Essays

Only Horses: Adventures in Time and Space

In “The Cariboo Horses,” Al Purdy explores the district of Cariboo and the tradition of equinity against human civilization. “The Cariboo Horses” is definitely set in a space, specifically 100 Mile House in Cariboo, but this space is endlessly nuanced and layered. Purdy uses micro and macro techniques to capture every vantage point, including metaphysical ones. Its time is likewise complex, bordering anachronistic: the cowboys of the frontier exist with the technology of modernity and the ancient civilizations of millennia past. Space and time are manipulated to create a new space where humanity’s growth can be examined. This allows the reader to better understand the continuity and discontinuity of humanity through a constant: namely, the titular horses.

Purdy employs a curious style that almost emulates stream-of-consciousness. His purpose here is to show the discursive nature of what he is discussing, and how all time and space are related. He demonstrates this in the first stanza, where the poetry is iridescent, constantly shifting. The subject flickers quickly line to line, like still images in a movie, from the cowboys and their cigarettes to their horses to the women to the landscape. Crucially, this is an expansive and pictorial technique, progressively getting larger as it moves from micro imagery to macro imagery. Hence the scope of the first stanza is deceptive as it ends on an exploratory note, “on the other side of those toy mountain ranges / from the sunfierce plains beyond”  (Purdy). This expansive imagery forces the reader to continue imagining larger images past the mountains even after the stanza ends, capturing the vastness and concord of the Canadian frontier and the greater world. The oxymoron “toy mountain” further suggests this larger presence. A lack of punctuation aids this effect of seamless expansion. Em dashes serve as interjections, emphasizing the digressive nature of the world.

A metaphysical space is also subtly created here by imbuing the subjects with metaphors. His metaphors are all concrete, “a morning grey as stone,” “whiskey coloured eyes,” “fire in their heads” (Purdy 3, 5, 7). This curious mix of abstract and concrete creates a very vivid physical image for the reader, but also a very vivid understanding of the intangible culture: a wild west of stone, whiskey and fire.

The first stanza captures the vibrancy and scope of the environment, which makes the second stanza all the more jarring. “But only horses” is such a lonely line, hinting at the ruination of the frontier (Purdy 12). The subsequent three lines show the horses to be static, but in different times and spaces. Purdy makes the lines jump backwards and forwards through typesetting to emphasize this difference. There is a great sense of displacement, as although the horses are in different places, they are not truly moving. This displacement becomes increasingly obvious as Purdy disrupts time. He uses polysyndeton to instill a sense of modern monotony: “jeeps and fords and chevys” (17). Compared to the beautiful metaphysical space in the first stanza, the second stanza seems sterile and alien. Like with the horses, the activity of the cars, “busy muttering stake trucks rushing / importantly” are meaningless—their tedium undermines any sense of purpose. This anxiety is implicitly manifested, as the horses are “clopping in silence under the toy mountains” (Purdy 25). Indeed, the indentation of “On the high prairie / are only horse and ride / wind in dry grass” reflects its own alienation and apartness.

“Only horses,” Purdy reiterates in the final stanza (29). Whereas the second stanza goes forward to the time of modernity, the final stanza goes backwards to ancient civilizations. Like the gallop of hooves, the images here are rapid and loud. In four short lines, Purdy covers three continents and three ancient civilizations. The Kiangs, Onagers and Quaggas are portrayed as wild and fierce, ancestors to the horse, “lost relatives” (Purdy 36). Equinity becomes equated with the environment and milieu through the ages, “the ghosts of horses battering thru the wind / whose names were the wind’s common usage / whose life was the sun’s” (Purdy 37-39).

This emphasis on wind gives a new meaning to its mention in the second stanza. “Only horse and ride / wind in dry grass” but they are also “lost in the dry grass” (Purdy 23-24, 27). Something has been lost. Some fierce happiness of humanity has slowly eroded over the ages, replaced with modern tedium. “The Cariboo Horses” ends on four indented lines of meaningless modernity, a soul-crushing hold of  “waiting 15 minutes at the grocer’s” (Purdy 42-43). These four lines feature the largest block of indented text, capturing the desolation and barrenness of our time and space.

“Only horses,” says Purdy (29).  Not jeeps and fords and chevys nor Kiangs and Onagers and Quaggas: only horses share such a relationship with man, that they can be compared to our equals and lovers, “so much like riding dangerous women” (Purdy 4). The poem ends on a simultaneous sense of loss and acceptance. Purdy never explicitly passes judgment, but against the great backdrop of time and space, the reader cannot help but lament the decline of the Cariboo horses and humanity.

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4 thoughts on “Only Horses: Adventures in Time and Space

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