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Rachel Hadas

The bull between whose horns I perch is life.
The bull between whose horns I cling is death.
Tossed on these horns who bleeding dies
Or doesn’t die but bleeding, hanging on,

rides, and the bull charges through late winter
as through an icy pane and into spring.
Shards shower in its wake.
We need to make a place for the dilemma,

sweep the shards and gather up the pieces,
clear out a space for puzzlement and grief.
I visited the hospital, came home,
tried, failed to sleep, tossed in confusion,

tempted to shake the world awake and beg
      Oh please explain
      in words of one
      syllable life and death

Keep it simple. Doctors, hospitals
I understand. They seem familiar.
But this last mystery–who can make it clear?
I ride between the horns of hope and fear.

Fast in the hold of sleep, my love, you lay.
I turned to you and clutched you anyway.
You didn’t wake. It could have been my dream
that buttonholed your rest. Awake again,

I tried to parse things: Here the hospital.
Here the bed. Here the raging bull.
Those, syllable by syllable, I spell.
But who ordained the law

that says we may
walk long together, only to let go
finally, move alone
beyond the world? The bull

stamps and steams and charges far ahead.
Having descended from its tossing horns,
I touch the earth in gratitude, and slow-
ly walk through the green world. But someone’s dead.

About the poet:

Rachel Hadas is Board of Governors Professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark, NJ, where one of the courses she loves to teach is Literature and Medicine. Her latest book of poems is Questions in the Vestibule (Northwestern University Press, 2016).

About the poem:

“In the first few months of 2014, several relatives and friends died, all short of their seventieth birthdays. In this poem I try to braid the awe, fear and mystery of death that was preoccupying me at that time along with the new love that was concurrently lighting up my life. But can one braid love and death? ‘Tossed on these horns….’ is a quotation from the dense, hermetic and beautiful poetry of Hart Crane (1899-1932). I did feel tossed at that time by enormous forces, as indeed we all are, always, but we are not always aware of it.”

Poetry editors:

Johanna Shapiro and Judy Schaefer

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10 thoughts on “Horns”

  1. Susan Zimmerman

    Brilliant Rachel! I will share this poem widely and return to it often. I am turning 70 in May and it feels like a momentous turning. Love to you always. Susan Zimmerman

  2. This is a spectacular poem–not the least of its beauty is the image in the opening two lines. But those short sentences in the midst of the longer ones got me; they were like the deaths short of 70. And the longer sentences seemed to be the continuing on in the green world. Thank you so much.

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