long
cloud hung, below it the mountains
like teeth broken and ground down from
chewing hides to soften them up. The elder
would tell me no more, I understood.
Finding the red rocks was my first duty,
a walk alone into those mountains,
going the trample-way of bison
humping along in their dust, no danger
unless they suddenly turned.

Then I'd be running so fast I would feel
what bound my thighs to my bones
beginning to split and tear. Only a rock
large enough to climb or crouch behind
would keep me from sprinting all the way
out of my skin. Still, I had no idea to fail.
Antelope, too, were on those plains, dancing
away in leap-flow and gallop and leap-flow,
streaming herds I watched with envy.

I wished for that grace when, bellowing in the dark,
its back like a heap of boulders, something
would startle me to a sprint until its noise
was far behind me in the night. I'd run and rest,
pace myself, a man's way, not a thick-necked stallion's
heading up his gathering of mares and young,
with always one horse watching, ears alert, shy
of intruders and snorting fear through its pale muzzle
so the herd reels after the stallion and is gone.
Runners impossible to catch, unless one
straying alone, fine in its stiff black mane
above red-gold girth, pale undercoat, black tail
and legs, lets down its guard, its bulging jowls
working deep in the grass, unaware of spearmen.

The peaks and rock-loose paths by day made me
wish I was back on that plain avoiding the beasts.
I envied hunting birds whose open wings could
take them from height to height without fear that
what they gripped would break off and carry them
down with it. Where were the red stones? I would stop
when I had to take my breath back, sit if I could,
then go on, maybe cross a narrow ledge over
a gorge, the while telling myself to look only
as far down as my two feet. Before dark I would find
one of those small grassy meadows growing
among the crags and wait out the night there.

In the cold towards evening a few goats
might emerge from hiding into the meadow,
white in the gathering dark, each climbing
to a higher place, listening, sniffing the air,
taking time to be sure they were alone. I had rubbed
myself with the earth of the place, a hunter's trick.
When they grazed, their tails swished with pleasure.
I would ask its forgiveness and thank the one
I had chosen before my spear flew. Then the rest
would be gone, leaping down ledge to ledge,
sure-footed, their hooves sounding like
rocks in a clatter on the stone below.

On the fourth sunrise, I saw a red band
as if smeared across a wallface, approachable
after I picked my way up a slide of rubble.
Small pieces lay about the place, crumbling,
and powdered my hands red when I rubbed
them together. Those I returned to our fires with,
running and resting, then up again on my feet,
glad to be gone from those mountains.

Before they went to the fire I scraped the clotted blood
off the next raw chunks of horsemeat, the other
hunters nodding, knowing, and gathered more
powdered blood from the thick horsehide
before the women took their antler scrapers to it.
Where the cave was I knew, but not my place in it.
Though the old man had taught me all
I would need to carry out the test, he couldn't
smooth away my fears, even if he guessed them.
On the night of a horned moon he gave me
a shove, "Go. Go now." In my pouch I packed
dried meat, flints, kindling and split pitchwood,
stone cups, lamps, wicks and tallow. And bladders:
one of water, one of charcoal, one of the red rock powder,
another of powdered horseblood, the pouch
a weight now, to which I added with care
the long hollow wingbone of a crow.

My first time in that dark was a stumble,
sightless as the old man required. I had planned
to make one step, thinking it out before the next,
but as I trailed a hand along the wall, touching its
lumps and damps, at times dripped upon from above,
my hair and shoulders wet, I knew that twisting cave
was leading me, had swallowed me as though it was
a gullet, and was stubbing my feet on its stones
to warn me this would not be easy. The cave
had hung stone teeth like spearheads and cutters
where I would have to crouch or flatten
to avoid tearing my flesh, and at times dropped
its path from under me so I cried out to no one
but my own voice returning from farther places,
a reminder I was even more alone
than in those mountains, not even a goat in sight,
the cave taking me deeper down into the under-earth,
leading me to walls where I had to turn
and retrace my steps, and where on my back sometimes
I'd push through openings with my feet,
hoping not to touch fur or a flinch of scales with one hand
feeling about ahead, the other clutching the pouch.

That old man had sent me weaponless into that dark,
advising I'd know my place when I found it,
but with so much to discover, what would make me
certain? And why not just make fire, for who would see?
Only those watchers from the wall's other side.
A finger slipping into a hole stopped me. Was it here,
or was I too worked up to pursue it further on into the cave's
turnings? Upright, facing the wall I couldn't see,
I set my pouch with care at my feet and felt around,
keeping that finger knuckle-deep in stone
as though that cold spot was the source
of everything. Then I let go and struck fire,
lit one stone lamp and another, set them about
the floor and ignited more, then a torch.

