Published on Academy of American Poets (

America (Assateague)

America, Every explorer names his island Formosa, beautiful
For being first, he alone, Walker Percy tells us, has access to it
and can see it for what it is. And doesn’tevery child call
its imagined pony by its secret name? A word to summon a large
& gentle wildness from empty air, its long face & warm breath
visible in that moment before it touches its muzzle to the dreaming
brow. In one metaphor, America, the tips of your right hand
might be The Aleutians; those of your left, The Florida Keys.

Today, everyone has come to see the horses, who have been here
for four hundred years. In myth, they descend from of a herd
brought on a Spanish galleon & swim ashore to their astonishing
freedom after the ship hits a sandbar in a storm & goes down.
America, this is a scene you have seen before: a dark hull of flesh.
Or they are the descendants of horses set out to graze by farmers
& inexplicably forgotten. You are an assemblage. Natural.
Unnatural. So little of you is not from somewhere else.

In the woods, where we cannot see them, the small spotted elk
from Taiwan—renamed deer, though their DNA would reveal
that that is not what they are—are settling down to sleep. The sky
& marsh purple & flood with the perfectly familiar: the bat,
the house mouse, the raccoon, the Norway rat, the least shrew,
the meadow jumping mouse, the possum, the fox, the vole.

And birds: eagles, ospreys, egrets, merlins & mallards, pin-tails
& even the remarkable & invasive Canada geese. So that
if I were pulled from my bed in the night to identify your body,
I might look here, to this island, half-north, half-south, as one does
to the pale, beloved & often-fingered freckle on the cocked hip
of a lover, where, even in twilight, a band of feral horses stirs
in the cordgrass & briar. The last light awing around their dark
eyes is an elegy to that species of shouting wonder emitted only
by toddlers before our wonder falls silent & reverential. Animals,
John Berger asserts, first entered the imagination not as leather
or meat but as messengers and promises, an elegy, or an augur,
for our tongues, before both our desire & outrage became crude.


Copyright © 2016 by Kathleen Graber. This poem was commissioned by the Academy of American Poets and funded by a National Endowment for the Arts Imagine Your Parks grant.

About this Poem

"Like many children, I grew up fascinated by horses. Although I lived in a relatively rural area, I rarely saw real ones. Yet my imagination was filled with the wild ponies I read about in Marguerite Henry's books and a set of exquisite molded resin horses that were passed down to me by my older brother. In this poem I hoped to be able to honor the innocent wonder that is still made available to us still through the preservation of the herds at Assateague, while at the same time acknowledging the very conflicted history of our country and the deeply troubling and disappointing state of our nation in this current election season, realities that a child's romanticized view of the world blissfully omits but that we, as adults and citizens, may have a moral obligation to reckon and address with as much grace and compassion as we can. There still seems to be so much solace and wisdom to be gained from looking into the faces of animals."
—Kathleen Graber


Kathleen Graber

Kathleen Graber is the author of Correspondence (Saturnalia Books, 2006) and The Eternal City: Poems (Princeton University Press, 2010).

Date Published: 2016-10-20

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