Zenyatta

By Grady Chambers

Featured art: French Knight, 14th Century, by Paul Mercuri

Breeders’ Cup, November 2010

In a different life she wins.
In a different November in Kentucky she leans
into the last curve of the brown-combed track
as she passes the thick of the field. In that one,
in a bar far away, in our lucky coats
and muddy white sneakers, we rise
with the televised crowd as she quickens
at the flick of the jockey, as the grandstand churns
at the distance beginning to close, as the line comes closer.

And we know it as her rider leans forward,
as Zenyatta knows it in her legs
as the horse before her turns
and knows it’s over, the brown mane flying by
in a whip of color and dust, as the stands become a flicker
of white tickets, as her name is spoken skyward like a chant.

Instead it’s Indiana. It’s a mist of smoke above the river,
it’s train horns trafficking the distance. It’s the morning of the Breeders’ Cup
and seven hours left till the gunshot start of the race.
We’re coming off a drunk. The trees are glyphic
in the Midwest sky. We’re caffeined and idiot with laughter.

And I see us as we might have looked
from the bank’s far side: best friends, such white teeth, our bodies carving
dark celebrations as we leaped in moon bounds, in huge airborne strides
down the sides of the sloped embankment.

All summer the sun. All summer the news. All summer her name
taking on the glory of God’s immortal horses: Zenyatta
the dark bay, Zenyatta the Apple Blossom crown,
Zenyatta the unbeaten, brutal, girl-horse of the holy
lineage, the breakneck finish, Zenyatta in Hollywood
nabbing St. Trinians by a blush of the dusted mane.
And there beside the river—in our hats and fall jackets,
with the coal-smoke and gold light moving
through the oaks—I think we believed it: that she’d win,
that we’d make it home, that we were loud as life seemed to be
and could throw ourselves around in it without consequence.

We’d slept just four hours, but we felt a kind of glow
as we barked and brawled and scrambled up the sandstone cliffs
and plunged back down again, as we jumped from ledge to air
to the bankside’s leaf-slushed flats, as we walked under huge tusks
of pink cloud back to the asphalt lot, as we drove to the roadside bar
where we laughed and drank beer and waited for the race,
our minds on Kentucky, Zenyatta pacing in her stable,
the diamond shine of trackside lights coming on above the turf.

But if I’d peered into the years ahead,
what would I have seen? One of us slumped in Newark
while the girl he loved wheeled her bags to a southbound Greyhound;
another lit in ambulance glow outside Barcelona, shoes gaping
beside a spidered windshield; for each of us
a month of Sundays wandering our apartments,
checking our throats in bathroom mirrors for signs of sickness,
feeling something missing.

And I would turn away. I would turn away as the broadcast
from Kentucky brought the spires, the rising crowd, the jack-shadows
of the horses plowing toward the wire. Where Zenyatta
pulled up on the pummeled track, chestnut unbeatable,
edged out by a nose: Zenyatta in bloc-light, her head
bucking skyward, for a moment triumphant, not knowing she had lost.


Grady Chambers is the author of North American Stadiums (Milkweed Editions) winner of the inaugural Max Ritvo Poetry Prize. Recent poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Boaat, 32 Poems, American Poetry Review, The Sun, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere. Grady is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow, and he lives in Philadelphia.

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