September 2010
A review of

Horse and Rider

by Melissa Range

Central question: Did God create war?
Partial list of horses invoked: “swift colts bolting / from their mares,” “appaloosa or paint,” “the warhorse, the wayworn widowmaker,” the horse of Saul (the future apostle Paul) considered as the mount of a Wild West cowboy,“the workhorse,”“the breeder, the gee/ upped whipsmart,” “the betted-out racehorse, the pony,” Bucephalus, steed of Alexander the Great; Partial list of historical persons invoked: Saul (the future apostle Paul), Cherokee leader Dragging Canoe, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Sufjan Stevens; Representative lines: “They throb in graveyards, haybales, cohosh, clover, / with the vengeance of this land, which is never over.”

“There is no progress in the arts,” said the radical William Hazlitt, and he was right: the problem with most so-called new formalist poetry is not that the poets write as if it were 1953, but that their poems would not have attracted interest—might not have seemed skillful, or even competent—by the standards of 1953. It’s distressingly hard to find new American poets best served by traditional prosody, by terza rima or by couplet rhyme. Hard, but hardly impossible. Melissa Range is one such poet, and her immersion in traditions—religious and regional, as well as metrical—has led to an exciting, disturbing, promising, if also brief, first book.

It is a book of the American inland South, of Range’s natal east Tennessee, the “dark and bloody ground” from which white men expelled the Cherokee. The plant called bloodroot represents “blood shed / beneath the surface of the world,” blood shed by Range’s forebears, on her behalf: “stain me red,” she asks, “and bury me with my people.” At her best—perhaps half the time, here—she can master a cascade of rhymes without abusing the shapes of American speech. She says of a worn-out workhorse, for example, “Too much sweetgrass made him lame, / or we did; too much bridle made him tame, // which we did. Nails in his foot / mean he’s not good-for-naught,” and the rhymes canter on till the poem, and the horse, meet their ends.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Stephen Burt

Stephen Burt is the coauthor, with David Mikics, of The Art of the Sonnet, out now.

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