“There Are Only Stories”: A Review of Lisa Pasold’s Any Bright Horse

by E Martin Nolan

E Martin Nolan writes poetry and non-fiction. He received his MA in the Field of Creative Writing from the University of Toronto in 2009. He’s a poetry and blog editor at The Puritan magazine, where he also publishes interviews and reviews. His essays and poems have appeared in The Barnstormer, The Toronto Review of Books, The Toronto Quarterly, and Contemporary Verse 2. He teaches at the University of Toronto. You might know him as Ted.

Any Bright Horse
Frontenac House, Ltd.
1138 Frontenac Avenue SW
Calgary, AB T2T 1B6

2012, $15.95, 112 pp., ISBN 978.1.897181.55.3

There is power in “you.” This is why Mathew Henderson used “you” to “implicate the reader” in The Lease. Even though his “you” was obviously the speaker talking back to himself, by choosing not to use “I” Henderson forces the reader not to regard the speaker, but to regard the speaker regarding himself. Or we can also enter the poem directly through the “you” by assuming the “you” addresses the reader, who becomes the one imaginatively cranking levers on the rig, watching the prairie sky, and otherwise working in the oil patch.

“You” is also a ready subject for longing. Eddie Vedder begging “I need you” on “Come Back” springs to mind, but the move is equally effective in Darren Bifford’s Wedding in Fire Country, wherein he devotes a moving sequence to a departed “you.” If he wrote “she” instead, he’d simply be telling us of the beloved, but “you” allows us to inhabit the speaker’s longing, assume the role of the out-of-earshot beloved, or we can listen in on a private confession offered up to a thoughtless universe. The same could be said of Aisha Sasha John’s Gimme yr little quiet, although the longing there is of a slightly different sort.

In all these cases, “you” gives the reader options. You can select one, but more likely it’s a mix, with the “you” operating simultaneously on all of these levels, giving the poem a dynamism the active reader can play with. In John Ashbery and You: His Later Books, John Emil Vincent writes “it can be as alienating as it is intimate, because the ‘you’ a poem addresses could be anyone or anything.” Vincent identifies four manifestations of Ashbery’s “you”: the reader, an exclusive “you” like a lover, “you” as God or—in the absence of God, reader or lover—“you” the anybody. Vincent claims this final “you” as “spatial” and able to become empty, allowing for “an absurd and unmoored playfulness.”

In Any Bright Horse, Lisa Pasold employs a similarly unmoored strategy, also with the help of “you.” Her unmoored-ness is given a distinct direction, though, and in the end she is using the indetermination of “you” to capture a broader truth concerning story telling itself. The book begins neatly:

A Man goes on a journey.
When he returns, he is changed.
It’s not an original story. It keeps happening.
This is one way it happens.

This is condensed Joseph Campbell, and Pasold knows it. Any Bright Horse, as Beth Everest has written, is “a narrative about narrative.” And while “this has been done many times before,” Everest is correct in pointing out that despite the obvious central concept, “Pasold’s strength is in her words.” Any writer’s strength is in her words, but by so blatantly showing her conceptual hand, Pasold is daring herself to prove that concept doesn’t matter, or that a baldly exposed concept can still be interesting. In either case, we know what she’s doing, so she has to hold us in how she does it.

Any Bright Horse starts out well in that regard. It begins by establishing a complication within its established concept in the second poem, with the journeyer—still just “a man”—going to “Pamir, roof of the world,” where “Lucifer brought us light.” Lucifer, in some traditions, is a “bringer of light,” and shares this distinction with Prometheus, who is said to have stole fire from Zeus for us humans. Pasold gives us just this one line on Lucifer, and never specifies the version(s) of the Lucifer/Prometheus myth to which she refers, instead letting that mythical potentiality hover over the poem.  The speaker, meanwhile, is “looking at the hoodoos of Southern Alberta” but “thinking of his Taklimakan Desert.” “His,” it soon becomes clear, refers to Marco Polo, who—legend has it—travelled to both Pamir and the Taklimakan Desert.

