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Wake Forest
University Press

Wake Forest University Press

Dedicated to Irish Poetry

Wake: Up to Poetry

"The act of poetry is a rebel act."

Poem of the Week: “The Horse’s Head” By Brendan Kennelly

Brendan Kennelly addresses the holy intersection between humanity and nature in his poem “The Horse’s Head.” Who is watching whom in this poem? Is the boy the guardian of the horse, or is the horse the guardian of the boy? As in nature, the balance is maintained by each thinking they are in control while working together for the benefit of the other.

The Horse’s Head

‘Hold the horse’s head,’ the farmer said
To the boy loitering outside the pub.
‘If you’re willing to hold the horse’s head
You’ll earn a shilling.’

The boy took the reins, the farmer went inside,
The boy stood near the horse’s head.

The horse’s head was above the boy’s head.
The boy looked up.
The sun attended the horse’s head, a crown of light
Blinded the boy’s eyes for a moment.

His eyes cleared and he saw the horse’s head,
Eyes, ears, mane, wet
Nostrils, brown forehead splashed white,
Nervous lips,
Teeth moving on the bit.

The sun fussed over it.
The boy stared at it.
He reached up and gave the horse’s head
A pat.

The horse’s head shuddered, pulled on the reins,
Rasping the boy’s hands, almost burning the skin,
Drawing blood to attention.
The boy’s grip tightened on the reins,
Jerked the horse’s head to order.
The boy was not afraid.
He would be master of the horse’s head
Made of the sun
In the street outside the pub
Where the farmer stood drinking at the bar.

Daylight said the boy was praying
His head bowed before an altar.
The air itself became the prayer
Unsaid
Shared between the boy
And the horse’s head.

The horse’s head guarded the boy
Looking down from its great height.
If the boy should stumble
The horse’s head would bear him up,
Raise him, as before,
To his human stature.

If he should lay his head against the horse’s head-
Peace.

The farmer came out of the pub.
He gave the boy a shilling.
He led the horse away.
The boy stared at the horse
He felt the reins in his hands
Now easy, now rasping,
And over his head, forever,
The horse’s head
Between the earth and the sun.
He put the shilling in his pocket
And walked on.

Brendan Kennelly from The Essential Brendan Kennelly (2011)

Photos by Alexandra Price


Categories: Brendan Kennelly, Irish Poetry, Poem of the Week, Poetry

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