The sound box is made of a horse’s head.
The resonator is horse skin.
The strings and bow are of horsehair.
The morin khur is the thoroughbred
of Mongolian violins
Its call is the call of the stallion to the mare.
A call which may no more be gainsaid
than that of jinn to jinn
through jasmine-weighted air.
A call which may no more be gainsaid
than that of blood kin to kin
through a body-strewn central square.
A square in which they’ll heap the horses’ heads
by the heaps of horse skin
and the heaps of horsehair.
What's this? The web seconds Muldoon's own definition:
The Morin Khur or horse-headed violin is a typical Mongolian bowed instrument with two strings … The horse hair of the bow doesn't go between the two strings, instead, the instrument and the way of playing is more similar to cello than to erhu. The instrument was originally made from a horse head for the body, horse skin for the resonator, and horse hair for the strings and bow. The music played upon this instrument is of great variety and virtuosity. Much of the music typically sounds like human voice, and can imitate a horse to such an extent as real such as galloping horse, the whinnying, etc. The modern Morin Khur has a wooden body and soundboard, 2 horse hair strings, and has a rich warm tone and very beautiful sound. The peghead is decorated with a detailed carving of a horse's head.These dismantled horses touch the keynote of the whole book (Muldoon’s Horse Latitudes, I mean), a collection in which most of the poems are in various ways about horses. Of the title, the book-blurb tells us: ‘the horse latitudes designate an area north and south of the equator in which ships tend to be becalmed, in which stasis if not stagnation is the order of the day, and where sailors traditionally threw horses overboard to conserve food and water.’ But this poem is Mongolian in subject, and that’s a long way from the ocean.
There's plangency here, and it is evocatively handled: five simple three-line stanzas rhyming abc, although from time to time Muldoon puts a shake into the rhyme by shifting the stress from the rhymed syllable to the previous, mixing what used to be called ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ rhymes in such a way as to evoke halfrhymes (‘horsehair’ doesn’t quite rhyme with ‘air’ and ‘square’; ‘gainsaid’ doesn’t quite rhyme with ‘head’ and ‘bred’). It’s a poem about an unusual music, and its own unusual music chimes evocatively as a way of embodying that topic.
The third and fourth stanzas seem to weigh two orientalist models of Mongolia against one another: the exotic-romantic (the jinn-haunted jasmine-scented air of Shangri-La) against the bloody news-story modern-day sense of Mongolia as a place of violent conflict (‘a body-strewn central square’). Presumably the idea is to dismantle the body of discourses of the east in order to reassemble them as an instrument; a means of music-making.
What is it about horses? Elvis Costello has a song called ‘King Horse’ which is all about the equine oxymoron: ‘built of tenderness and brute force’. Peter Schaeffer’s Equus taps a sense of the erotic potential of that tenderness and forcefulness: these ton-heavy vegetarians, so gentle-eyed, so heavy-kicking. Such musculature and momentum! Such childlike idiocy of mind! Who are all these horses, anyway?
The whinnying of a horse. The whining of a violin. The crying of bereaved human beings. The breathlessly heavy ‘h’-alliteration of Muldoon's last stanza, there.
The horses are us. We are the beasts of burden and velocity, those weird evolutionary outliers without a specific environmental niche who have nevertheless survived the pressure of the Darwinian cull. We are creatures of the herd, thrown into battle over thousands of years to be mangled and crushed; beings whose misery has consistently be turned into art and beauty. We are muscle and soulfulness. Little girls, by identifying their subjectivity so wholeheartedly with the horse, have the sort of clearer vision sometimes granted to children and occluded in adults. We are ridden.
This is the peculiarity of Muldoon’s poem here: that horses are defined along two major axes. One is the sound they make, rarely a reason people give for loving horses. Here of course that sound transmuted, via dismemberment, from harsh and unmusical into beautiful and haunting—this is the metamorphosis of Orpheus, so centrally important as a defining mythos of poetry. The other is precisely the sense of horses as horseflesh: to be tortured and butchered. Paris Communards piling hunks of horsemeat for sustenance. Wouldn’t it be a striking irony if violence against humans found more eloquent articulation via an account of the violence against horses than in simple repetition of yet another instance of man's inhumanity to man? What would a world look like in which people cared more about the killing of horses than the murder of humans? (Imagine two people killed, and seven horses. Imagine a world where the deaths of the horses created more outrage than the deaths of the people. Why, do you imagine, would a Northern Irish poet be interested in such a story?)
Is there an awkward pun lurking behind Muldoon’s words? ... the thoroughbred of violins; the violence enacted upon thoroughbreds. I wouldn’t put it past him.