Thus, in the book’s first two short poems, nine lines total, Pasold establishes narrative play, destabilization and retelling as the reigning control mechanism and theme of Any Bright Horse. These first two poems define narrative as at once universal (the hero’s journey) and ever changing (due to constant re-telling). At least two oft-retold myths and legends are touched on (the Prometheus connection is just hinted at, but Lucifer and Polo are identified directly). But Pasold also lets us know that these poems will bring those narratives forward to her own time and place, and that she will liberally play with the versions of the stories she’s telling, freely merging time, place and plot because, as she writes near the book’s close, “everything is alongside us, simultaneous.”

Having framed the book’s approach in the early going, Pasold wastes little time jumping into the main narrative stream, focusing on a Viennese captive in Genoa in 1298—Marco Polo, or a version of him. We get little of Polo’s travel narratives, with the focus instead being on his captivity in Genoa, where he told his story to Rustichello da Pisa, his neighbouring inmate, who would write down the first in a long line of retellings. This narrative is told from what mostly seems to be da Pisa’s perspective. In any case, it is observed that “the whole city is drawn” to “the Venetian commander who commands nothing but his story.” Not just any story, of course. Pasold writes that Polo has “one hell of a story,” and in her acknowledgements she mentions a copy that inspired a young Christopher Columbus. Stories, the poet is suggesting, have consequences, and so does their telling.

And so, in Any Bright Horse we are drawn not just to the story, but also to the layering of the story. Pasold hints at how far she’ll stretch her narrative play when her Polo recounts the “customs officer” who makes him “fill in dishonest declaration forms.” Recounting this, he calls his “forged identity” a “masquerade of place, on paper.” Add the element of time to that recipe, and you might get something like Pasold’s book. “There is always a road,” her Polo tells us; “I merely followed it.” Pasold is herself a traveller—her bio makes this abundantly clear—making it simple to answer the leading question that follows: “is he speaking only for himself, or for all of us?” However, Pasold does not stop with the universalizing of story, but extends this tendency to language itself—“water flowing beneath ice”—which her Polo regards as a proper path to wonder, but not faith. “Why insist on a deity?” he asks, invoking a question that haunts this whole book, when “no god watches over such journeys.”

Any Bright Horse is split into five sections. The first focuses on Polo and the co-dependent nature of stories and journeys. The anachronistic customs agent, though, is like the small crack in a dam, as in the second section the book’s narratives begin to mingle. But in the book’s third poem, Pasold introduces an even subtler narrative destabilizing element: “you.” The speaker in this book is at times undetermined (is the poet describing Polo, or is it da Pisa? It’s not always clear), but when the “you” is used it is almost always clear that it is one or another version of Polo employing it. In this case, Polo asks, “what if, when you return, the landscape seems wrong?” He also tells us “no wonder you can’t rest. You have returned speaking a language your neighbours refuse to understand.” Polo is presumably explaining his own predicament, but given the Hero of a Thousand Faces framework Pasold has already established, we are certainly invited to think this predicament goes well beyond him. Just as Hemingway was lost to his home in Michigan, and vice-versa, Pasold suggests some journeyers can never really come home. Hemingway never even tried to come back, so with Pasold we can ask, “what becomes of the people who don’t come back?” Her answer: “they become the Journey.”

Such is the condition of the book’s second journeyer, who is introduced in the book’s second section. This one started out “near the Credit River,” where she “waited for the Cardinal” with envy. One day, she tells us, the bird took off and “I stared at the empty place where he was no longer.” This instantly connects her to Polo, who has already mentioned red birds and told us “look from any window—our eye pursues the road until we see it no more.” Our second traveller is a modern-day dancer with a neighbour who “believes he’s Marco Polo.” In Any Bright Horse, to believe is to be, so this person is Polo, as opposed to some madman who “spends too much time talking with the dead people” (as a church-going, and presumably well-rooted, neighbour puts it). This Twentieth-century Polo is as stationary as his captive, thirteenth century manifestation, but this time his neighbour—standing in for the Thirteenth-century da Pisa—is the active traveller. This is a twist on the Thirteenth-century narrative, but only slightly ,: both Polo and da Pisa are said to have travelled extensively, but da Pisa was not coming and going from Polo’s presence, as is the modern day dancer.

