Original poem reprinted online here: "The Dusk of Horses" by James Dickey
Originally read: May 25, 2013
More information about the Poet: James Dickey
Written in unrhymed tercets, the poem plays with image of horses, but I feel the images play a smoke and mirror role, especially the color play of green and white, when the diction brings a deeper sense in the poem.
Starting with the opening stanza, the focus here is on the "green / of the field." Why not "green field"? The separation of the adjective and noun brings a sense of distance between color and image so the speaker could expand upon the metaphor. This distance is further played on with the direct narrative of "something fallen from the sky. / They see this, and put down / Their long heads deeper in grass."
There's an ambiguous set up with the next line, "That only just escapes reflecting them." I assuming, "that" refers to the grass, but since there's an ambiguous situation regarding the noun, the verb "escapes" comes to the forefront -- the diction indicates something more serious; however, when the same type of denotation appears in "The color green flees over the grass / like an insect, following the red sun over/ The next hill." The idea of "fleeing" has a context to more of a child-like bewilderment to focus more on the images and how they intertwine and shift.
The color "green" shifts in to "white" and then the rhetoric in the next lines hint at something deeper, "There is no cloud so dark and white at once; / There is no pool at dawn that deepens / Their faces and thirsts as this does." The use of the semi-colon forces a relation between the usage of color (or the lack thereof) and the invisible deepness of faces and thirsts -- conceptual ideals.
To break away from the rhetoric the speaker states the time, "Now" (which will come up further in the poem) -- "Now they are feeding on solid / Cloud" here the images have been so concrete that the transition to the surreal jolts the reader. We know the time, but the land as well as the horses have changed, "With nails as silent as stars among the wood / Hewed down years ago and now rotten, / The stalls are put up around them."
Here's another smoke and mirrors device happening here. Note how the language in the first line compiles pretty complex similes, "as silent as stars among the woods" and even though this seems like it should have great impact in the stanza (which it does) -- the simple declarative statement of "The stalls are put up around them" is a concrete announcement of limitations, yet still the horses, "Not touching it, they sleep / No beast ever lived who understood / What happened among the sun's fields."
"Lived who understood" This is the message, I think, the speaker is trying to get at. Yes there's an interplay of colors of green to white which could come as a symbol of the strife; however, the direct being overshadowed by the techniques brings a different element to the limitation -- as if "horses" are looking for something bigger than "something fallen from the sky" to actually do something.
"On the four taxed, worthy legs. / Each thinks he awakens where / The sun is black on the rooftop." The play in color here changes from green, to white, to black -- so visually there's a sequence which is tinged with the idea of "Each thinks he awakens." The speaker indicates that there's a false awakening, that, "the green is dancing in the next pasture."
The repetition of the beginning scene but worded differently in the following stanzas in how the horses sleep, but "In a cloud, or a risen lake" or pretend to sleep "when led, / And thus to go under the ancient white / of meadow, as green goes." In either case there's always a return to sleep and the reasons and the colors now turn into a safe place that the horses (and readers) can keep track. But colors are just colors.
The last two lines, "Holding stars and rotten rafters, / Quiet, fragrant, and relieved" has a sense of cynicism here. Note that these lines refer to the previous stanza of "With nails as silent as stars among the wood / Hewed down years ago and now rotten." The limitations are there but aren't stated in the next line -- rather the limitations are forgotten and what's left is emotion "Quiet, fragrant, and relieved." Bliss in ignorance?