“Do memories plague their ears like flies?”
The absence of zoning regulations in Houston makes for unexpected juxtapositions – funeral parlors next to taverns next to Baptist churches. Our neighborhood, in the city but strictly suburb-circa-1962 in appearance, is a mile away from small working farms and livestock. On Monday, I saw a teenage girl riding her horse down Ella Boulevard, the main drag. It’s a familiar sight, one I always enjoy, though I know horses about as well as I know coatimundis. For years we lived a mile away from the Saratoga Race Course. I’ve never bet on a race in my life but as a reporter I covered the Liebling-esque swarm that inhabits the track each summer. For this city-bred boy, horses are exotic and beautiful.
The line quoted above is from an early Larkin poem, “At Grass” (The Less Deceived, 1955). He wrote a surprising number of poems devoted at least in part to animals; in this case, retired racehorses out to stud. Larkin saw a short film about Brown Jack, a horse famous in the nineteen-thirties, and was prompted to write one of the best of his early poems. In his biography of the writer, James Booth agrees, saying it “takes its place as the first in the series of ten great extended elegies which give structure to his oeuvre over the next quarter-century: `At Grass,’ `Church Going,’ `An Arundel Tomb,’ `The Whitsun Weddings,’ `Here,’ `Dockery and Son,’ `The Building,’ `The Old Fools,’ `Show Saturday,’ `Aubade’ (some readers might add `To the Sea’).”
If a reader new to Larkin asked for an introductory mini-anthology of his work, Booth’s list comes close to what I would suggest. In “At Grass,” Larkin evokes a prewar world already erased. The poem is sad, yes, but it honors the dignity of these once-famous, now anonymous creatures:
“Almanacked, their names live; they
“Have slipped their names, and stand at ease,
Or gallop for what must be joy,
And not a fieldglass sees them home,
Or curious stop-watch prophesies:
Only the grooms, and the groom’s boy,
With bridles in the evening come.”
Larkin finished writing “At Grass” on the date, Jan. 3, in 1950. The girl I saw riding the beautiful gray horse Monday afternoon patted his neck and ran her fingers through his mane as I drove past them.