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.

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