Confessionalism and Horse Fucking in the Necropastoral of Louise Glück, "Equus," and Enumclaw, Washington

by on Oct.04, 2012

For my third annual post on art and the animal, I’m going to explore the moist, shadowy field where two taboos collide.  Bestiality (actual and representational) and Confessionalism (poetic, Catholic, psychiatric, juridical) have been on my mind lately.

My thinking begins with Louise Glück’s “Horse,” a poem that briefly riffs on the trope of young women’s attraction to horses:

What does the horse give you
That I cannot give you?

I watch you when you are alone,
When you ride into the field behind the dairy,
Your hands buried in the mare’s
Dark mane.

Then I know what lies behind your silence:
Scorn, hatred of me, of marriage. Still,
You want me to touch you; you cry out
As brides cry, but when I look at you I see
There are no children in your body.
Then what is there?

Nothing, I think. Only haste
To die before I die.

In a dream, I watched you ride the horse
Over the dry fields and then
Dismount: you two walked together;
In the dark, you had no shadows.
But I felt them coming toward me
Since at night they go anywhere,
They are their own masters.

Look at me. You think I don’t understand?
What is the animal
If not passage out of this life?

By ending with a tidy epiphany, “Horse” seems to restrain itself like any quietist or confessionalist poem.  Contrary to the aims of a proper avant-garde, the poem forces closure and self-enlightenment; its ending only thinly disguises a confession framed as universal truth.  In the speaker’s rhetorical questions, the animal as Death and only Death (‘passage out of this life’) reads more like an assertion than a suggestion, a light beaming down from the poet godhead above us.

But what, in this flickering, depressed poem, does it mean to pass out of this life?

What is the ‘Nothing’ in the deathly bodies inscribed?

What is “Horse” if not a trot through the Necropastoral, where the unthinkable lurks in and leaks from every threshold?

Where everything, even and especially that nonreproductive ‘Nothing’ and ‘haste to die,’ becomes a threshold?

If Gluck responds austerely to the ego-centered trivialisms of Confessionalism, Peter Schaffer’s play “Equus” amplifies the confessional injunctions of religion, law, and psychoanalysis beyond their aims.  The play centers on the horse worship of Alan Strang, a troubled teenager whose theological desires make him a hard nut to crack even on the analyst’s couch.

We learn in the beginning of the play (or movie, now streaming on Netflix!) that Alan has violently blinded horses in the stable where he works.  Because no one can figure out why, it becomes the job of his analyst to suss out the truth, if not produce it.  As Foucault pointed out, “Western man has become a confessing animal.”  Institutions like science/medicine and law have thus adopted the confessional from the religious sphere as a way to enforce authority.  This is especially the case with deviant sexuality, which is just as much regulated as it is incited by the powers that be:

“At issue is not a movement bent on pushing rude sex back into some obscure and inaccessible region, but on the contrary, a process that spreads it over the suface of things and bodies, arouses it, draws it out and bids it to speak, implants it in reality and enjoins it to tell the truth:  an entire glittering sexual array…”

The threat of Alan Strang, in this sense, is that he restores Confessionalism to sublime heights, where the spread of eros takes on inhuman dimensions.  As the play illustrates his confessions, it follows the horse where Gluck’s poem fades out:  Alan rejects heterosexual fucking and replaces a portrait of Christ on his bedroom wall with one of the horse-god he calls Equus.  The teeanger submits to a worship that is a kind of death, a murder of the secular individualism to which most confessionalists cling.  As Mark Doty states in a conversation about Lowell, “There is a huge difference between the search for insight and the desire to be forgiven.”  While Doty sides with the psychoanalytic pursuit of insight, “Equus” half-heartedly entertains a Freudian explanation for Alan’s deviancy.  His ritual and sacrifice, rather than his relationship with Mom or Dad or any woman or man, become the scene and not the root of a gorgeous, impenetrable spectacle at the very limit of our understanding.  A limit where what is said must remain unfathomable, eluding all rationale in its aberrant grandeur.

