Horse Medicine by Doug Anderson
Barrow Street Press, 2015; 73 pp
Reviewed by Megan Turner
When a horse dies something ancient dies
that links to our beginnings after which
we’ll be less than we were, less noble,
less connected to the old world
that may itself be going,
so grievously have we broken it.
Doug Anderson’s poems are gently written. His collection, Horse Medicine, broaches the usual subjects—the horrors of war, the loss of love and youth, and the beauty of nature—and yet, Anderson’s voice is a quieting, humble one. I don’t mean this as an offense. It is, after all, Anderson’s voice that makes his poetry unusual. His poems are not enamored with themselves. One feels that when Anderson shows us the world, he does so with purpose and without flourish. His poems are simple reflections, intended to show us the world as it truly stands.
Anderson expresses something to this effect in his poem “Plainsong.” He writes, “One day so tired, / so depleted of cleverness, / I was empty / and the words came / through me as if / I’d removed a boulder / from a stream.”
He later writes, “What can I take with me when I die? / My cupped hands. / Empty of everything but longing.”
The collection includes poems on aging, presumably written during specific years (e.g., “Seventy” and “Sixty-One”). Of course, there is wisdom in his poems—but what one more often feels is the longing Anderson describes. This longing proves refreshing. Instead of tired, it makes his poems feel light and new.
In “What Now,” Anderson references the great poet Jack Gilbert, who so often used plain language to describe his profound insights. Writes Anderson, “Jack Gilbert said our poetry changed / because we live long and long.” Anderson goes on to say, “We watch history repeat / and our prophetic observations / bring smirks.”
Some of Anderson’s poems express regret while others an inability to forget. “War comes to visit me once a day,” writes Anderson in “Binge.” He writes, “I can’t get rid of him. / He’s grown old and hates himself.” In “The Hard, Hard Thing” Anderson writes, “You don’t get over it in spite / of wonderpill, don’t get / to lay your burden down.”
Towards the end of his collection, Anderson includes poems that relate nature and animals to love and lust. He describes the way nature and love are constantly escaping our grasp. In “Ars Poetica,” Anderson writes, “Like the doe you surprise that freezes when you freeze, its tail twitching. / I know that even if I move my eyes the deer will bolt.” In a later stanza he continues, “I try not to say it. The word that will send the doe running. I try, but it / comes out.”
My favorite of Anderson’s poems are perhaps his most playful. For example, in “Letter to Martín Espada,” Anderson writes to a fellow poet, partially in Spanish, claiming his letter is not magic realism.
Anderson’s poems are often profound, yet they offer up something else as well. His voice is quieting and thoughtful, at ease with itself. Anderson offers wisdom even when he thinks there is none to give. For this reason, Horse Medicine is a collection worth reading. It is one that offers insight and introspection without ever forcing it upon its reader.