I was not the first. Others had endured the cave's
misleadings and crawls. On the wall, red horses,
some huge as bison, others like mice,
going in all directions of the wind, none paired,
the smaller painted on the larger, the larger
passing through each other as though
there were no such thing as flesh. Deer too,
antlered like trees, and horned bulls, cows, bison,
antelope running beneath them, the wall
like a plain of beasts, some I have never seen,
perhaps no one has seen, but all in a gallop,
yet not fearful I saw as I stared, but as if
a strength beyond them ran through every one.

Wherever I moved, the flickering made them fade,
or seem to come forward out of the stone. I saw
in the various bison humps and horns,
the thick horse necks, the smaller heads or bigger,
the jaws sometimes outsized, the work of many hands.
The legs at times were trailings off of paint, the red shading
strong, or on some beasts almost sandy or brown,
they ran as though on sky—no finger had done
a tree or bush or stream on that wall.

The hole my finger found was perfect for my stallion's eye.
I had thought so in the dark, and it was true by firelight.
I crouched beneath it and stirred red earth and dry horse blood
in a stone cup with water, then sipped, less fearful
of the taste than swallowing the mixture. That would mean
my death, as the old man had warned me. From such mistakes
others had sickened and whithered like grass in the sun.

That first mouthful I blew through the crow's bone
around my stallion's eye. The next and next I blew along
his flanks and where I saw his belly would hang.
The neck then, and across the straight back,
then one solid puff to set the rump. While I rinsed
as the old man had shown me, and spat out
the remains of that mixture until no red showed,
I studied my horse so far. Letting it dry, I prepared
in mind to surround those splatters with its form,
the difficult step, ear-points drawn by fingers
in wet charcoal, the black bristle of short mane
thumb-smeared on, thin finger-line for belly and back.
I would have him with tail arched and legs alive in flight.
Or else I could never return there to outline my horse
with a sharp stone when I needed its help for the race
or fight or hunt or the gathering of women. I wanted him
quick to bump and bite, to strike out with a hoof,
his alertness that could not be fooled.

2. PRZHEVALSKY                                                

The trustworthy Poliakov measured
the bone cask of the skull in St. Petersburg,
studying details of its jaws, teeth
and eye sockets, comparing other equines,
and concluded that the pelt and skull
I was presented with in Mongolia were not
an extinct tarpan's, but of another unknown
wild horse, larger and also extinct.
Except that the reddish wooly winter coat
was a sure marker: in several
Mongolian habitats I had seen these
squarely built, shaggy beauties
on the hoof—once while crossing Dzungaria,
other times at the oasis Gashun Nor,
small gatherings of mares and young
led by a stallion. He was always in motion,
nervously aware, shaking head and tail,
raising his nostrils to the wind like
a hunting dog. They would scent us
almost a mile away and gallop
out of sight in a single file,
the stallion circling his herd, quick
to nudge any lagging foal or mare.

The skull was a tarpan's or khulan's
or another breed of wild ass, insisted
some gentlemen who never left their desks
at the Academy, and certainly not
to set foot in that lost world of the Gobi,
in Mongol a waterless barren grassless plain.
And empty, scoured to bone-colored gravel
by the snow, then wind, then rain, and sun-baked,
saline, treeless, slashed into cross-hatchings
of gullies and ravines, as though its creator
was a mad ploughman. Look before you
or behind and it was the same, a disorientation
so profound it seemed you could see the earth
curving away in front of your eyes.
Imagine the boredom. Any wonder that
out of such burnt and frozen steppes
enclosed by mountains
came centuries of short, wide,
bowlegged nomads made for horseback,
their broad faces tanned to leather,
slit-eyed from riding into the elements:
Huns, Avars, Magyars, Tamerlane,
Chingis Khan. And why not climb
into a wooden saddle and head off
south or west for the gates of Baghdad
or the Balkans? Anywhere for
a leafy grove enveloping
shade and coolness, a sky free enough
of dust to display its colors, or to verify
the rumor of an ocean. To keep
those Mongol horsemen out
the Chinese built their Great Wall.

