The Poet's Perspective: 'Riding Lesson' depicts sensory memories

April 11, 2011

Robin Becker, the 2010-11 Penn State laureate and professor of English and women's studies at the University, is sharing several of her poems via video during the 2010-11 academic year, aiming to engage people "in the deep pleasures of poetry -- language crafted and shaped from words, the 'ordinary' material we all use every day," to explore how and why poems move us.

"The Poet's Perspective" is a weekly poetry video series scheduled to appear during the fall 2010 and spring 2011 semesters on Penn State Live and in Penn State Newswires. Prior to each poem, Becker offers her thoughts about what inspired her to write the piece, then poses a question to consider. Below and in the video link of "Riding Lesson," Becker recalls the sensory memories from a childhood hobby.

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The riding teacher depicted here, suffering from alcoholism, intimidated his charges; still, we sought his approval. I loved the smell of horses, the leather saddle and bridles, the feeling of the old, wooden stall doors. I wanted nothing to change or upset the delicate balance we -- students, parents, teacher -- all managed. In the hermetic world of the riding stable, I found language for how children (and adults) navigate authority and power.

Question to consider: What athletic or extracurricular activities did you enjoy while a school student? Which coaches or teachers stand out in your memory and why?

Riding Lesson

Some days he lurched around
the ring, yelling in Irish. You circled him, he was
the sun, his name was Mick. With his long
whip, he cracked the indolence at your heels,
he made your spine sing its straightest song.

He was a drunk and cast a smelly shadow
while you say soaping bridles in the tack room
where stirrups took the sun.
Your mother came at six, shafts of light
still hitting the roof of the Impala.

You stood on two hay bales and stared
as they paced in their stalls
wearing bright blankets stained with liniment.
A horse's breath formed a little
white cloud like a man's.

They had the same yellow teeth, the same
lathery sweat. You never knew
when they would turn. At Christmas
your father gave him a bottle, the paddock froze
and the water in the bathtub outside the barn.

After his car wreck, he sat in a plastic
chair and watched the lessons.
With his wet smile. His gimpy leg.
He snapped a crop, he cursed the air,
and then the city closed the stable.

He put the reins of a horse in your hands.
His laughter followed you and made you cry.
Crybaby! He was your first teacher.

"Riding Lesson" is from Giacometti's Dog, by Robin Becker, © 1990. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the publisher.

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View Robin Becker's schedule of appearances at online. To read or watch videos of previous poems in the series, click here. To listen to an occasional podcast series where Becker and a small group of students and faculty discuss one of her poems, visit "Liberal Arts Voices."

  • To watch a video of Robin Becker reading 'Riding Lesson,' click on the image above.

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated April 13, 2011