Aug. 4, 2001

Barbed Wire

by Henry Taylor

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Poem: “Barbed Wire,” by Henry Taylor from Understanding Fiction (Louisiana State University Press).

Barbed Wire

One summer afternoon when nothing much
was happening, they were standing around
a tractor beside the barn while a horse
in the field poked his head between two strands
of the barbed-wire fence to get at the grass
along the lane, when it happened—something

they passed around the wood stove late at night
for years, but never could explain—someone
may have dropped a wrench into the toolbox
or made a sudden move, or merely thought
what might happen if the horse got scared, and
then he did get scared, jumped sideways and ran

down the fence line, leaving chunks of his throat
skin and hair on every barb for ten feet
before he pulled free and ran a short way
into the field, stopped and planted his hoofs
wide apart like a sawhorse, hung his head
down as if to watch his blood running out,

almost as if he were about to speak
to them, who almost thought he could regret
that he no longer had the strength to stand,
then shuddered to his knees, fell on his side,
and gave up breathing while the dripping wire
hummed like a bowstring in the splintered air.

It's the birthday of poet Robert Hayden, born in Detroit in 1913, who spent some 23 years teaching at Fisk University, then 11 years at the University of Michigan, and said, "I am a poet who teaches in order to earn a living so that he can write a poem or two now and then." He was born Asa Bundy Sheffey, and raised in a troubled Detroit household. The people who lived next door in Detroit became his foster parents and eventually changed his name to Hayden. This is his "Those Winter Sundays":

Sundays too my father got up early
 and put his clothes on in the blueback cold,
 then with cracked hands that ached
 from labor in the weekday weather made
 banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
 I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
 When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
 and slowly I would rise and dress,
 fearing the chronic angers of that house,
 Speaking indifferently to him,
 who had driven out the cold
 and polished my good shoes as well.
 What did I know, what did I know
 of love's austere and lonely offices?

It's the birthday of the Norwegian author Knut Hamsun, born in the town of Lum, in 1859. He came to America and worked as a streetcar conductor in Chicago and as a farmhand in North Dakota. When he was 30 years old he published a fragment of a novel called Hunger, a story about a starving young writer in Norway. It made Hamsun an overnight sensation. His best-known work, Growth of the Soil, came out in 1920, the year he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

It's the birthday in Sussex, 1792, of the English romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. He spent a year at the University of Oxford, but got kicked out for writing a pamphlet entitled, "The Necessity of Atheism." He married and had two children, but fell in love with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and ran off with her to the continent, where he spent most of the rest of his life writing.

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