Like his historical precedent, this modern Polo knows a thing or two about travelling. Indeed, he waits for the dancer to return before confidently telling her, as Pasold’s Polos are wont to do, “what you saw.” The presence of a streetcar on a “Canal Street” in a city with a “carnival” suggests these exchanges take place in New Orleans, but Pasold never names the city. But New Orleans has been compared to Venice, and with good reason, and given that Polo was eventually freed from Genoa and retired in Venice, we can assume this modern day version of him stands in for the retired Polo, knowingly reading the age-old traveller’s tale on his neighbour’s weary visage. He begins, “let me tell you what happened to you” before spending four pages regaling the “you” with the tale of her recent tour as a dancer in a production of Pirates of the Caribbean. The Polo-inspired Christopher Columbus, remember, was the original Caribbean pirate, and thus he serves as the connection from the thirteenth century Polo to this modern day dancer, who the twentieth century Polo reminds, “you’re just Pirate #3.” Despite that lowly rank, Polo wonders, “should you believe a god looks after everything, simply/ to have the pleasure of leaning back, of being taken,/ taken over, consumed, to choose the spirit moving you?” Neither version of Polo ever seems convinced of this god, but he can never shake it off, either. This is as close as he gets to an answer, as he tells his modern day neighbour:

Closing night, you’re with your nightcap in the hotel’s
rooftop bar—the skyline, the whole world out there,
blinking slowly on, blinking slowly off.

But while Polo’s god remains as elusive as Ashbery’s god-you, the story remains an ever-present vehicle, in this case symbolized by the titular horse. Thirteenth century Polo imagines hearing horses running along a non-existent river, but while they’re not there in reality, he cannot accept their non-existence. “This space is as possible as any other,” he tells us; “it is a question of perception, to willingly accept uncertainty.” Through Polo, Pasold is implicitly referring to narrative space, the malleability of which allows present day Polo to anticipate missing the streetcars because they’re “always en route” and “almost as convincing as horses’ hooves.” These hints at a central horse-metaphor are resolved in the third section, in which the horse-symbol appears in thirteenth century Genoa, a museum in Russia (Pasold provides no notes to hint at what, where or when exactly this is, but Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad and “our Leader” are all mentioned), and back. In the museum (“the manifestation of history”) the speaker, who could be our dancer or the modern day Polo, descends to a hidden room where a preserved horse and the shoe of its rider, “a long-dead woman,” lie “more eternal than our Leader’s mummified corpse, more noble, more ready to rise up.” But even this symbol of the story is inadequate and “less permanent than its rider might have once imagined.” That is because the narrative is never encased behind glass and frozen. Instead it intends “to cross the snow-covered courtyard and gallop out onto the frozen Neva.” Likewise, on the next page we get this from the thirteenth century Polo, who seems somehow aware of this later-day exhibit (although he may be just citing a coincidental stray memory): “we ought to be galloping across the frozen Neva, our hooves hard on the surface of the ice.” We’ve already been told that language is the water flow below a frozen river, and so in telling stories, Polo suggests, “we are walking on water.”

If a story is like a horse, though, its value is in its legs. To this point in Any Bright Horse, Pasold has presented bits of narrative and a lot of subtle play and argument concerning the nature of narrative. She is aware that this cannot carry a book, and so the fourth section moves us deeper into the dancer’s story, told partly in the second person by her Polo-neighbour and partly in the first by the dancer herself. Unfortunately, this long-awaited story falls slightly flat. It reminds me of a musician friend, whose tedium with touring—even successfully—is undeniable each time he comes through town with his band. He always has a few highlights to tell of, just like our dancer has a “favourite hotel bar in Mombasa” with “a round green parrot.” But mostly it’s mundane details, like “your bags packed into the truck of your latest half-ass/ car, a series of gigs you’ve booked for yourself.” But Pasold seems aware of this shortcoming, having her speaker end up at the dog races, wishing she were watching horses. She writes,

the dogs must recognize that thing is not a rabbit,
even if they chase it, but they have no other
choices; the gates will open and away they’ll go, forwards.

Having romanticized the journey, Pasold now deflates it to its mundane possibilities. She even begins doubting the horses she’s seen:

I know the race is wrong, made
dishonest by money’s ambitions.

But the horses didn’t know that,
back then, they were just running.
Maybe running for their lives, maybe for ours.

