The Horses are Stuck

I’m going to talk at you a bit in this post. I mean it’s going to be one where I pull apart some poetry I like and try to figure out how it works, which can be annoying if you’re already quite capable of doing that yourself, or you just want to enjoy something without analyzing it. I hope what follows isn’t annoying; my intent is mainly to share amazement. Here are some words from one of my favorite songs of all time:

That field is a flood
that soul is undone
that water runs down, down, down
into the blood

that side is a muck
those horses are stuck
that water runs down, down, down
into the mud

The song is Jordan Klassen’s “The Horses are Stuck.” You can watch the music video here. It’s weird and a little bit funny, but there’s something dead serious in it too, and I think watching it helps for understanding the play of light and gravity in the lyrics.

If this isn’t a song about Christ and what it means to be saved, I’ll eat the proverbial hat. “That soul is undone” is a dead give-away and a beautiful line. Undone is perfect. The collapse and crumple of it! That’s exactly what it is to be confronted with your own impossible helplessness – and then, while you are still reeling, to be thunderstruck by grace: You are broken. And all is not lost. Undone is at both extremes of the human experience.

The surface and the main part of the song, to me, reflects “all is not lost” – in fact, everything is gained, which is why the video can afford to make us laugh. I like that because sometimes it’s hard to make the necessary move from “You are broken” to “And all is not lost.” At first I thought the melody and instruments of the song are too light for the subject, but they’re not. They keep the focus from resting too heavily on failure and pain. The recurring image of the words I quoted, if you start thinking it through, is a highly physical metaphor for the human struggle with sin: the horses frantic and soaked and churning themselves further into the mud, and their owner exhausted with the effort of trying to get them out safely (or, depending on your view of people, maybe to continue plowing), and rain coming down, down, down. I like that too. I know something about scared horses and the misery of being drenched for hours at work; I know something about being stuck in my own sin. Knowing that grace completes the story warrants deep joy.

What’s curious is Klassen’s choice to change p.o.v. at “that soul.” The verses before are about “I” and “me”: “Come arrest me/ I know you’ve got/what it takes/when I’m breaking my own back.” It’s a good choice; “the field is a flood” and “my soul is undone” don’t have the same force as “that field” and “that soul.” I’m not certain why, though. Perhaps “my soul” is too familiar. Or “that” asks us more forcefully to consider the stuck horses, as if they might be just over there, in that field across the way. Or “that” grants perspective that is hard to get when a soul has only been undone once – You are broken – not yet twice – And all is not lost. The song doesn’t say so but there must be many flooded fields and many souls floundering in them. Looking up from one’s own field, looking over to that field for a moment, and those in the distance, and seeing the similarity in predicaments, and as if for the first time one’s own foolishness mirrored – that might be what it takes to be fully undone.

That’s enough on the song for now. I want to look at another field. Here’s some of Will Gibson’s poem “Rock said, old giants” (sorry about the formatting; I wrangled with WP for a bit before giving up. The full poem in original format can be found here, p. 175-6):

rock said, doomsday is at me, the wind has its hooks
in my boughs and barks, rains in me crawl
and great antlers of ice in me uproot my ribs in breaks,
gorges and cliffs: I am ill, I am ill;

bone said, I am sick with salt, loves
in me crawl and lick and cry,
I am lack, I am glutless: beggar of salves,
starveling, wild with decay:

rock cried, now groins break, gut flows, winter over us
gathers: bowelled of travail, no cure,
no cure, how long must we lie, and none to deliver us?

Bone rasped on bone, and said, endure.

Brilliant. Chilling. Read it out loud. The horses are stuck in this one too. If that sounds flippant it’s because the dialogue between rock and bone is at a different register. And because of the disturbing surprise that rock is first to crack. Rock said, bone said, rock said, bone said, rock cried. I don’t mean to be flippant, though. This is beautiful poetry and it means more urgently than so many beautiful poems. I wonder if “Bone” is partially undone in it. Is the final “endure” meant to ring hollow? It conjures some satisfaction at the capacity of bone to go on carving out existence against all the sound and fury of the universe, but in the same instant makes obvious the question, “what is the value of existing?” without giving any hopeful answer – in fact, without allowing even the possibility of giving up. Sad! But then, when the situation looks like rock and bone, the relief grace gives is greater.

The Incomplete Encyclopedia: Fencing

Fences are things by which places are the more clearly known, as Enisian says plainly. And I humbly add that places can be known somewhat by the place that places are explained in this same book. But here we will speak in some detail concerning fences, so that by the understanding of simple things we may begin little and little to know what was before unknown.

Men say that “Fences” comes from “Defences,”  that is, in the old sense, things built to keep wild beasts and wicked men from getting in to plunder and ravage and destroy. But in these days fencers say that fences are chiefly constructed to keep tamed beasts from getting out. In the far regions by the source of the Knarry some fences are made from stones put cleverly together, but in the most part fences are made from wood, and that in sections of similar length, so that upon its breaking a section may be readily replaced. And most fences are made by posts which are driven into the ground with great force and by boards which are attached across them to prevent anyone from walking between them. For even the simple agree that a fence is not properly a fence unless its posts are connected by some solid means.

And fencers say that fencing is an ancient and noble art. For a fence watches that its place might not be confused with another, either by accident or purpose, by anyone, animal or man, and a fencer watches the fence that it might properly carry out its design. Both fencer and fence spend many days at the edges of places, so all fencers carry a light sword, because the edges of some places are uncertain even when fenced, and the times have often been evil.

A fence may be painted, for the pleasure of the eye or also for the purpose of preserving the wood, which in wet places quickly rots. And it is profitable that a fencer may paint, for the reason that along the way he can also straighten and repair what is crooked or broken in the fence, so also straightening and repairing for the moment what is crooked or broken in his thought when he is not painting it away into the cracks and knots and rough grain of the dry wood. And with practiced brush strokes time and sorrow can for a while be painted there too. But Nog son of Nous and Efnisian say that there is no true cure for broken thoughts and crooked in any thing men do. And shortly to say, they are firm in the hope that the Maker is able to make straight what is painfully crooked — and has indeed already begun. So fencing is not only good work for the sad, but for the ones with joy too.