Grandfather Cuts Loose the Ponies sculpture and landscape

Two Poems by John Whalen

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Grandfather Cuts Loose the Ponies

Getting it finished in this lifetime is this magic quotient to me. I like that thought of completion.
– David Govedare, sculptor

When we travel west to Seattle,
My wife and I stop
At the overlook above the Columbia.
On the way home
We stop on the other side of the highway
For the horses
And get out of the car, wind or not,
To climb loose gravel
To the top of the bluff.

Up close the steel silhouettes
Are rusty and tagged
With desperate-looking graffiti
And who loves who
Who doesn’t anymore.
None of the marks
Seem to matter to the horses,
The ones visible for miles,
The ones leaping tall and unafraid
Along the ridge.
They’re going somewhere
In a hurry, moving with joy.
We’ve read about the artist,
Govedare, his other work and all.                                                     

In September sun                                                                                          
You can sit on a rock under a horse
If you choose,
Just like we do, my wife and I—
What a miracle to say that,
My wife and I!—
Makes me feel I’ve traded a life of addiction
For an undeserved gift—
My wife and I—you’re not even supposed
To say it’s anything special—
Not every day, you’re not.
We take pictures to the southwest
Where the river flows toward the Snake.
I focus on all that distance,
On the other hills
And the water beyond the bridge
We’ve just driven across.
We leave the horses
And slide our way down to the car,
Knowing that—sun, rain, snow—
Until we return
They’ll hold the hillside for us,
keep distance gathered close
But free,
A loose fist of sky and light.


Located on a hillside above the Columbia River, Grandfather Cuts Loose the Ponies is incomplete, yet still the most-seen piece of public art in Washington.



Poem on the First Anniversary of Mother’s Death

for my seven sisters and brothers

The truck our father left us tilted in sections
Into the backyard. Each season deeper.
A year after Mom died
We employed bungee cords and the silver magic
Of duct tape to mount the biggest pieces

Of the truck on tires, then lifted
The hood and power-hosed the insides:
Spider webs, squirrels’ nests, baby mice.
The motor started right up, first time ever
And we drove all night looking for Mom.

And we drove all night into the mountains.
Whenever we got into a little town
We covered our eyes so we couldn’t see the name
Of the town or the closed-up shops.
For supplies we had donuts, some dry bacon

And a couple cartons of orange juice.
We stopped only for gas and bathrooms.
Somewhere in Montana we ran out of food
And started fasting. There were those of us
Who wanted to stop for more food.

Some who wanted to stop for sleep.
But we drove all night and we drove all day.
A desperado kind of light embraced us
Held us and it was easy to see who was who:
Older brother’s plans, younger sister’s wisdom.

Older sister at the wheel. We drove all night
Through mountains and forests
Along sheer cliffs and we never
Looked back or stopped saying prayers
Or braked for forest fires.

The river towns were filled with rafts, canoes, kayaks.
We tumbled out of the truck in Riggins, Idaho
Shook the pins and needles from our legs.
Ate breakfast the rest of the morning.
A middle brother

One of those good with humor and beer
And whiskey, arranged a rafting trip
Into the interior cliffs of the Salmon River.
We shot into the rapids,
All hanging on the best we could.

The youngest brother shouted the loudest.
I got the wettest.
Others took pictures that caught
The sky’s raw cerulean edge. Rough waters
Dislodged us from the raft

And we flew above the flood.
All that we lost—wallets, keys, sunglasses,
Our own dear names—that was nothing.
Some brothers, some sisters, said they heard Mom.
She wasn’t sad, they reported, but happy.

All of us, our hair got soaked.
Many felt the spray of the water like a blessing
Upon their cheeks.
Many saw the sun for the first time
Ever, really saw into the shining of it.




John WhalenJohn Whalen was born in Michigan and grew up in Tennessee. He’s lived in the Pacific Northwest since 1992. His first book of poetry, Caliban, was published by Lost Horse Press. He has also put out three chapbooks, including Above the Pear Trees, which won the Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Award. His poems have appeared in EPOCH, VQR, The Gettysburg Review, CutBank, and, most recently, Rock and Sling and Catamaran Literary Reader.

Read two other poems by John Whalen appearing in

Header photo of Grandfather Cuts Loose the Ponies by Roman Khomlyak, courtesy Shutterstock. is the first online literary journal of place, publishing award-winning literature, art, editorials, and community case studies since 1998.