The Horseman’s Word
I do most solemnly take upon me
the vows and secrets of horsemanship
That Word I know but do not tell, hearing
just the gait of that worked-out Galloway,
all hard mouth & spavinned hocks.
Catch up & halter the pattering
unshod ponies, my Word in their ear –
I shall not cut it or carve it, paint it
or print it, write it or engrave it –
curry their bellies’ fringe of guard hair,
grass-stained skewbald, strawberry roan
Royal, Misty, Dandy, Cherry,
my Bobby Dazzler bonny filly.
Here’s to the lad that can always conceal
And keep a thing hidden
Now the words go, like snow off a dyke.
Give me a good doer without wind galls or vice.
Crupper that Clyde & fettle his feather
& keep somewhere in the kist the fate
of the foundered horse
& the meaning of names –
Breakheart Hill & Killhorse Lane.
The Horseman’s Word was a secret ritual ceremony in 19th century Scotland.
What there was, was a lane between drystone walls,
that took the hardland down to the mosses.
What there was, was its steepness,
rolling with limestones big as your fist.
You might forget the dairy herd lumbering,
full-bagged, weary, up to the farm.
You might forget the stones that pressed
through the thin bendy soles of our wellies.
Do you remember the rush and stumble of their legs,
their piebald hides, their spattering shit?
Do you remember the wetness and dark of the lame
cow’s eye as she hobbled up last on the causeway?
After two months, it’s about hunger.
The sheep are tamer, come to call.
By day, ice breaks its heart,
weeps heartless tears.
By night, the stars freeze
to our slates.
Just now, in snow by the byre,
a wren like a dead leaf.
In electric light, the cat, on a bale,
washing her paws.
Jean Atkin has published ‘Not Lost Since Last Time’ (Oversteps Books) and also five poetry pamphlets and a children’s novel. Her recent work appears in Magma, Agenda, Ambit, Poetry Salzburg, The North, Earthlines and The Moth. She has held residencies in both England and Scotland, and works as a poet in education and community projects.