Shenandoah Volume 68, Number 1
Volume 68, Number 1 · Fall 2018

Weights and Measures

The racehorse crossing the line shining clean because he never had to see another step in front of him, kicking back mud, who the viewers never for a moment had to consider in a position that wasn’t first—that’s how he thought of himself. I always came out ahead, he said.

My grandfather, who we are burying. In one-hundred-degree heat, the flowers sagging, sweat stains swagging the underarms of every shirt, logging trucks thundering by on the highway, waving their scrappy flags, not of triumph, on oversized loads of felled trees.

Not in seconds, feet, or furlongs—by any measure others share—would he have been determined a victor. But he would have fixed his eyes on the proud parts of the day with the focus of the honor guard come to give the military salute, firing guns in unison, folding the flag from his casket crisply, with a ceremony of utter certainty. The confidence with which some move through the world (particularly men, white, of a certain generation)… I am uncomfortable in the most basic element of existence, my flesh my dress bunches against. But he fought hard to stay in his skin, no matter how it wizened.

For some horses, who do have mud flung in their eyes, it is a mercy, in that it blinds them to their place, to the finish ahead. We lower his body into the red clay.

▴ ▴ ▴

I became interested in horse racing after the competition, which lasts only seconds, flashed past on a TV, and my grandfather’s passing. (The single sport I know is running, and I’d been losing my ability to do that too.)

It was the absences that drew me, initially. Noticing all the jockeys in the Derby seemed to be Latino, reading about this, then reading about the disappearance of African Americans from the sport. African Americans did more than equally well as white contenders, they excelled, winning more than half of the early Kentucky Derbies. Then came segregation and its tensions, captured in the 1905 Washington Post headline, “Negro Rider on Wane, White Jockeys’ Superior Intelligence Supersedes.” There have been few black jockeys against which to measure performance since.

Then reading about purging—what jockeys do to lighten the horses’ loads. Racing’s lore is full of laxatives, tapeworms, amphetamines. Or rather the jockeys are emptied, stomachs’ contents going into heaving bowls tracks openly provide. They sweat out and spit up as much as a half pound of saliva in a day, dehydrating themselves as close to weightlessness as man can achieve.

Which might explain the rise of Latino jockeys (70 percent or more in the Triple Crown) better-than-positive change. The pay is low, rate of injury high, work is given to those who will take the position. And it may be Hispanic men are favored because there is less of them to get in the way. The average Panamanian or Mexican man is three inches shorter than the average U.S. man.

Then my interest came back, as interests tend to do, to a subject in which I see myself: women. The average American woman is four or five inches shorter than the average American man. Women have lower bone density and body mass. And they’re more practiced in starving, leaders in the field of anorexia. Yet, light as women may be, there have been only six female jockeys in the Triple Crown races in all of its history, and the last four years: zero, poorest of scores.

But grandfather, who would usually greet me with an appraising stare and the phrase, I’m glad you haven’t gotten heavy like the rest: Look, I am nearly gone too. Not over a course’s finish line, not cleared from the field, but I have run so much I am too thin to win.

▴ ▴ ▴

Small comments carry weight. And slender shoulders?

A woman starts going to the gym. A month into her discipline, the scale registers higher. She is unhappy. Then reassured by the mirror. She does look better. She has lost fat and gained muscle, its density. This is not light subject matter.

There is a difference in mass and weight. Mass is the actual amount of matter in an object. Weight is the pull of gravity exerted upon it.

Psychologists today say we should not approach anorexia as a concern with mere appearances, but as an issue of the serious—grave—minded, as intellectual, moral, in nature. The anorexic winnows her figure down, not to invite the appetites of men, but to create a greater space between herself and others (thigh that does not spread toward the one she’s seated beside, bone startling enough to avert a gaze). Consider Descartes, Kant, all the philosophers dividing the mind from the flesh; God’s great sacrifice of putting Christ in the form of a body; the mystics and saints fasting toward transcendence; lightness as our language’s metaphor for thought and conscience right and pure.

When the fitness instructor shouts to raise her arms again and again, which are lifting weights, to imagine being swans, swans, what comes to the woman’s mind instead is flight’s impossibility. And pack animal, pack animal as a call.

▴ ▴ ▴

Lighten the load, I think when I remember the stories of my grandfather as a child, many evenings carrying his father, too drunk to walk, home. I think of wings, prayers for intervention, directed to where it would take him ninety more years to ascend.

And Give him a greater weight is the thought that comes of the story of the child’s first time picking cotton, skinny and hungry. He was to be paid by the pound and, filling a sack marked 25, thought his pockets and belly would bulge soon too. But the sack was sized for flour, its density. (He would work a ten-hour day.)

The rest of the story is that, when the boy bore his father, over his shoulder, home, the man wore every piece of clothing he owned at once, because he had begun the day intending to find work. The man dressed, wishing to seem strong, bulky. The child’s cargo was airier than, to a passerby, it looked to be. Which is good, which is bad? What is the scale by which to differentiate desirable substance and weight?

▴ ▴ ▴

In Aristotle’s chariot allegory, a man steers two horses in a circuit between the earth and heavens. The white and temperate horse works to carry him upward to glimpse the godly. But the one is yoked to another.

The dark and lumbering horse pulls back toward the corporeal world, strains to follow his desire. Fields are green with what he can graze there. Is it any wonder the charioteer loses his grasp on the reins? Even the scholars of Greek seem torn, or hungry. In translations of the allegory, they use the words nourishment and filling to describe visions of enlightenment.

When the elderly pass away, we give praise, say they are in a better place. When they were too ill to eat, we had feeding tubes forced down their throats, cheered for every ounce of fat maintained, for every day they struggled and remained.

▴ ▴ ▴

Though no one in my family has ever owned a horse—a beast to which to be a burden, a creature to lead and care for—since the death of one of us, my thoughts have been devoted to horses. After all, not-knowing, omissions, are very much a part of fond feeling.

We hold the hardest secrets within ourselves if we can, and use our own bodies to block from the view of loved ones disturbing scenes. To continue being able to love those we do, we overlook bodies aging ugly, character flaws we call human. And those who are masters of horses blind them—the enormity of their eyes, the largest of any land mammal.

It is not too limiting, to reduce their capacity to take in everything in 360 degrees, riders will claim. A horse is, by nature, a spook-prone animal of prey, watchful even when its head is down in the hay. Blinders make this life better. Or, it could be said, they let the wearer keep moving, on, and beyond this troubling place, through whatever race must be run to the pasture waiting at the end.

The Irish had a custom of putting horse skulls beneath their floors. The horse’s head is of such great volume that, when dead and emptied, the remaining vessel of bone creates an echo. (Spatial volume become aural. Space, if not with the physical, filled.) People wanted to live in a house with this sound, they wanted to walk—and dance—over the percussive floor. Proudly, they would stuff into the eye socket a piece of paper inscribed with the family name. The rest they would leave to gape. Let the absence resonate.

Rose McLarney’s collections of poems are Its Day Being Gone, winner of the National Poetry Series, and Forage, forthcoming, both from Penguin Books, and The Always Broken Plates of Mountains, published by Four Way Books. She is coeditor of A Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia, forthcoming from University of Georgia Press. She is associate professor of creative writing at Auburn University and coeditor in chief and poetry editor of the Southern Humanities Review.