27 February, 2012Issue 18.4Creative WritingOriginal Poetry

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Three Poems

Ernest Hilbert

White Horse.

mons albi equi

– An Abingdon cartulary, 1072-1084 (?)


I start across the rumbling avenue
And nearly miss it again. Between
Trolley tracks, nestled in new concrete,
It strides in place: The white horse,
Liquid in its stillness. Its mane trails gently
Like jellyfish in an ocean current,
Legs like thin streams, tail fanned to a delta.

I feel back to another gray day,
A hill near Oxford, and there in the Vale
Is the chalk horse, a simpler form than this
But kin, scratched white into the hard green:
Equine specter escaping over the scarp.

Someone must tend it, I’m told,
Or it would be consumed in a year by grass.
Nations wear away while it stays—with help
From those who return age after age
Perhaps from simple habit, not knowing why.
I think of caves where horse is mere glyph,
Smeared onto stone with charcoal and spit,
A creature forever untamable,
Always aimed urgently away from us
And what we dare to hope will remain.

Then I’m back. Rain starts
Again. The outline sketched here is
So light it almost eludes us.
Who put it here and why? A horn blasts
Me from a trance. I step to safety.
A trolley rumbles and clanks forward
Casting my horse beneath it into shadow.


Party at the Bonaparte House


We stood out smoking cigarettes, looking
Down to the alley, littered with frozen
Pizza crusts, trampled leaves, rusting beer cans.

Tourist guidebooks still tell the story
Of the old house just off Washington Square:
The wilting ghost of a young woman,

Chloris Ingleby, eternally eighteen,
A dancer from damp, riverfront taverns,
Loiters alone in the alley behind . . .

Sick with love for a handsome steward,
She hid on his ship. It never left port.
Imprisoned in a barn behind the house,

She was killed trying escape back to him.
Her hopeless love lingers for centuries.
Ghost tours pause there for a moment, then go.

Security lights shocked us when we triggered
A motion sensor. Or think we did.
Loud dance music throbbed on for hours.

Taxis roared down the street, drowning
Any small sound in their uneasy flight,
Screeching to a stop at the next red light.





At the timberline, the air, lush and cold,
Begins to thin in strumming rain.

We rip at white flukes of broiled chicken
Beside the abandoned mine, where the path

Splits. “When you take a first step, you must keep the path
To its end.”

                           Rivulets spin and hiss through slim crags,
Lured to remote oceans, many months from now.

A wet pain is still small in my new boots.
As we march, our fingers brush drops from lake-blue

Match-heads of phosphoric flax and larkspur.
Peaks score the fog like faint cathedral spires

Or sails confronting the dusk of a restless coast.


My slower spirit lifts in a soft shower
As we gain the stony approach to the peak.
I start to hate the two who rise above me,
Their lurching torsos lost amid the rocks.
I’m dragging like an anchor in their wake.
I stake my steps slowly, one, then one,
And imagine a procession where I must
Brake, hesitate, and advance in a kingly way,
Held back by custom rather than nature,
Though my stop-motion stance is not a king’s
But a beggar’s, burdened, abused in retreat.
Lady Gravity wants me at the bottom.


Valleys plunge in squalls. Shadows lurk,
Spread over the dizzying view, a smeared rainbow
Arcing to incise luxuriant banks of fir.
Far below, aspen lines grin like baleen.
My lungs scald and gulp.
My veins punch hard—high-caliber and hot.
My soaked head bobs and tows as if in a tide.

Rainwater decants effortlessly,
Glinting in slim mercury veins
Over granite’s gray scabs. Tiny trumpets
Speckle the bouldered ocean of green incline,
Tilted like a wave that swells and will take
A million years to break.
                                         Summer thaws
Behind us. Above, murky Cretaceous monsters
Breach and loom, but we aim all afternoon
To their callous brunt, their ferocious slant,
Whale’s barnacled snout, barren meadows
Of a brutal seafloor a million years ago.
What furnace abandoned this dark form?


We arrive at the rim, where the glacier slips,
And gaze down. The glazed precipice rapidly
Opens an ancient scarred cavern in me.
It slows and molts, until a numb seep,
And I am suddenly softened,
Affection exhaled, and tranquility.
The others toe the high edge, pose like heroes
Over the vast bowl of ice and rain.
Did they defeat me? Was there a war at all?
My subterranean core surges
Like the brass tablet of the sun,
Smoldering and nearer now, glowing through
The treacherous reaches of a receding storm.