Simon Ortiz’s “Wisconsin Horse”

One of Ortiz’s reoccurring images is first found in “Wisconsin Horse.” Considering his Indian heritage, it’s a rich symbol, one often identified with Indians, though perhaps less so with the Pueblo Indians. The image is usually found in poems where the narrator is commenting on “America building something,” and, in the process, destroying nature.

Wisconsin Horse


It is late at night, lying
drunk on the floor, hearing
a church bell across the
street, remembering that
Wisconsin Horse
this Spring.

One step at a time to return.

The horse across the road
stands within a fence,
silent in the hot afternoon.

A mile north is some construction.
I tell the horse,
"That's America building something."

A mile further through a clump of trees
is a river.

The Wisconsin Horse is silent.

The bell clamors
against the insides of my skull,
It has nothing to do with sound
that can comfort.

The clamor wants to escape
its barriers.
I want it to escape.
I have no defenses.

I should be an eager Christian
hungry for salvation,
or at the very least accept smugness
bound tightly in plastic.

Yet, at this single point in my life,
I know only a few bare things:
the floor, the walls around me,
that bell across the street,
that despair is a miserable excuse for emptiness,
that I should echo louder
that call for salvation
which at this point I know
is a need to fill the hollows
and pockets of my body.

Despair is such a poor excuse
to exclude things from my life,
to allow them to slip
from safe places.

But now, and not too soon,
in, this dark night,
having gotten up to write,
I make this offering:
that Wisconsin Horse I saw
standing in that hot afternoon,
staring through a chainlink fence
at the construction going on
only a mile away,
I wonder now if the horse still stands
silent in the dark night,
dreamless and stifled,
having no recourses left
except to hope his silence
will soon go away
and the meaningfulness enter .


This poem has several of Ortiz’s major themes beginning with the opening note. Alcoholism, seemingly a reflection of his alienation and despair, plays a large part in his early poems. The bell that clamors inside his skull seems to be the church bell, the church that wants to convince him that he should be “hungry for salvation.”

It’ s obvious that what he’s really hungry for, though, is some sort of meaning to “fill the hollows and pockets” of his body. At this early stage of his career all he has, though, is an image that has stuck with him. Like the Wisconsin horse, he is fenced in and incapable of articulating what he really feels. All he can do is “hope his silence/will soon go away/ and the meaningfulness enter.”

What do you think?