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BARBARO by Lyn Lifshin

Texas Review Press, 2009, 114 pages
ISBN 978-1933896-16-8; ISBN-10:1-933896-16-7

A Review by Natalie K. Lobe


In each of nearly 150 poems about the famed racehorse, Barbaro, Lyn Lifshin brings a new slant, a separate nuance, another dimension. The total effect is overwhelming. This collection of poems reaches the reader at many levels: namely the story itself, the impact of beauty on our lives and the universality of grief.

Lifshin chronicles the inspiring and tragic life and death of this remarkable horse in both fact and feeling. The voices we hear come from his trainer, owner, admirers, including children, and the horse himself. Using so many voices, detailed imagery and no wasted words she accomplishes what only poetry can do. She makes us feel the joy, the pain and the individuality of this spirited creature. Here is one scene after the horse’s fall:

AS THE POLICE ESCORT FOLLOWED THE VAN
OVER

the wood chip path
Barbaro had walked
like a rock star down
some children took
a piece of poster
board from an old
project, drove
to the closest over-
pass and shivering
in the wind hung
GOD BLESS BARBARO
over the road as
Barbaro stood square
and easy all the way
to New Bolton. Some
said if there’d been
any hay in the hay net
on the ambulance
Barbaro would have
devoured it. He seemed
to know those touching
him were trying to
help him and he was
going to let them do
what they had to. It
was how he was

Sometimes she uses the physical environment to convey the mood. THE LEAF FALLING MUSIC, talks about leaves trembling and branches clattering while waiting for medical reports on Barbaro’s prognosis. In BEFORE THE RACE, Lifshin speaks of the jockeys in brilliant colors, walking in the light, green plants and leaves and glistening horses. Sometimes she relies on a few unadorned facts such as in EVERY TIME HIS TRAINER WALKS INTO BARBAROS’S STALL, “… his trainer would/ lay a blanket of/flowers on Barbaro’s/back/Instead he/measures the/centimeter of/ hoof …” Always, Lifshin draws us into the emotional experience of the narrative..

On another level these poems seem to be a tribute to the beauty, the near perfection
in living form. This makes the loss and the grief all the more poignant. In, FOUR GOLDEN HOOVES GLOWING: she describes Barbaro as calm and glistening, a Lamborghini with a “hardly used” engine. What an apt metaphor! Another poem brings out how the force of his spirit as well as beauty affected those who saw him race.

BODY BY DIVINCI

His beauty, his
speed, but more,
it was Barbaros’s
spirit, contagious,
how it captured
crowds, Sick and
injured people
said they were
glued to how he
would not quit,
fought so hard
his fights becoming
their fights. For a
while, in a race
with a champion.
they were
champions too.

The Windhover, by Gerard Manley Hopkins comes to mind. By weaving together the loss of beauty with the loss of a life Lifshin gives us an intellectual as well as an emotional appreciation of all the events leading up the animal’s death. In a seemingly effortless way she makes his death an aesthetic experience. One does not have to be a lover of horses or animals to absorb the meaning and the message which goes way beyond the particulars of this narrative. Take the following:

TO HOLD ON

greatness walks
hand to hand
with grief. It’s
the way beauty,
greatness, dissolve,
are ephemeral,
part of the price,
this essence
that makes
it so hard
to lose

In this concluding poem, one of the most powerful in the book, Lifshin reminds us, in beautiful words, that the passing of an icon brings about a very special and universal grief: something we have all experienced in our lives.


Natalie Lobe’s poetry collection, Connected Voices, was published in 2006: Island Time 2008. Her most recent publications are in Blue Unicorn, Iconoclast and Comstock Review. Ms. Lobe is Poet in the Schools for Maryland and Anne Arundel County.

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