Alan’s is a mutant confessionalism.  Catharsis heals him while also transforming his analyst, who confesses to wanting to be like Alan, or worse, becoming the horse he mounts on erotic midnight rides:

I keep thinking about the horse! Not the boy: the horse, and what it may be trying to do. I keep seeing that huge head kissing him with its chained mouth. Nudging through the metal some desire absolutely irrelevant to filling its belly or propagating its own kind. What desire could that he? . . . You see, I’m wearing that horse’s head myself. That’s the feeling. All reined up in old language and old assumptions, straining to jump clean-hoofed on to a whole new track of being I only suspect is there.

Tragically, it’s not the fictional teenager of “Equus” whose bestiality literalized Gluck’s mention of fatal passage, but an existing person.  In 2005 Kenneth Pinyan, a member of a zoophilic community in Enumclaw, Washington died from a perforated colon after being fucked by a stallion.  According to reports, Pinyan refused to seek medical attention because of the unusual nature of his internal injury.  In light of sexual norms, needless to say, he could not confess to his own penetration by an animal.  And yet the truth, once bled out of him, spread.  Pinyan’s alternative to confession was a hastened death whose obscenity was promptly declared and codified (the state of Washington had no anti-beastiality laws prior to the case).  He was declared dead upon arrival at the ER, where a friend from the same zoophilic community anonymously left him.

For me, Pinyan’s silence resonates as the ultimate threshold in this equine entanglement of art and bodies.  No longer a self-determined human subject, I am annihilated through my affinity with him, turned into a masterless shadow his body nevertheless casts.  Just as Alan elicits from his analyst a monstrous sympathy, Pinyan’s death commands my own inhuman confession–words with the force if not the content of his secret, a visionary, epiphanic, necessarily destructive Nothing I couldn’t name if I tried.

11 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    I”ll have to watch that movie!

    The Gluck poem invokes Plath for me – the death-entranced young woman on the horse.

    Johannes

  2. Joyelle McSweeney

    I am writing a post weirdly synchronous with this– about the zero at the bone– could be like you’re ‘Nothing’– a moebius channel backthrough the other side (the backside) of existence– Vitality not as ‘life’ but reanimation of the corpse– I will post tonight or in the morning. HA!

  3. Joyelle McSweeney

    also, etymology of ‘Eunumclaw’, PLEASE! That is totally Ted Hughes-y. Ted Hughes and Equus come out of the same spasm, yes no?

  4. Joyelle McSweeney

    I mean Crow and Equus? Connection? Or is the human firmly delineated in Crow bc it’s at a safe ‘mythological’ distance? Hmmm sorry these comments are bits and pieces

  5. Carina

    “His ritual and sacrifice, rather than his relationship with Mom or Dad or any woman or man, become the scene and not the root of a gorgeous, impenetrable spectacle at the very limit of our understanding. A limit where what is said must remain unfathomable, eluding all rationale in its aberrant grandeur.”

    Awesome.

    I really get into what you’re saying about confessionalism. I think we could move, through the ideas you’ve outlined here, closer to an Artuadian (or Brechtian, maybe — part of what I love about Equus is how neatly it bestrides that party-line) reading of confessionalism-as-genre rather than a Freudian one, the primary difference being exactly this point you raise that the spectacle is paramount rather than some psychodeflated “Cause.”

    When I think about horses and confesionalism in poetry, which I do pretty often, actually, I always think back to Ariel, then to the relationship between horses and poets, what it means to be a poet-on-a-horse and how horsemanship and lyric craftsmanship are not so different; to succeed at either requires a sense of mastery that is near if not completely obsolete in many other disciplines.

