American Life in Poetry: Column 598

By Ted Kooser, U.S. Poet Laureate

I’d guess that many of us like old toys. As a boy I had a wind-up tin submarine that dove and surfaced, and a few years ago I saw one just like it in the window of an antique store, making me, of course, an antique. Here’s a poem by Elise Hempel of Illinois, from Able Muse: A Review of Poetry, Prose & Art. Her newest book, Second Rain, came out in the spring of 2016, from Able Muse Press.


The Jockey


Atop his exhausted buggy with its

rusted wheels and now-stuck key,

one boot missing, a faded jersey,

the bill of his cap cracked off, he sits

behind a nicked brown horse that once

flicked its tail, clattered around

planked floor or rug when the buggy was wound

after school by children who’ve since

fallen behind him, white-haired or gone,

as he still waves the flopping spring

of his crop, still stares through dimming

goggles, gathering gray ribbons

of dust in his silent, frozen race

down an ever-unfurling track,

hunched to win, leaving far back

all claps and laughter, his once-smooth face

scarred and pitted, just the white

fleck of a smile now, more a sneer,

his empty fists on the reins of air

still holding tight.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2015 by Elise Hempel, “The Jockey,” Able Muse: A Review of Poetry, Prose & Art, (No. 20, Winter 2015). Poem reprinted by permission of Elise Hempel and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2016 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. They do not accept unsolicited submissions.

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