Horses Between Our Legs by Patricia McCarthy

It would be hard to imagine the shock I had when I opened Horses Between Our Legs by Patricia McCarthy who so kindly sent it to me after I sent her a copy of my novel, What the horses heard. Both books are about WW1 and both include lots of horses as the titles indicate.  It is an eye-opening book of poems and one that should be read every November (or really any time of the year). It’s published by Agenda Editions, with lovely end papers and high quality paper, a thing of beauty to own.

The cover of Patricia’s book was an extra surprise for me as it shows the beautiful painting of the Lady of the Black Horse aka Mabel St Clair Stobart who was first and foremost a nurse but had to take up arms in Serbia and lead a retreat.  I researched a great deal about Mabel (there was an exhibition about her life in Dorchester Museum) as I was going to lecture on her and Flora Sandes (who incidentally turns up in my novel and was promoted and decorated when serving in the Serbian army) to WIs but strangely no one ever invited me to do so!!!   So this book really was a massive and gratifying surprise.    

Horses shine throughout this book which also explores the controversy caused by women riding astride. (I imagine the twitter storm there would have been!)  It contains many other poems about those who are uprooted by conflict, for example the wounded Punjabis hospitalised in Brighton and who have never seen the sea before, poets, women who became munitionettes or joined the FANY who were dubbed posh slut, easy lay, privileged tart.   

The first poem, Clothes that escaped the Great War is deeply haunting. Its rhythm is that of the cart horse with half-rhymes and syllables echoing throughout like hoof steps or chimes.  The poet paints a vivid picture with its subtle musical undercurrent.  No wonder this poem won the National Poetry Competition in 2013:    

These were the most scary, my mother recalled: clothes

Piled high on the wobbly cart, their wearers gone.

Overalls caked in dung, shirts torn from the muscle strain

Of heavy hemp sacks, socks matted with cow-cake

From yards nearby, and the old horse plodding, on the nod.

Its uneven gait never varied whether coming from farms

Where lads were collected like milk churns…  

Here we meet a horse who is too old to be useful in the war but has to work hard all the same as all the best have been requisitioned. In Another War Horse we encounter beloved horses who would be called up. McCarthy imagines her own horse in this situation and even if you don’t have any relationship with horses your heart will be wrung:

As I picked out

your feet, oiled your hooves, I pretended

we were off to a show, beribboned, buffed.

But No. You had to be broken in – to War

My Polka, My Darcey, Bess of my Dreams

On livery in my heart, fit always for queens.  

The poet’s gift for simile perfectly expresses the shock and terror of the requisition inspection:

No prayers, no rituals for the break of bonds

Between horse and man: just commands

like whips on the flanks of the horses lined up. 

Poems about family members focus on the after-effects of war. In Honorable Discharge 1916 she remembers her Uncle Bob whose fingers O so quickly danced as he played Chopin: mazurkas, waltzes, Polonaises.   She recalls his permanent slight shake made his head nod like a metronome, earthquake in the trenches landsliding still in his head…..  The poet uses half-rhyme and rhyme to bind the stanzas together, the short lines running quickly.

 Another poem I keep being drawn back to is Mourning Orders in which bereaved women queue to be given mourning dress by a swish outfitters in Borough High Street. 

One by one, they enter the House

Of Mourning for the armaments

of Grief, sizes large and small

The more I read this poem the more I discover its layers. It is a repeated experience in this book. The picture of the scene is very vivid but what is not said is telling.  Rhyme is precisely patterned but lightly worn, adding orderliness and a quietness to the scene.   

She has a fine ear for musicality in words and knows just where a line should turn. While she mainly uses 3 or 4 lines stanzas, she masters a whole range of forms. Language is well chosen. Precision and detail are all: people, many poets who were involved in conflict, women drafted into munition factories, also bells, flowers, horses and pigeons are named because everything is to be honoured.

You can buy this book from Agenda Editions

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About Rebecca Gethin

Rebecca Gethin is a poet and a novelist. Cinnamon Press published her third collection, All the Time in the World in 2017. Another pamphlet is forthcoming with Three Drops Press. Her second novel, What the horses heard, was published by Cinnamon Press in May 2014. Her second poetry collection - A Handful of Water - was published by Cinnamon in 2013. Her first - River is the Plural of Rain - was published by Oversteps Books in 2009. Her novel Liar Dice won the Cinnamon Press Novel Writing Award in 2010 and was published in 2011. She lives on Dartmoor and writes occasional pieces about wildlife and nature. Her poems appear in a variety of poetry magazines and in several anthologies.
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3 Responses to Horses Between Our Legs by Patricia McCarthy

  1. Thank you Rebecca for this poetry recommendation. I truely enjoyed your novel “What Horses Heard”.

  2. My apologies, “What the horses heard”.

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