Original poem reprinted online here: "Labwork" by John A. Nieves
Originally read: February 7, 2013
More information about the Poet: John A. Nieves
I feel I'm missing important here, but I looked up Reactor Field and saw that the name referred to a a place at University of Missouri. Then I looked up the author profile and John A. Nieves went to the University of Missouri for his PhD. Now does so deep of an allusion irritate me. In some ways. yes and no. I read the poem and wanted to know more about the place; however, now I doubt I'll get every reference in the poem and therefore, wildly misinterpret it, but hey, what's new.
The first two stanzas include a "we" speaker that shows the speaker is in a group, or has a collective unconscious. The attention to the "name" of Reactor field and the aside of mutant squirrels sets up a sort of humor in this poem. Observational looking for the absurd. Absurd being observational. Maybe both.
Then the line of, "a horse / a perfect horse -- no, we fall down here" follows through with the allusion to a horse in stanza five, "and it looks like it could trot / over and lick my hand." At first, this line doesn't make sense -- what does "it" refer to (I think I'm on a kick with ambiguous pronouns). The descriptor of it before the stanza is, "buried in '72. / Four decades in the ground" so immediately I think of nuclear reactor that's buried underground (but on my research -- there's no mention of this).
However, the image of the horse that "lick[s] my hand" is a phantomesque anthropomorphized image of radiation. Perhaps.
Anyway, the horse imagery continues with further stanzas, "Perhaps this was merely a horse / saint -- some whinnying martyr." The poem riffs off the idea of martyrdom and states that this place: "That makes it a relic. That makes this holy ground." The speaker could continue to riff on the phantom horse/name stream-of-consciousness; however, a turn in the poem comes with a simple conjunction and brings the core to the poem:
[...] but more likely
something smaller than the microbes
that eat the dead is eating the microbes
that eat the dead. One decay in the way
of another. I wonder if these suits
provide enough distance, or if we,
too are becoming permanent
So I quoted a lot of the text here because of how drastic the tone, mood, and imagery changes here, slightly but powerfully. Yes, there was talk of a dead horse (or beating a dead horse), but there's a focus of the dead here on a minute scale which shifts back to the "we" which is further defined as an observer on multiple scales that does nothing. The humor here is more philosophical (not not cynical which is the more easier turn).
Wait. This line, "Toy / people to ride this toy steed" seems a but cynical referring to the observers and the horse as toys -- to play with -- to be broken. The gamut of description, within a few stanzas shifts somewhat, but the outlook "holy" to "toys" is pretty drastic.
The last tercet reinforces the whole dead issue; however adds this element, "Maybe we're already the museum" which goes along the we being "permanent" -- something to be observed, toyed with, broken down like the horse, like the name reactor field, like reactor field.