From The Journals of Marco Polo, I. 61
At Shangtu he keeps a stud :
ten thousand mares and geldings, all white as snow.
These mares are seeded by the wind
lifting their tails in autumn, growing slow
and round, turning inward with the season
till one day they are gone.
Now winter comes:
cattle thin, the lines of their ribs exposed;
horns crack, frost rots off their tongues
their mouths a lamp-black hole of teeth and ice.
Now daylight recedes, red with cold
rivers are welded to the ground;
the earth turns to the moon;
twin worlds of dry white air
and bare, dismantled bones.
Days are nameless; each a hung silence.
Then one day, late in April
the wind leaves muddy footprints on the path;
the sun burns a hole in the sky
and there are the horses, browsing the ridges
like clouds broken on the grass
creatures from a strange, older country,
rough hair growing down their flanks
the light slipping off them.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2010. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2010 was Jen Hadfield.
The apt and arid cousin to Coleridge's fragment, making mythic sense of seasonal change. In Shetland especially I find it hard to imagine the onset of spring in winter, and almost impossible to remember, in midsummer, what winter was like. The return of the wind-mated horses of Shangtu feels no more unlikely than the transformative spoutings and sproutings of the green-paek.
My pamphlet was a response to the Journals of Marco Polo which I read and reread while I was in Mongolia. They are tantalisingly bereft of personal response – very much a merchant traveller's account of places and things. I tried to 'supplement' his journals with the sense of awe and astonishment which he must have felt, as I did, at the beauty and harshness of these places, and resilience of the people. In Mongolia there is a great reverence attached to horses; it's impossible to imagine how they survive the desert winters, and the relief when they return is huge.