If you judge a man by how well
he sits a horse, none is better than
a Mongol. If only one of them could get
a rope on a takhi, that wild horse
of their country, whose name
means spirit. As for a wooden saddle,
don't bother. I've heard that horse
will roll it to splinters. I have at Sloboda
cases of specimens, even a stuffed
Tibetan bear and a signed portrait of
the Tsarevich. I would bargain them all
for a breeding pair of takhi to feed on the grass
of my estate. Not a robe, not a pile of bones
I might bring down with a rifle. Those horses
deserve better for the way they endure
that Gobi weather, the night frosts into May,
then northwesterly gales that will
peel back on occasion ages of sand
to reveal silver dishes and other
treasure. Though I have never set eyes
on evidence of such buried cities,
not even as a man of science
and a soldier would I tempt death—
which the Mongols say comes quickly
after laying a hand on such items.

Cold, salt, sand and dust, twilight
at morning, even the Bactrian camels
shutting down, closing their eyes
and noses, turning their rumps on it,
refusing to go on. Then summer
and by noon that desert visibly
smoking like a brick stove. The wild
horse tracks—if that's what they were—
would swim in our sight, and our strength
leak away with our pouring sweat. Even
the camels perspired, tongues hanging
like a dog's, and not a word passed
among the caravan, as though
to speak might rupture
our aching brains. We were
a mechanism moving without sound
toward the hope of evening,
and the hoofprints would vanish
as though into air, as though
to demonstrate that the wind's shape
is a takhi's shape. Meanwhile,
in St. Petersburg they'd be saying,
General Przhevalsky is seeing things again!

Still, better the Gobi than a city where
the atmosphere in a room is colder
than on any steppe. Since we are speaking of
camels who can drink thirty gallons of water
in ten minutes, I swear I have observed
men at dinner attempting the same,
albeit with sterner liquids, and ladies
in the grand ballrooms with eyelashes
drawn out and painted to such lengths
as to outdo the functional
double-rowed lashes of the Bactrians,
and tougher mouths, for though
a camel will chew thorns when hungry,
it has breeding enough never to spit
the sharp points at the turned backs of its kind.

Nor can you admire black-tailed gazelles
in St. Petersburg, or the seldom encountered
Marco Polo sheep, or come upon a
puddle-sized oasis surrounded in August
by pink blossoms of Hedysarum. Mongolia
is legendary too for the rapacity of its crows,
which Mongols will not dispatch because
they consider it wrong to kill birds. Therefore
black flocks will follow a caravan across
the desert as thickly as gulls trouble the air
at the stern of a fishing boat on the sea.
They perch on camels and steal rusks
from sacks of provisions, even tear
into the humps of their grazing victims
until they elicit screams. Shoot the thieves
and others soon appear to take up their positions.

It provokes a question: Mongols or crows,
which taught which to steal?
For as well as bent on misdirection
when asked the way to such-and-such
or where the takhi herds might be found,
a Mongol can be quick-fingered
around your property. That I was
the Tsar's general meant nothing,
so they needed to see my skill at
bringing down birds in flight
or dropping a distant antelope.
Sometimes only viewing a gun
would suffice. I learned to assume
that my guide was a spy, always,
and when making notes or taking down
bearings would arrange beforehand
for one of my companions to create
some distraction. In this the compass
and field glasses often took part,
as the guides had trouble distinguishing
one from the other, and were dazzled by
the mysteries of both. Look in one end
and the scene was far away, look in
the other and it was near. But in neither end
would I see a wild horse close enough
for a rope. And that compass needle,
was it alive? That is how we locate the animals,
I'd assure the guides, who upon reflection
kept their own mysteries, and knew
what animal it couldn't locate.


Tuteshni, we call ourselves, "locals,"
but to the Zone's watchdogs we are samosels,
"squatters," by which they mean vagrants,
scavengers and thieves, though these were
our fields and villages before their reactor
coughed up three Hiroshimas a day
for more than a week. Cesium, iodine, lead,
cadmium, berillium, barium, weapons grade
plutonium—you name it, we had it
dumped on us, four-hundred-and-fifty
varieties of radionuclides. How well
I remember that first rain afterwards,
the droplets pilling and joining like mercury.
And the puddles—here green, there
yellow as sunflowers. And they claim
radiation has no color? The truth
came later, of course, after the government
had buried it as they buried the cats and dogs,
hosed down and flattened cars and houses
and pushed them into pits. Someone
sometime will have to enumerate to God
what's buried under this country. But the truth
is like grass—given enough time it climbs from
its grave. We were fenced out even after
they buried Reactor Four and renamed it
the Sarcophagus. We lived in cities like Kiev,
where Chernobyl, whispered behind a hand,
made people have to be someplace else in a hurry.
As if after dark we lit up like neon tubes. As if
we had partaken of those mushrooms
rumored to be the size of human heads,
and lived where flies could turn the doorknobs
and walk in. Those days the newspapers
were full of stories—hairless hedgehogs,
packs of chickens killing the foxes.
Until I decided, better to deal with such
mutations than to remain there
and be treated like a horror film vampire.
Besides, I missed the lucky signs of storks
on rooftops, and woke each night—Thank God
not shining in the dark!—from dreaming of
this house and of tending to this garden here.
I came back under the fence and into the leaves
through the forest one night, no militia anywhere.
Even they had been officially economized.
I had to see if home still existed, to satisfy
a persistent nudge I had that the administrators
had outspent the plan before the finish line
was in sight. In the old cemetery among the trees,
I stopping to visit my mother and father.

