LAST night a January wind was ripping at the shingles
over our house and whistling a wolf song under the
I sat in a leather rocker and read to a six-year-old girl
the Browning poem, Childe Roland to the Dark
And her eyes had the haze of autumn hills and it was
beautiful to her and she could not understand.
A man is crossing. a big prairie, says the poem, and
nothing happens–and he goes on and on–and it’s
all lonesome and empty and nobody home.
And he goes on and on–and nothing happens–and he
comes on a horse’s skull, dry bones of a dead horse–
and you know more than ever it’s all lonesome and
empty and nobody home.
And the man raises a horn to his lips and blows–he
fixes a proud neck and forehead toward the empty
sky and the empty land–and blows one last wonder-
And as the shuttling automatic memory of man clicks
off its results willy-nilly and inevitable as the snick
of a mouse-trap or the trajectory of a 42-centimetre
I flash to the form of a man to his hips in snow drifts
of Manitoba and Minnesota–in the sled derby run
from Winnipeg to Minneapolis.
He is beaten in the race the first day out of Winnipeg–
the lead dog is eaten by four team mates–and the
man goes on and on–running while the other racers
ride, running while the other racers sleep–
Lost in a blizzard twenty-four hours, repeating a circle
of travel hour after hour–fighting the dogs who
dig holes in the snow and whimper for sleep–
pushing on–running and walking five hundred
miles to the end of the race–almost a winner–one
toe frozen, feet blistered and frost-bitten.
And I know why a thousand young men of the North-
west meet him in the finishing miles and yell cheers
–I know why judges of the race call him a winner
and give him a special prize even though he is a
I know he kept under his shirt and around his thudding
heart amid the blizzards of five hundred miles that
one last wonder-cry of Childe Roland–and I told
the six year old girl about it.
And while the January wind was ripping at the shingles
and whistling a wolf song under the eaves, her eyes
had the haze of autumn hills and it was beautiful
to her and she could not understand.