    There’s also the trope of the horsemaster, the power dynamic it evokes of formal tradition, etiquette, dress — expertise. This is mirrored at an interesting distance in the relationship between Alan and his analyst, and, in a poem like Ariel, the distance between the “I” and the lyric, which is not unlike that between the rider and the horse.

  6. Joyelle McSweeney

    So maybe Crow is anti-Ariel…

    Meanwhile, this piece of Auden ‘dog’gerel comes to mind…

    “O where are you going?” said reader to rider,
    “That valley is fatal when furnaces burn,
    Yonder’s the midden whose odours will madden,
    That gap is the grave where the tall return.”

    “O do you imagine,” said fearer to farer,
    “That dusk will delay on your path to the pass,
    Your diligent looking discover the lacking
    Your footsteps feel from granite to grass?”

    “O what was that bird,” said horror to hearer,
    “Did you see that shape in the twisted trees?
    Behind you swiftly the figure comes softly,
    The spot on your skin is a shocking disease.”

    “Out of this house,” said rider to reader,
    “Yours never will,” said farer to fearer,
    “They’re looking for you,” said hearer to horror,
    As he left them there, as he left them there.

  7. Kim

    This post made me feel bad, in a good way. Or maybe that I haven’t eaten, but I’m not hungry. It also reminded me of that story by David Foster Wallace, “backbone”, about the little boy who wants to kiss every part of his own body, where the last stage, after the back, the neck, the nose, the eyes, the ultimate goal, the ultimate act of confession, to kiss the lips themselves, is an art that can only be attained in the blurry other-world of mythology.

  8. Lucas de Lima

    Johannes, I also recommend Zoo, the documentary about the Enumclaw case–it’s oddly arresting, concerned just as much with beauty as with the implications and circumstances of the case.

    Joyelle, check this out: “The name Enumclaw is derived from a Salish Native American term that translates as “place of evil spirits”, apparently referring to Enumclaw Mountain, located about 6 miles (9.7 km) to the north, and referring either to some evil incident that occurred there or to the frequent powerful windstorms that affect the region.[5][6] The City of Enumclaw says the name means “thundering noise”.[7]” Can’t wait for yr post!

    Carina, great points. One striking thing is that Pinyan’s nickname, as if also suggestive of dominion, was “Mr. Hands” (maybe this is the username he used on the internet, I can’t remember). But of course the horse mastered him. I think this is where part of the scandal of his death lies–that he invited penetration to the point of self-destruction. So what kind of lyric would actually engage such an event, and how would the poet’s sense of mastery also unravel…

    Kim, yes, the voracity of myth, the absolution of the Ouroboros.

  9. maria

    there’s a beautiful character in Faulkner’s novel The Hamlet, a cognitively disabled man who is in love with a cow and has beautiful, dreamy sex with her to the horror of the locals who are outraged by “stock-diddlin.'”

  10. Megan Milks

    Lucas, wow – I can’t wait for your fourth annual post on art and the animal.

    Another horse lyric that seems in dialogue with this post, and certainly with the play/film EQUUS, is Blonde Redhead’s song “Equus,” which declares a kind of masochistic submission to the horse – a desire to worship the horse, become the horse, protect the horse, relinquish it (“sometimes I think I must / just let you be … a horse”) – in the video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNHDtNjnXaM), which imagines a severely damaged, post-surgical body recovering in a medical institution while still in thrall to the horse(s) that put it there – the song becomes still more clearly a confession of perverse, fatalist obsession: “All I want is to be a rider / to be a part of you.” It speaks to singer Kazu Makino’s experience being thrown and trampled by a horse; and to EQUUS (the lyrics can easily be read as inhabiting Alan Strang’s perspective).

  11. Lucas de Lima

    Thanks Maria! Another addition to my bestiality reading list!

    Megan, that’s one of my fave Blonde Redhead songs but I’d forgotten all about its revision of Equus. The video is kind of hilarious isn’t it? Interesting how the horse is more animate than the singer on the hospital bed while objects move in occult fashion around them.