Invisible Horses of The Mind

horses in a field

By Amy Ratto-Parks

In the past few weeks, I’ve been having a hard time leading my thoughts toward coherent ideas. Thoughts appear, bloom, and fall in a jagged cycle that feels like an old-fashioned time-lapse science video. I am reminded about how uncomfortable it is to sit and witness the turbulent mind and about how desperately we all want to feel clear and sure about our thoughts, ourselves, and the world around us.

As is so often the case, I have returned to poems to help me find clarity. Patricia Goedicke’s book Invisible Horses (Milkweed, 1996) explores “what it feels like to think.” In the poem, “In These Burning Stables,” Goedicke explores the mystery of the mind and describes a sense of being filled with “battalions of tiny hooves” […] “sweeping across the cortex” and thoughts like “invisible horses” that “churn like roiled smoke in the corral.” She says, “The neurosurgeon can’t tell what you’re thinking / until you tell him, but it’s already too late / the long faces of thought slide / into each other.”

The metaphor of horses in this poem brings me comfort because even at their most wild and most untamed, horses carry gravity and beauty that fills me with awe. Perhaps because my thoughts swirl without landing, I fear that they are frivolous, but when I imagine them as horses, I give them room to move “like roiled smoke.” And in what feels like the “burning stables” of our times, it’s comforting to think of our chaos of thoughts as horses, “silhouetted against the flames / with calm eyes, with magnificent / tall shoulders, shadowy / gigantic haunches” that “pass / and repass each other in the dark.”

Photo Credit: Claire Hibbs-Cheff

In These Burning Stables ~ Patricia Goedicke

And yet you can’t catch them. Even peering inside
as hard as you can, stumble around in this hodgepodge

of jolts, shivers. Enzymes digesting themselves, muscles
relaxed or jerking,

head keeping time, noticing and not noticing
each whirr of the clock

especially when it stops.
But whenever you try to look for them

it’s like mayflies swarming; in the thronged

brief hustle of the mind what are these transparent
puffs of air, ideas forming out of nowhere?

Battalions of tiny hooves. In thin sheets trampling,
sweeping across the cortex. Like leaves whipped by the wind

they keep disappearing, like the deep cherrywood sound
of the piano you heard last night. Or the vanishing

muffled oranges of sunset, the color
of peaches inside a refrigerator, the wash of chocolatey gray

silks no one has ever seen, none of the touchable.

The neurosurgeon can’t know what you’re thinking
until you tell him, but already it’s too late,

the long faces of thought slide
into each other like layers of purple and brown oil

in a portrait by Rembrandt, muffled
dim highlights drift

like berries in the woods, pieces of cottonwood fluff.

With no warning, suddenly
you come upon them in clusters,

little gusts leap up
like grasshoppers, all around you

from second to second changing, but watching over it,
who knows when, exactly, water will decide to boil

or wood finally ignite, or how,
precisely, ideas take shape, materialize, open the gates?

Whiff of stallion on the air.

The hair on the back of your neck bristles
where you can’t see it, fire

where there’s no fire but the taste of it,

ozone sizzling in the mouth
like memory but what is that?

Invisible horses churn
like roiled smoke in the corral.

You try to lead them out
with the halter of the word like,

but even with the tiniest stitches, the most delicate
intracerebral loops

there’s no lassoing them; in these burning stables
silhouetted against the flames

with calm eyes, with magnificent
tall shoulders, shadowy

gigantic haunches pass
and repass each other in the dark.