I carried the lamb in a sack on my horse
the tongue hanging grey and limp.
It’s buggered, said Dad, throw it in the creek.
The creek leaped, dimpled. Small bubbles
whirled, it rumpled where I was looking
the water shadowed half-blue-black
deep just there with duckweed floating out
the yards behind all noise, the cattle swirling
up air swelled with dust and bellowing.
Flies lighted on and off the rails.
I took the lamb and kneeled in the pudgy mud
both hands under it, under the water,
laid it carefully into the shocked cold.
It hardly struggled, there was so little left.
Put the bloody thing out of its misery
I heard in my head as I pushed it under
and the water shuddered.
Get the hell out of that he yelled at my back
you macabre little bastard!
It might have been ghoulish, he was good with words.
The yards were sweating hot
Dad wiped his hatband, the sack smelling
of dry stiff flax, I wiped my nose
my hand all mud and numb.
The birds hummed. In rain, in wind
I go out all hours on my lambing beat
he’s the shadow of me, always riding beside me.
Let it go he said, quietly. I let it go floating
it bobbed and the sun caught the eye, closing.
Shush, shush, said the creek.
Marty Smith from Horse with hat, Victoria University Press, 2014
I used to think some of the connections and references I made for this poem were so obscure that the only people who would ever know (or care) about them were me and my Dad, and he was dead the whole time I was writing my book to him.
But when I read it at Wardini Books, Erice Fairbrother was there, and she told the audience that every year when she takes the Easter Service in the Napier Cathedral, she reads Agnus Dei to her congregation. And I had the kind of reaction that comes straight from the subconcious where it was – Whoa! The poem is against religion! – but I also remembered that the poem walks away from me as soon as it’s written, and it’s Erice’s poem when she reads it and wants to use it at Easter. Besides, Agnus Dei still has a dollar each way, like all of the poems in the book that question faith. Dad never went to church and we hardly ever did, but his mother was very religious. His maternal grandfather was a Lutheran minister who had to give up running the Lake Ferry Hotel because he couldn’t square it with being a tee-totaller and a minister. I lay off some bets, just in case.
I think I can see why Erice would choose to read Agnus Dei at Easter, and if we hadn’t been in lockdown this year, I would have snuck into her service. It’s a brilliant thing to do, to read a poem in a cathedral —accoustics! – and I knew for a fact she’d get it perfect because she’s a really fine poet and a beautiful reader. I imagine it’s the line, ‘He’s the shadow of me, always riding beside me.’ I’ve always been very pleased with that image, but I was not meaning that kind of father, I was meaning my actual father. He was so huge in my life that when I was riding my pony, it was not my shadow I cast, but his. I wondered what Erice sees– is it casting the shadow of God beside people when they walk? (What kind of shadow would he cast?) (Does he have weapons?)
When I say I’m having a shot at religion, I’m only giving it the side eye in this poem. By using a religious reference as a title, though, it talks to other poems in the book which question faith. Some of the poems have what I think of as mirror lines – when you read the mirror line, you get the reflection of the other poem. (See why I say I’m probably the only person who ever will read Horse with hat like this? )
The mirror line is ‘Put the bloody thing out of its misery’, which is in Emphysema for Aunty Gwen. Dad’s sister Gwen contemplates him in his final coma and remembers the pact they made after he came back from the war: that if ever one of them was helpless in hospital, at the mercy of stangers, the other was to ‘put them out of their misery’.
When Dad says, ‘Put the bloody thing out of its misery’, there’s the shadow of the idea that sometimes soldiers had to shoot their own men if they couldn’t survive their injuries but would lie alive in agony for days. To use the Latin for The Lamb of God, Agnus Dei, is to suggest that servicemen were lambs to the slaughter. In another poem, Aunty Gwen is looking back, and she says, They were so innocent. They didn’t know anything. They’d led such sheltered lives on the farm.
On the farm level, we were never to let animals suffer. They were always to be put down if they couldn’t be saved, and if it sounds shocking now to throw the lamb in the creek, but in the fifties, as my aunty puts it, it was just what people did.
The poem didn’t start out as anything other than an exercise I was doing for the International Writers’ Programme at Iowa, where we were asked to write like US poet Lyn Hijinian – not so much write like her, but to have a go at using the tools she uses – really dense, really packed layering up of tiny details. The exercise required you to pick out a tiny detail and write every small detail you could about that detail, building outwards and outwards and for some reason the detail that threw up was the duckweed floating out on the creek – that was all it was, but when you start a memory like that the details roll out until they turn into what it really is—how deep and cold the water was. Then the lamb came floating up. The lamb was always there. Then it was about innocence.
The tiny details became heat and dust and the noise of the cattle bellowing, and it was always going to Dad in the cattleyards. It was surprising to me how those details came out as sound. It made me think of my Iowa tutor Shannon Welch, who said, The language is older than you. Let the language take you. (She also said, The water is deep, don’t snorkel.)
The other voice on the audio for Agnus Dei is Maude Morris, who was about 15 at the time. Maude is now the band LEXXA, with her twin sister Julia. It was Maude’s idea to loop the child’s voice, and make the heartbeat sound with the mic. Which stops. I asked her if she could make a sound that was recognisably birdsong, but with something wrong with it. An unnatural sound for an unnatural act, to go over the lamb going into the creek. Maude got a tui song and stretched it out, then played it backwards and chopped it off. You know it’s a tui, and you know there’s something wrong with it, but you don’t know what. Jeff Boyle from Jakob very kindly recorded it for us.
My father and uncles never talked about the war, because their gift to their families was for them not to have to know. Aunty Gwen said you never knew what they carried around with them. This poem has redemption at the end, because it’s all I can do, but they didn’t allow redemption for themselves.
Marty Smith’s Horse with hat won the 2014 Jesse Mackay award for Best First Book of Poetry, and was a finalist for the Poetry Award. One of the strands in the book is the cost to her father of carrying the war with him; another strand is the question of faith. Agnus Dei crosses religion over into war, although it looks like farming.
Marty grew up riding beside her father, hence the horse strand in Horse with hat, hence the book she is writing about the obsession of people who risk their lives to ride racehorses. She would risk her life right now to ride a racehorse, if she were allowed.
‘Agnus Dei’ was short-listed for the 2013 Bridport Prize (UK) and was a place getter in the 2013 Joy Harjo Poetry Award (US)
Marty is currently working on poems to go alongside the lockdown essay she wrote for her friend, Paul Davis, whose plans for the end of his life were ruined by lockdown.
I loved reading this discussion of the poem. I’ve heard Marty read it a few times and it always is deeply engaging on many levels. It’s no wonder Erice picked it out. And yes – Napier Waiapu Cathedral is wonderful for poetry! I hope we have another National Poetry Day reading there.
This exposition by Marty is totally fascinating. I have read Horse with Hat many times (equal in my affections with Jeffrey Paparoa Holman’s The late great Blackball Bridge Sonnets) and heard/watched Marty read Agnus Dei many times, and I am always excited, moved and humbled to have layers of worlds other than those of my own experience, opened to me; as much as recognising and thrilling to the similarities.