This house was a husk then, even the doors
and windows stolen, the stove stolen, my books—
I was a school-teacher when there were
children here. From nothing will come
something, then? I asked the sky,
and that time for once got a quick answer:
a heavy rain that proved the roof was good.
Even the sparrows were gone, as though
whatever moved had been pocketed
by thieves, even the flowers. It was two years
before someone passing shouted from the road,
I saw a sparrow taking a bath in the dust!
I had turned looter myself, a nightly visitor
to remains of other houses and farms
for whatever I needed to live here.
Nature's revenge, I saw it all. Moss breaking
the asphalt down to grit; pines, birches,
and willows popping the pavements, ripping
with knuckled roots, baring soil for
new growth. Whole fields of lavender asters.

On paper no one lives here. But the Zone managers
are officious aunties, and need to know what everyone's
up to. Once in awhile they even deliver the mail
and check my vegetables with dosimeters.
Turns out we tuteshni get double the dosages of
outside folks, but look! I could fall and break my neck.
Those who stayed away in cities or shabby camps
have suffered worse. Hypochondriacs, convinced with
every scratch they've contracted Death.
Madness everywhere! Brawling in mud streets!
Here the bus carries me to markets in the city
once a month. More than enough. Doctors poke me
and shine lights in my eyes and check me off
on their clipboards from time to time.

One morning just over there a wolf stood in the road,
a look on his face as if to say, Well, squatter,
what shall we do with this bumbledump
technology has made for us? All the animals
were coming back. Boars running in packs
like the revenge of pigs fenced in forever.
They are our mastodons, and I soon learned
to pick fruit early and keep out of
abandoned orchards after the windfalls
started, lest one of those barreling porkers
collide with me and snap my legs like twigs.
Black storks are thriving, though rare
before the fallout. I was living in a sanctuary
for wildlife and had soon fallen in love
with the silence, birdsong its only punctuation,
or the barking of a lynx back in the trees.
The sound of a vehicle brings Kiev
back in a hurry. As for mutations, the new pines
are dwarfed into bushes, and on their normal limbs
some of the chestnuts sprout huge leaves,
but among the fauna only barn swallows were
changed that I could see, their faces albino-spotted.

That statue of Lenin you passed as you came in,
did you notice? One hand in his pocket, one grasping
his lapel as if he had a plan? Each time I pass him
I ask, "What surprise do you have for us today,
Comrade? Or are you too busy in Hell?"
One morning, a few patches away from
that great thinker, the surprise was there,
nibbling the grass. A horse, a small,
copper-colored horse, little taller than a pony,
but blocky, sturdier looking. The jaw seemed
prehistoric, a huge working lump, designed
for a bigger animal, and the extremities
were black, legs, tail, even the mane that stood up
like the short bristles on a pushbroom.
At last I have seen a four-legged mutation, I thought.
Because no work horse of this country—
most now mere underground arrangements
of bones, buried with the rusalkas,
those sirens who stole men souls—was that
straight-backed and compact. As I walked
slowly away, it stared but kept on chomping.
Later from the postman I learned that
small herds had been trucked in to give them
breeding room and let them eat the irradiated
grass and stomp it out with their hooves. The last
wild horses on Earth, brought from the plains
of Mongolia to the estate at Askania Nova
a hundred years ago, fewer left now in this world
than we tuteshni. Tough Przhevalsky's horses,
able to live in cold conditions like ours. Dead Zone?
One day there may be thousands here. Wolves
they treat like soccer balls. Like us
they are foragers, and need wide territory
between them and the other herds. Too smart
to be tamed or ridden. Kick and bite,
snap and spin is their way, even among
themselves, as I have seen since Lenin showed me
the first one. Here, drink a glass with me
before you go. "For the horse," as we tuteshni say.
No fear, it's made with sugar I get from
the mobile shop in exchange for my potatoes.
A glass of this and you'll feel the roentgens
and becquerels fly away.



Brendan Galvin: Poetry
Copyright ©2007 The Cortland Review Issue 37The Cortland Review