Rob Winger: Muybridge’s Horse

Muybridge's Horse (2007, Nightwood Editions)
Muybridge's Horse (2007, Nightwood Editions)

Muybridge’s Horse
Rob Winger
Nightwood Editions, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-88971-231-7

It’s quite common to read a poem that analyses a painting or picture in an attempt to gain new prospective on an artist’s subject (Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” perhaps being one of the best known). What Winger has done in Muybridge’s Horse is set himself the daunting task of writing a bio-poem that encompasses one man’s experiences through life, love and photography, at once making it significant for the reader.

Eadweard Muybridge is perhaps best known for his photography, that of bodies in motion culminating in the 1878 capturing of a horse’s gait. Throughout the work, Winger assesses various pictorial samples from a variety of periods in Muybridge’s life: from childhood and early parental influence, through work in the Yosemite Valley, married life and subsequent murder charge, time spent in Guatemala, and later motion studies. What we find is how significant geography is to the man’s life and work, and therefore to Winger’s own writing. In “A Roadside Scene, San Isidro” we see this connection clearly:

If you transplant the trajectory of women, you get the exact route of Eadweard’s tour through Guatemala’s map. Each body is a major town in the Sierra Madre. Bodies over distance. Details against the river’s blurred mirror.

The poetics of action can be seen at various points in this book-length poem. In the first section, Winger uses a variety of line lengths, most medium to long, to introduce us to the protagonist and his family. The description well suited to a thoughtful analysis of character:

when I met Eadweard, wet brush in hand,
I’d never seen anyone move in such careful lines
________each rotation of wrists,
________considered

he came into rooms in spotless raking diagonals
found his targets and went straight for them,
careful beard shaped just like a cataract’s gravity

Later, when Muybridge leaves for South America after his wife’s affair with Harry Larkyns and his own charge of murder, the lines take on the loose, less restricted rhythms of prose. This is a time when we expect a readjusting, a new assessment of his character and position. Imagine the man at his lowest, having lost his wife and a friend through deception. He needs to see things from a new angle, a new approach. The prose poetry of the book’s Part Two provides for these changes, and Winger handles it with competence.

Part Three takes us to the Palo Alto stock farm and the famous race track where Muybridge’s cameras prove that a horse completely leaves the ground as it gallops, turning the contemporary world’s view upside-down and altering the future understanding of motion. Here Winger shifts back to free verse, but with one significant change: all the lines are right justified, giving the impression of things being backwards, or reoriented:

In the seventh frame,
a wingless horse hovers half a foot above the earth.

The lines also take on a shortened length in places with each strophe narrowing to, at times, a single word. The action and anticipation of the camera experiment is heightened through this and the reading of this section move along faster than what preceded it, also echoing the significance of the horse’s speed and the use of human technology in capturing it.

As a poem about photography, Muybridge’s Horse takes us further into the life of one man who saw in pictures the ability to capture a moment as more than what it was, but what insights that scene can provide for both photographer and viewer. Winger’s in-depth study is more than worthy of note.

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