Edges, James Aitchison
Mica Press, 2020 £6.50
The poetry of horses
Although Edges tackles a variety of themes, including aging/senility and other existential horrors, five poems concern, or mention, horses. That’s unsurprising because Aitchison has written a study of his great Scottish predecessor Edwin Muir, whose most enduring poem was the apocalyptic ‘Horses’.
Two delightful poems feature Clydesdales. ‘In Aitken’s Stables’ is a childhood memory of brewery horses:
They stood upright but with lowered heads;
Aitken’s horses were sleeping on their feet.
The couplet contrasts and compares neatly with a self-reflection of (perhaps) a faith which has since lapsed:
There were evenings when I didn’t know
I’d been kneeling until I stood up again.
‘At the Highland Show’ exemplifies Aitchison’s eye for detail and meticulous ear for sonorous language with which to describe it:
The judge is a breeder from Nova Scotia.
He ignores the curry-comb sheen and fetlock rinse.
He looks for curvature of crest and flank,
for colouring, musculature and height in hands.
Aitchison notes the horses’ ‘hoofbeats drumming thunder underground’, which must surely be a deliberate allusion to Muir’s ‘Horses’, the turning-point of which is these lines: ‘We heard a distant tapping on the road, / A deepening drumming; it stopped, went on again / And at the corner changed to hollow thunder.’
But Aitchison is a fine poet in his own right, and his poem ends movingly and mythologically:
The judge knows there’s no first, second or third;
There are only degrees of magnificence
so slight each Clydesdale at the Highland Show
could have been sired by one ancestral horse.
I wonder whether the poet originally had ‘so slight’ at the end of the preceding line, which would have enabled the reader to grasp the syntax straightaway, before deciding that ending that line on ‘magnificence’ provided both an end-rhyme with ‘horse’ in the final line and a very pleasing emphasis. Either way, it’s a gorgeous poem, one to complement Larkin’s famous ‘Show Saturday’, which barely contained horses — just a brief sighting of ponies.
‘Four-in-hand’, about a horse-drawn funeral cortege, is equally admirable, with its ‘black, / compact, bred for haulage, perfectly matched / Friesians of flawless lineage’.