Columnist Bill Newman: Laurels and the laureate

The writer’s daughter, Jo, aboard Lady, the blue roan.

The writer’s daughter, Jo, aboard Lady, the blue roan. PHOTO BY BALDEMAR FIERRO


Published: 05-10-2024 4:22 PM

Modified: 05-10-2024 6:58 PM

This column is about my daughter Jo, her daughters Kobin and Ramona, a horse named Lady and the U.S. Poet Laureate, Ada Limón. And it also isn’t.

Kobin is five, almost six. Ramona is three, close to four. Jo, the girls and their dad, Jo’s husband Dean, live in Wyoming.

Lady is a 15½-hands quarter horse. A hand is four inches. It measures a horse’s height, from the ground to the withers. 15½ hands is about average. As a kid, I spent my happiest days riding a quarter horse, also 15½ hands, a beautiful chestnut mare named Velvet.

Many Saturdays, my dad, on his 17½ hands (that’s big!) Palomino, with me on Velvet, would go for hours-long rides on trails, fields and dirt roads near Bedford, New York. One cold winter afternoon heading back toward the stable, we asked our horses to move along. And they did. Anxious to get back to their stalls, carrots and mash, they broke into a flat-out, low-to-the-ground gallop.

I remember feeling, as we went racing across snow-covered pastures and flying up a hill Pegasus-like, that this could be the best day of my life. But then, as we sped over the crest, we found ourselves in trouble, careening headlong towards a stone wall.

There was no way around it. And no way to stop on the slippery snow. A massive, bloody, horrible crash was looming, But then, somehow, the horses, on their own volition, skidded and slid and stopped, miraculously, sideways, an inch from the wall.

Back to Lady. She’s a Blue Roan. Her dappled colors are deep silver. The cowboys say that in the right light, the coat looks blue.

Jo rides Lady. So do Kobin and Ramona who began riding when they were two and mucking stalls and the paddock as soon as they could hold a kid-size pitchfork.

Back to Ada Limón. In late April, my wife Dale and I attended the poet laureate’s reading at Smith College’s John M Green Hall. Here is the beginning of the first poem she read that night. Listen to the cadence, the rhythm of a cantering horse before coming to a halt.

I like the lady horses best,

how they make it all look easy,

like running 40 miles per hour

is as fun as taking a nap, or grass.

Jo’s Lady indeed makes it all look easy. Jo on Lady looks like she’s riding a rocking horse. And Lady is indefatigable. And also, kind and gentle — she takes good care of the kids. And smart. She quickly figured out how to manipulate the latch on the paddock gate and open it so that she and her horse buddies could run free.

I should mention Bear, the gelding in the barn who I’ve bonded with. Bear is a Rocky Mountain Gaited horse. Dean also likes to ride Bear. And Bear, like everyone, loves Lady and understands that she runs the show. As Limón puts it, “I like their lady horse swagger,/ after winning, Ears up, girls, ears up!”

Recently Dean was driving back from Jackson when he remembered that they were running low on carrots. “If we don’t have enough carrots, Lady will be mad at us,” he exclaimed as he swung the car into a U-turn, back to the feed store for carrots.

An additional attribute of Lady — she’s amenable to trying new things. Jo rides her bareback and Western and sometimes with an English saddle. When Lady was being boarded in Idaho this past winter (it’s way too cold and snowy where they live for the horses to winter there), Lady learned to jump. Jo and Lady soon entered a jumping competition and won a red ribbon. That’s second place.

Kobin, too, recently won an award. Her story, about running through a sprinkler in the backyard, won — I’m not making this up — “First Place in the Non-Fiction Genre for Kindergartener 2024 Youth Author Contest” in the state of Wyoming.

And Ramona wins everyone’s heart. Ramona already embraces a bumps-and-bruises-are-just-a part-of-life ethos. A few weeks ago when she fell off a horse, she was not disappointed in herself or angry at the horse, and she did not complain about pain. Rather, her emphatic three-year-old self stood up and announced that she was mad at the dirt.

A big heart plays a big part in Limón’s poem. She imagines an “8-pound female horse heart,/giant with power, heavy with blood” inside herself. Imagine that. As Limón said at the reading, her poems are never quite about what they seem to be about.

Her poems also have a disarming forthrightness. Following the words about the lady horse swagger, for example, she adds, “But mainly, let’s be honest, I like/that they’re ladies.”

I love that the big heart prevails. The poem ends when the imagined horse’s heart within her “… thinks, no, it knows,/ it’s going to come in first.” And I love the title of the poem: “How to Triumph Like a Girl.”

Ada Limón will be reading on May 21 at the Teton Center for the Arts in Jackson. I hope she shares this poem that evening. Jo will be there.

Bill Newman is a Northampton-based civil rights attorney and co-host of Talk the Talk on WHMP.