Old Horse, What Is To Be Done? (Stephen Kuusisto)

Reviewed by Emily K. Michael

A published collection rarely shows the intense process of poetry-writing. When a book of poems presents fragments or drafts, the work is often so incoherent or messy that it can barely be read. And when a book includes only polished poems, it is even more difficult for the reader to imagine how these poems were created and revised. But Stephen Kuusisto’s third poetry collection welcomes the reader into a liminal space where journal entries hold their own among short, compact poems. Old Horse, What Is To Be Done? is an act of contemporary myth-making as the poet offers a glimpse into his notebooks. Dedicated to Robert Bly, these poems embody the ruminative walk, the gray afternoon. These poems pad gently forward, slowing the entire process of poetry-making so the reader can follow the stitching and repositioning of craft. 

As with many epics, Old Horse opens with a call for trust and attention. In “You’ll have to take my word…,” Kuusisto writes, “I’ve outgrown sentiment like the old apples / On old trees—spirit quiet / Clean with decline.” The poem embraces the “spirit quiet” as the speaker ages and tires of youthful resistance. Nodding to the power of myth, Kuusisto describes apples touched by Aphrodite’s afterglow. I hear a quiet voice starting a large story, a promise. 

We are entering the poet’s mind at a new place, where the poet takes us backstage to rifle through costumes and props. It is not a messy or unfinished place, but it feels private and privileged. Consider the third poem, “The Writing Prompt”: 

Think about the pressure that makes each fact float,
High rise buildings at the edge of___________,
In my case, Helsinki, the apartment complexes
“Post-war” vaguely Stalinist, “a good place
For electro-shock” and the architect
Now in a mad house. 

The poet builds himself into what may have been a typical workshop prompt, showing us the seams. The patching-in of his own experience finds literal expression on the page with the blank before he says, “In my case, Helsinki,” and the poem moves by pulling together fragments of description. The poem braids historical details with mythic significance as the poet renders the haggard residents of the apartment complex: 

Flickering faces share structural damage
From repeated loading—half the locals
Have turned to stones or worse.
My trick was to rise early,
Walk out “into” one of those photos
From the last century,
Forget the hell of nothing
And show off my brand new suit
To a circle of crows.

The citizens have turned to stone, and the poet-wanderer stands among the crows. This poem uncoils from memory and reforms itself into an urban epic. 

“Fall Arrives in the Finger Lakes” showcases Kuusisto’s notebook style with brief stanzas separated by asterisks. In this series, each piece offers advice for the poet. Kuusisto writes, “The poets always say ‘if’ / The mosquitos say ‘now.’” The poem quietly blooms as he intersperses notes on craft with examples of technique. He is easy to follow as he explains how people came to the woods to put away their anxiety. He continues, “Tattered maple tree / Squandering light … The poets always say ‘if ‘ / As in: if the soul gets loose.” These fragments carry a quiet thrumming, carrying energy down the page. Each is a tiny world. 

Kuusisto the musician reveals himself in another series of fragments: “It is Early or Late for Different People.” The poem opens on a “Mozart morning” and follows the music — classical and jazz, Mozart and Grieg — through his memory. He says, “How one makes poems from nothing—  / A train, a few flickering points— / Don’t cry body, we’re going someplace.” Isn’t this plea for movement and meaning the drive of poets? We all cry — and want to get away from it, change it, revise it. We feel and want to write it. 

Kuusisto captures the most intense longing in his poem, “Sand”: 

I woke to the waves and sand and realized I’d been dreaming of my father.
We were in Finland back in the late fifties, a time when it seemed people
didn’t laugh. The water had to do all the laughing in those days. Clouds
watched the children. There were very few televisions. I remember the
adults reading books by the sea. The ocean was everyone’s philosopher.
Those were beautiful days. Everyone had their cup of sand. 

I was delighted to encounter this poem in Old Horse because I’ve been using it in poetry classes for years. In only six lines, Kuusisto pulls out all the stops. Repetition knits this poem together: “woke,” “waves,” “water” and “watched” give the poem a dreamy air. Counting the title, the word “sand” is repeated three times, showing that there is plenty for everyone. The poem hums with generous nostalgia. A sad loveliness lives in the simplicity of “Those were beautiful days.” There is nothing showy about Kuusisto’s vocabulary here; he is a poet who understands how to fine-tune the ordinary and create a world we can move around in. 

In “Conditions,” Kuusisto offers a series of seeming contradictions, inviting the reader to let go of a unified stance and swing wildly from point to point. He writes, “Peaches ripened without help / My stepson said the moon followed him  … One struggles to accept forces / You won’t win by haunting others … My house leaned against my wishes.” This collection speaks often of birds, horses, music, and Helsinki. The apples return in “Notebook Elegy for Pentti Saarikoski,” where he writes, “Today I sorted apples: for cider, for the horses, some for cooking… / I wrote lines in a notebook, ‘live for a time, after all…’” This sorting is the process of revision, sending each part to its worthy place. 

The poems in Old Horse are sensitized to daily experience and sensible of lessons in moments others might dismiss. In another series of brief stanzas, Kuusisto writes, “I brew coffee while steam pipes talk / And my smallness in the scheme of things / Circles cat-like, though I have no cat.” This is the poet’s wakefulness, a persistent hum even among other sleepers. 

Title: Old Horse, What Is To Be Done?
Author: Stephen Kuusisto
Publisher: Tiger Bark Press
Year: 2021

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About the Reviewer

Emily K. Michael is a blind poet, musician, and writing instructor from Jacksonville, FL. Since 2016, she has edited poetry for Wordgathering. Her poetry and essays have appeared in WordgatheringThe HopperArtemis JournalThe South Carolina ReviewThe Deaf Poets SocietyNine Mile MagazineNarrative Inquiry in Bioethics, BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog, Barriers and Belonging, and AWP Writer’s Notebook. Her first book Neoteny: Poems is out from Finishing Line Press; it includes a finalist for The Atlantis Award as well as a nominee for The Pushcart Prize. Emily’s work centers on ecology, disability, and music. She develops grammar workshops for multilingual learners and delivers poetry workshops for writers at all levels. She also curates the Blind Academy Blog. Emily is passionate about grammar, singing, birding, and guide dogs. Find more of her work at http://emilykmichael.com.

Read Emily K. Michael’s Gatherer’s Blog in this issue of Wordgathering.