Minnesota Poetry: Patricia Kirkpatrick’s “Letter to the Spirit Horse”

Patricia Kirkpatrick grew up in Des Moines and graduated from the University of Iowa and San Francisco State University. She has received awards from the NEA, the Bush Foundation, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Loft-McKnight and the Jerome Foundation. She teaches in the MFA program at Hamline University, and has also taught and conducted workshops at Macalester College, the Princeton Theological Seminary and the Loft. She lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota with her family.

I was particularly drawn to this poem of hers, because I knew I could actually see the source of her inspiration. After reading the poem, scroll down to see a picture of the Spirit Horse in question.

Letter to the Spirit Horse

after the Haniwa Horse, Japan, fifth century A.D.

Minneapolis Institute of Arts

You were made to go with the dead

to the spirit world.

But one thousand five hundred years

has brought you children

sitting in a circle on the floor.

When they draw, their pencils waver

over their papers like antennae

to outline the bells on your rump, your tail

as stiff as a tusk, the shoulder holes tuneling to

emptiness inside you. When the dead depart,

you stay,

stranded alone, but intact

and sturdy as a cooking pot,

your ears pricked and open like snouts,

your legs loped and tubular as beach kelp.

The children look up from their brief seat

of childhood. They want apples and grass

to feed you, alfalfa and clover

to grow at your feet, a fellow

creature to press against your clay muzzle.

Forgive us for keeping you

all this time in the only world

we can picture.

– “Letter to the Spirit Horse,” by Patricia Kirkpatrick, from her collection of poems title Century’s Road, published by Holy Cow! Press. Reprinted here with permission from the publisher.


Haniwa Horse, Kofun period

Image courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

  • David Goldes

    Looking forward to seeing the Haniwa Horse again with Patricia Kirkpatrick’s words in my memory. Thank you.

  • Linda Tesner, Lewis and Clark College

    Thank you for the delightful moment in my morning! I love the poem, and the horse. . . so lovely. . . I am sending it to my friend, the curator of education at the Portland Art Museum. Your delightful treat arrived just when I needed a little lift. . .

  • Kathy Sawyer

    My neighbor Patricia’s poem “Letter to the Spirit Horse” was written about today. It’s about the chldren’s reactions(so true, I’ve seen them!) to the Haniwa Horse at the MIA, one of my favorite pieces

  • melinda ward

    So totally lovely Patricia. “Pencils wavering over their papers like antennae” I can see it. Thank you for sharing it, Marianne Combs!

  • nor hall

    why does this bring tears?– it’s that last line, the gratitude, and our human limitation and the poet’s ability (yours) to span the worlds of the living children and the dead. Oh, words– see how many it takes me to try and say what you’ve said in so few?! Perfect example of why it’s a poem that works– thank you.