Lunch Poems

Kentucky Derby

A new poem about jockeys, ponies, and golden eggs filled with candy, and how quickly races are won when you’re drinking.

Next year in Jerusalem,
with mint juleps. This year
in Peterborough, with Wyatt and Anna,
arriving at Brady’s Sports Bar one minute
before the two-minute event begins.
In my minute, I circle the oval
faux-oak bar slowly, scanning for someone
I know. I say hello, people
make space for me and bring
a very cold beer. Anna says:
I would not like to get in those
small spaces
, meaning whatever you call
the starting pens. Wyatt sizes me up
the way jockeys do. Full disclosure:
I’m too big to ride, too small
to amount to anything big. Then
they’re off to the races: a muck-up
at the start, par for the course, and one
horse falls back. Root for #12, Anna says.
She likes 12 because his owner
won’t dope him. Go General Quarters, I say.
The horses run. I am vaguely aware
of a recent tragedy in which the winning
horse stumbled, another in which many
horses succumbed to bad supplements.
There are other tragedies, of course, some
involving horses, some not, but we
won’t delve into those. This is a two-minute
extravaganza and we’re meant to focus
on the horses and the riders, not the men
in flannel caps, the men in their cups, howling
who-knows-what for who-knows-horse.
This is a moment to be in the moment and I
fail terribly, knowing nothing about
ponies, thinking: this is like a whirlwind
tour of abstract expressionism, which I don’t
get because I don’t get what was poured into it.
But my beer, confirmed on the second sip,
is exceedingly cold, with a taste of caramel and barrel,
and then someone wins the race, which sort
of means it’s over and also just begun, since
now the replays start, with aerial shots
that show the winner. Who’s that, who’s that?
everyone asks, as the horse again swifts
from behind, finding his opening
the way any of us might
hope to, if the seas evaporated
on our behalf. And then the horse’s name:
Mine that Bird, which seems strange, which
for me brings to mind the mynah bird my Uncle Joe
kept in a brass cage in Lipsitz Department Store
in Beaufort, South Carolina, a bird named Lippy whose two-phrase
repertoire included Where’s Joe? and Stride Rite,
Stride Rite, the brand of shoe whose purchase
came with a plastic golden egg
filled with candies. What could be better?
Nothing, except the headline
of the obituary the day Lippy
the mynah bird died: Death
of a Salesman. I kid you not.
If Lippy were here in this bar, he’d
catch on quick, repeating Mine
that Bird
, Mine that Bird. But
Lippy’s not here. Instead, it’s Wyatt
and Anna and me, and we agree, watching
the tiny, winning jockey sniffing
roses thrown his way, that as soon as he
dismounts the screen, he’ll eat and eat
and eat, so he no longer resembles an Irish
Holocaust survivor grinning into the sunset.
I am going to eat too, I tell my friends.
I am heading back to my version of Eden, where
my days are numbered, but I’m fuzzy
on the number because sometimes fuzzy is easier,
and I’m a little fuzzy now, after half
a beer, reaching for the sweater on the back
of my bar stool. It’s a white sweater, it’s soft, and Anna
kindly reminds me that it is hers, and I leave
them, leave the sweater, and loop up the hill
toward corn bread, red beans and rice.
I’m late to mess, and someone pours me
a glass of Malbec, someone sits down next to me.
I’m being cared for as if I’ve been wounded,
which I suppose is the case, though I
don’t want to know to what extent.
Someone says that once she was allowed
to choose a favorite food for dinner. Her sister
chose butter, she chose honey. We’re all
made of honey and butter and one of us has a yellow
school bus which we board from time to time
for a field trip that involves riding in circles
and falling asleep, which involves
all of us being ponies in a meadow.
The sea and sky are made of grass.
It can’t last. It lasts.

Andrea Cohen is the author of the poetry collections Long Division, The Cartographer’s Vacation, and Kentucky Derby (forthcoming from Salmon Poetry). Her poems and stories have appeared in journals such as The Atlantic Monthly, The Threepenny Review, Glimmer Train, and Poetry. She directs the Blacksmith House Poetry Series in Cambridge, Mass. More by Andrea Cohen