Narragansett Dark—A Poem by Norah Pollard

During the six years I lived in southeastern Connecticut, I always enjoyed the paintings, music and poetry readings at Arts-Cafe Mystic.  May 16, 2003, I remember my delight as I listened to Norah Pollard read poems from her newly published book, Leaning In.  In addition to being a gifted writer, she is the daughter of jockey Red Pollard, who rode Seabiscuit  (dubbed the “People’s Champion) to fame during the dark years of the Great Depression.

As she read poem after poem, interspersing humor and emotion throughout her readings, I fell in love with “Narragansett Dark.”  Why am I deeply touched by this poem?  Undoubtedly, Nora’s story is connected to a great American saga–a young, defiant Canadian jockey (Red Pollard), an unorthodox horse trainer (Tom S. Smith), a wealthy rancher-entrepreneur (Charles Howard) and a little rambunctious bay.  Together, these four gave our country needed relief from the deadening loss of jobs and hope that characterized the Great Depression.  Above all–it is the horse that makes this saga so special.  An animal!  That’s so wonderful to me, the innate greatness of Seabiscuit.

Secondly, Nora Pollard was more than the daughter of a great jockey.  Like her well-read father, she was a lover of poetry and stories–and animals.  Listen to the craft of her lines and words in this poem–especially in the fifth stanza:

Narragansett Dark

(for my father)

They led the horses away.
They tore down the fences.
The wrecking ball brought down
the grandstand, the clubhouse.
They plowed under the track kitchen,
the tack shop, the bettors’ windows.
The burned the green barns.

When there was nothing of Narragansett
but a great empty space, the moon
glittered over it like a Vegas sign
and the wind blew dust across
900 acres to the Newport-Armistice roads.
The next day they paved.

Black asphalt covered the scent
of hay and the horse.
They built a drugstore,
a store for linoleum, and they
threw up subdivisions, aqua and mustard
and pink, whose mailboxes rusted
before they were sold.
Then they built a nursing home

where now the old jockey lay in a narrow bed.
He did not know where he was
so the irony was lost to him,
but he knew his wife would come
and wash him and light his cigarette
and put the swatches of cotton
between his toes and pour him
a small cup of blackberry brandy.
Long nights alone, after the t.v. was
shut off and the brandy was gone,
he’d listen for something.
All the long nights, listening.

One night a lean March wind
rattled the gate and his heart labored
in his breast and he rose up
for he heard what he heard–
their soft nickering and blowing, the thin
rustle of silks, the creak
of saddle and the tick
of hoof on stone.

And he left the bed and went out
to where they stood in the grasses.
He stood before them and
their breath fell on him like a cloud
and he saw their great eyes pool the moon.
And the one waiting for him,
the one with an empty saddle,
was the bay.

He mounted up and they rode under the moon
and the wind flared the mane of his horse
and was hard and clean on his face.
The others galloped on either side, silently,
as if they were running on moss or flowers,
and he went with them where they took him
into the fields of night.

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Since publishing Leaning In, Pollard has published Death & Rapture in the Animal Kingdom(2005) and Report from the Banana Hospital (2009).  Atrim House Books in Simsbury, Connecticut publishes her work.  Pollard edited The Connecticut River Review for several years and received the Academy of American Poets Prize from the University of Bridgeport.

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Native Moons, Native Days Carol Bachofner’s New Book of Poetry

Recently released by Bowman Books, this is the seventh volume in The Native New England Authors Series.  There are several reasons why I love these poems.  First, the majority (nearly two-thirds) of the 65 poems contains an Abenaki word or phrase–the poet’s native language.   While it’s hard to pick one from amongst words that I hardly can pronounce–the poem “Wlowatawak” caught my attention, being about a grandmother who “left tribal stories / told over cups blue tea,”  tea made from the plants and flowers of the woods.  Carol follows a long tradition of Native authors who use their own tribal words in songs, poetry and stories.
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The wonder of it all is that New England tribal languages are being–and have been–pulled from the brink of extinction.  Jesse Bruchac, one person responsible for this revitalization, published a poem in 1996 (Reclaiming the Vision: Native Voices for the Eighth Generation), titled “Green Corn Song,” echoing every English line with a recurring line in Abenaki. What a privilege it would be to hear these ancient Abenaki words spoken by the poets themselves! Another reason I am drawn to these poems is that the tribal perspective and landscape are known to me–for my own tribe, the Mi’kmaq, are part of the same cultural group as Carol’s.  Much of her world is familiar to me, especially “Pond Water,” which “will always call to you / will always know when you return.”  I learned to swim and ice skate on a little lovely pond in Cromwell, Connecticut.
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The poem,”Land Sickness” particularly hit home, as I more often than not have lived in land-locked places, like Carol: “I have no salt spray for my hair, no chill / gray sand between my feet. I am bereft / of crisp ocean kisses and wild seaweed.”  When Carol asked me to compose a few testimonial lines for the back cover–I did so on the basis of one poem–“Zogwawon” (face paint), for its universal longing in these times of war:
          I paint my face, double curves
          on each cheek and across the brow.
          I choose the colors of war, red and black,
          kelegatsta, each stripe a memory of some wrong.
          I want yellow for the dawn, for peace.
          Bring trickster clowns to shake their rattles,
          no more baskhodebahiganal to break the heads
          of our enemies. No more shouts of insult.
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Available at www.nativeauthors.com.