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Animal Rescue Squad

To Paul Halley

To begin with an apology, other poets
have told of animals they’d found at night on roads,
dead, wounded or frightened, and of what they did.
As subject matter it comes ready made
and dangerous for that: an open goal, easy to miss.

Nonetheless. Three a.m., a Massachusetts country road,
the black heap in the headlights is a foal, collapsed.
The two of us get out and, nervous of country things,
we study it, we fear its legs are broken.
To our relief it stands up. It falls down again.
It is terrified of us, of what has happened,
and then we work out what has happened.

Thirty feet of steep and muddy bank above the road
a stallion and a mare rush in anxiety
behind a fence which leaves a foal-sized gap
between the barbed wire and the sloping ground.

There is the problem. Something quickly should be done
in case a truck comes charging round the bend
the other way, without the stretch of straight road we have had.
Maybe we should wake the farmer. Here I make
one more apology, to Massachusetts farmers,
I am sure a gentle kind of men
but stereotypes are powerful at night
and films we’ve seen about America
have snarling dogs and shotguns blazing down the drive.
Better to face the horses.

                          But a foal is quite a weight.
We heave it upright, haul it off the road,
point it at the bank. In no mood to co-operate,
it acts the awkward baby, determined to fall down.

The method of ascent: man A has the animal
by the belly, proffered forward and upward. Man B
is pushing at the haunch and fetlocks of man A.
Soon our casual wear is all messed up, man A tastes grass,
the octoped, hard breathing and backsliding, mounts.

Mare and stallion have been watching this
and he is frantic, straining at the wire.
Disaster threatens if he breaks the fence.
But the posts hold, we get within his reach,
his long head comes at me and I am glad
to feel his tongue apply its sputum to my face and hair.

We’re not there yet, because the foal for once
refuses to fall down beside the wire.
We push it over, shovel it under,
and still it needs another lift and stagger
to the flat bit in the middle of the field.
Effusive is the right word for the stallion’s thanks now,
lathering me further; but the mare is circumspect.
The smell of strangers on her young is strong.

Men A and B hold on to one another
and their unfit hearts hurt. Emergencies like that
don’t happen every night, and we are glad our headlights
found the creature first, not just because a truck,
taking the bend now, breaks the silence and the dark.

Audio file

Listen to this poem — read by the author