Cantus for the Horses
On the 18th of June 1815,
At a crossroads between Belle Alliance and Waterloo,
30,000 men and 10,000 horses
Were killed in an afternoon.
The rye tops have been bleached white in the heat.
Milkweed seed and thistle down,
As fine as the fluff on a baby's neck, fly.
The hay is ripe. Time for the first cut,
But horses and soldiers have trampled it,
So that for miles it looks as if a squadron of ships
Had been dragged by a drunken giant
Up this hill and down that.
A girl in homespun lies on her back,
Knees up, as if left for dead,
And well she might be.
Flies light, take off, light.
Grooms polish tack and lather leather
Burnished chestnut by the thighs of riders.
The smell of soap and pond water is familiar,
A comfort not one of them,
Foul-mouthed and stinking of sweat,
Dried grass and wool, would admit.
Where horses are tethered
The ground is scoured
By prehensile lips that pick seeds
From dust and chaff.
Bridles and blankets off,
They look oddly feminine,
Even the stallion, with a prick
Pink as a coronation gown.
A clutch of sunburned men
With brass hats, like firemen,
Ride cannons to the front.
Mud stains on their breaches
Are the shape of crocuses.
They have no shadows.
Grooms point to horsemen
Cantering up the valley road.
Their brass catches the sun
In stuttered flashes.
The boys watch, mesmerized.
Behind them, the cannons fire. Instantly,
Each ear squeezes down
To a puckering sphincter
Around a central ringing,
And a worm-hole of pain.
The grooms hop behind the guns
Like barn kits looking for a nipple.
The cannoneers work like midwives,
Trading buckets, rags,
Wiping out steaming holes.
Shot is carried in a blanket
Iike an iron "Christ the Child."
Gunners barely clear the barrel
When the firing hole blasts.
A tree's branch, horses, riders, brass kit
Fall, as if on cue.
The French stand
Like idiot children left at a cross-roads
And take a volley up the middle.
A cannoneer, smoked black by his work,
Climbs a limber to wave the riders back.
They stand, and take canisters of shot.
The horses fall slowly
Legs body neck
Last the head,
Like a rug full of dust.
The midwifery at the guns goes on—
In sulphur smoke, on smoldering grass,
In air as thick as a bathhouse, to mad laughter—
Not by command,
But as if everyone had run out of things to kill
At the same instant.
More than blasted trees,
More than tatters of bone and wool,
More than legs sprouting up like weeds,
What I see are horses.
One has fallen not ten feet from water carriers,
Belly up, eyes reflecting the sky,
Legs moving slowly,