Pasold’s dancer has become aware that a symbol can be abusive, that by pinning our knowledge of human longing on the symbol of a horse, we can paper over the potential failure of reality to live up to that symbol’s connotation. Sometimes travelling is like a horse on the open road, sometimes it’s like a dog bound to chase a fake rabbit in circles, and sometimes, as with Polo’s trip to Genoa, travelling is exile. Walker Percy, another expert of the journey, would recognize these possibilities (see his “the Man on the Train”).

The Thirteenth century Polo claims there is a language for disappointment, one akin not to water, but to “the hard clattering of rock.” But while he needed this language to survive, he was “ill designed … for anchoring” and remained tied to the fluid language of story, unable to resist “the Genoese children[‘s] chant, Messer Marco, tell us another lie.” So despite reality, the story remains bright, because it can lie. And why not? Who would prefer to be as the Genoese Scholar, who in discussing the horse as symbol of the story in the book’s third section, “pokes at the story as if a corpse were appearing beneath him” and claims “such things aren’t love”? He says this to a prostitute, who knows better, telling him “that’s exactly your problem.” “That night,” we’re told, “the horse appears in her dreams” with “a shaking mane and a route across the snow.” This leads to “one missing whore, gone from Genoa, accompanied by the sound of hooves.” A story can save us then, if only in our dreams.

This theme is echoed in the book’s fifth section, when the medieval Polo tells a story in which prostitutes near a river “that was liquid silver” lock themselves inside all day and sing in the night, “when the stars were reflected like points of hope in the silver of the river.” All, of course, because of belief in a story, in which the prostitutes are destined to become birds trapped in cages of silver—with the moral being, perhaps, that the story gave them something to avoid: the songs of the birds, their future selves. Stories, Pasold is suggesting, are as much for the trapped as they are for the free to roam, because both need lies to see them through.

This tale of the silver river comes in the final section of Any Bright Horse, and is followed by an echo of the book’s opening poem:

In that desert, there are no lies, he says, only miracles.
Do you believe that?
No. There are only stories. All of them true. 

What’s the difference between a story and a miracle? Is it that you can believe in a story, even if it’s not true? Discussing Gilgamesh near the book’s close, a speaker who could be Polo, could be the dancer, could be anyone, dismisses the fact that “what Gilgamesh brings back doesn’t save him” because “the power is in the story itself, that he has been heroic and tells his story and then he dies.” So it is in the manner of telling, and not the actual outcome, that a story finds its value. This is supported in section four, when the book lags a bit and the dancer is put in mind more of dull dogs than bright horses, when the twentieth century Polo to attempts to alter the dancer’s story for the better. He begins the section with a mundane second-person prose narrative of an eye injury sustained by the dancer. Then he transitions into a four-page re-telling of her tour (mentioned above), which is followed by her first-person account of the disappointing dog racetrack. But here’s the key: in that middle passage, when he’s telling her story, he recounts that she comes home in a sour mood, trying to “resist your ‘everything goes’ persona.”  Soon enough, though, “you cringe, longing so/ hard for exhilaration,” and then this “you” is off again, “a nomad … for whom/ all lands are familiar.” We could ask how he might know these things about the dancer, but that’s not the point. The point is that Polo recognizes in his neighbor a longing for a brighter story, and so he gives it to her, and to us. Who has time for the truth?

Any Bright Horse is a testament to narrative possibility, but it should be noted that its prose and prosy-verse, while efficient and clean, is not particularly musical or dense. This could result in a deceptively quick read that would miss Pasold’s subtle play of argument and narrative, which when fully teased out is surprisingly dynamic, as is her play between poetry and prose. This works, because for Pasold the story is always on the move, a boat “slipping from its lines” and moving off in the distance, unmoored like language and like “you.” But Pasold’s “you” is just a part of her play, which condenses into a pleasant unity near the end when Pasold identifies “our genius in dwelling within and yet without our own invented walls.” A similar thing might be said of any worthwhile poem. That said, some commentators might think Any Bright Horse is more theoretical examination than original creative work. I’d argue that she more “unmoors” the line between the two, and does so effectively.

E Martin Nolan writes poetry and non-fiction. He received his MA in the Field of Creative Writing from the University of Toronto in 2009. He’s a poetry and blog editor at The Puritan magazine, where he also publishes interviews and reviews. His essays and poems have appeared in The Barnstormer, The Toronto Review of Books, The Toronto Quarterly, and Contemporary Verse 2. He teaches at the University of Toronto. You might know him as Ted.