As the son of a veterinarian who often had to bury dead animals in our clinic’s makeshift cemetery—(these were the days before widespread animal cremation services existed in rural areas)—I’ve handled corpses in a range of states of decomposition. While you begin to develop an assortment of coping strategies to control the gag reflex, the truth remains that certain smells of the varied forms of putrefication only can be met with physical revulsion that usually leads to heaving and retching and an expulsion of the contents of the most recent meal. Yet dealing with the dead, although at times harrowing, ultimately can be rewarding, even electrifying, as the energy that once was a life dissipates and leaks away to become something else.
And while I imagine many might find a poem somewhere in the midst of such extreme circumstances repellent—the vomit and mucus and burning eyes that death’s decay sometimes elicits—Robert Wrigley’s “Horseflies” proffers more than mere masterful strokes of thick description, which may turn the stomach or provide the shock of such a scene to one unaccustomed to country things. Far from a still-life painting, “Horseflies” delivers a fine example of the fulfillment of the turn toward what may only be called a “fitting surprise.”
A deftly handled narrative of a grotesque and dramatic event, “Horseflies,” like so much of Wrigley’s verse, relies heavily on sound play—thick and luxurious, sonorous and replete with assonance, alliteration, slant rhyme, and syntactical surges. In fact, one of the pleasures of this poem is the manner by which its music casts an incantatory spell upon the reader, one that keeps us holding our breath, wondering how the brave boy—chewed cardboard jammed up his nostrils and a damp bandanna covering his nose and mouth—might survive this ordeal.
By the poem’s third stanza, when Wrigley introduces “a sloshful five-gallon bucket of kerosene” and “a smoking railroad fusee,” the tension and expectation that our speaker indeed may not survive unscathed reaches a fevered pitch. And this is the genius of the actual events that transpire as the poem concludes: an outcome unexpected, equally dramatic to anything we might have imagined, yet one that allows, through its striking turn, the reader’s energy and worry to be released in a catharsis of sorts.
The narrative logic of the poem braids easily within the story’s temporal parameters, but it is that final turn—“the other billion flies airborne / exactly in the shape /of the horse itself, // which rose for a brief quivering / instant under me”—that is like a light bursting with brightness, with more voltage than the bulb can withstand.
But before the light goes out in the poem—(or we faint like the boy’s mother from such a trial)—we must witness the “pulse thump” of a boy riding this collection of flies in the shape of a dead horse—“in a livery of iridescence, / in a mail of exoskeletal facets, / wielding a lance of swimming lace— / just as night rode the light, and the bones, / and a sweet, cleansing smoke to ground.”
Ah, what a turn this poem makes as it moves toward an emancipation, a kind of relief, the smoke curtaining the ground, the horse’s dead body delivered into fire and ablaze in its last earthly gallop into dust and ash, and the boy, whose heart and mettle rests at the center of the poem, having survived the test.
Todd Davis is the author of four full-length collections of poetry—In the Kingdom of the Ditch, The Least of These, Some Heaven, and Ripe—as well as of a limited edition chapbook, Household of Water, Moon, and Snow: The Thoreau Poems. He edited the nonfiction collection, Fast Break to Line Break: Poets on the Art of Basketball, and co-edited Making Poems: 40 Poems with Commentary by the Poets. His poetry has been featured on the radio by Garrison Keillor on The Writer’s Almanac and by Ted Kooser in his syndicated newspaper column American Life in Poetry. His poems have won the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize, have been nominated several times for the Pushcart Prize, and have appeared in such journals and magazines as Poetry Daily, Iowa Review, The American Poetry Review, The North American Review, Indiana Review, Gettysburg Review, Shenandoah, Image, Ecotone, Orion, West Branch, River Styx, Quarterly West, Green Mountains Review, Sou’wester, and Poetry East. He teaches creative writing, American literature, and environmental studies at Penn State University’s Altoona College.
Robert Wrigley, “Horseflies” from Earthly Meditations: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © Robert Wrigley, 2006. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Thanks for sharing this poem. I’ve never read it before, but I’ll be thinking about it for a long time. Your reading of it is profound.
I’m so glad that you’ve discovered this poem, Luanne. Robert Wrigley is one of our best!
I was squinting at each upcoming line, not wanting and anxious to know what was going to strap my eyes to the unexpected yet, wanting to look away! Absolutely incredible explanation and post!~Thank you so much! Deborah
Deborah, you are welcome. You have it exactly right: as you read the poem, you squint, you cringe, but like that boy doing the difficult work, you must go on and finish the business at hand. Glad you liked the poem and post.