Scared Violent Like Horses: Poems

Scared Violent Like Horses: Poems

by John McCarthy


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Selected by Victoria Chang as winner of the Jake Adam York Prize, John McCarthy’s Scared Violent Like Horses is a deeply personal examination of violent masculinity, driven by a yearning for more compassionate ways of being.

McCarthy's flyover country is populated by a family strangled by silence: a father drunk and mute in the passenger seat, a mother sinking into bed like a dish at the bottom of a sink, and a boy whose friends play punch-for-punch for fun. He shows us a boy struggling to understand “how we deny each other, daily, so many chances to care” and how “we didn't know how to talk about loss, / so we made each other lose.” Constant throughout is the brutality of the Midwestern landscape that, like the people who inhabit it, turns out to be beautiful in its vulnerability: sedgegrass littered with plastic bags floating like ghosts, dilapidated houses with abandoned Fisher Price toys in the yard, and silos of dirt and rust under a sky that struggles to remember the ground below.

With arresting lyricism and humility, Scared Violent Like Horses attends to the insecurities that hide at the heart of what’s been turned harsh, offering a smoldering but redemptive and tender view of the lost, looked over, and forgotten.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781571315076
Publisher: Milkweed Editions
Publication date: 03/19/2019
Pages: 104
Sales rank: 604,902
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

John McCarthy is the author of one previous collection, Ghost Country , which was named a Best Poetry Book of 2016 by the Chicago Review of Books. McCarthy is the 2016 winner of The Pinch Literary Award in Poetry, and his work has appeared in Best New Poets 2015 , Hayden's Ferry Review , Passages North , Sycamore Review , Zone 3 , and in anthologies such as New Poetry from the Midwest 2017. He received an MFA in Creative Writing from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and serves as an editor of RHINO magazine and the Quiddity international literary journal and public radio program.

Read an Excerpt


This is the year of this is never over. It’s raining

and it will not stop raining. Outside Springfield,

roads move like spilled water. Silos of dirt and rust

surround the bones of barn lofts with shingles shucked

like broken stalks. Crabapple trees lose their fruit

and fall from rot into wild clover. In the straight lines

• f cut lawns—the hay-thick scent of Illinois.

Plowed hillsides pierced by stenciled signs beg me

to pray to God. The switchgrass bends to the shoulder

• f the road, pushing the wind through the gravel.

The switchgrass sways and sways. It will not stop swaying.

I'm floating away from home. I'm becoming a prayer

I never said for myself. There is smolder and silence

when my pickup truck goes quiet and smoke rises

from the engine. Parked slanted on the road's shoulder,

it takes a few tries with wet fingers to prop the hood.

A mangled cat mats the crankshaft and fan belt,

fur-shredded and soaked. He must have wanted

warmth from the storm when my truck was a box

• f rust resting crooked on my lawn, miles ago.

His black eyes are rolled back. His tongue is out

and his throat is ripped open, exposing muscle.

I never even heard his scream, piston-stretched

and hot. I want to shake him back to life,

but I feel so far away. It's raining and it will not stop

raining. Switchgrass quivers in every direction.

It's raining, and I don't have anywhere to leave.



The low song a lost boy sings remembering his mother's call.

—Brigit Pegeen Kelly

I was a lost boy with a quiet ache, so quiet it was like listening

to a spider weave a web around a cotton ball in early autumn.

The temperature dropped. The trees breathed please with their long breaths.

My throat grew raw and thick in the scratched open light of morning

when I woke nervous and cold. I found my naked feet bare

and the bed covers fallen from the bed with the fan left on.

My mother was still gone like good sleep. I’ve never had a conversation

with my mother about our lost days or anything other than how I'm cold.

She can't have a conversation because her geography is mapped

with a landscape of broken light bulbs and brown leaves and dirty snow

that is so dirty it looks like the variegated feathers of a lost boy

with lost wings. And that boy remembers his mother singing hallelujah

in church, and I remember being at church the whole time wanting

to be in the trees, hiding and feeling the trees breathing please

against my cold skin- please. All the while, my father sits

in a checkered lawn chair, even when it's cold outside, with a small radio

listening to baseball scores recount the losses of men who have lost

their whole lives swinging at a ball. That ball is sometimes a bird

that a boy reaches for as the bird edges the sky. My father rubs his hands

• n his knees and yells, and I'm yelling in the trees about missing everything

that I have lost-a song I once heard at church that goes Lady, help the absent

loved ones. How we miss their presence here. May the hand of thy protection, guide

and guard them far and near. I don't know how it goes anymore. The air is plain

like the color of my forearm, and I'm sitting in a children’s swimming pool

that has deflated to a swarming puddle of mosquitoes. It is scum-thick,

and I’m trying to sing help the absent , but I’m a lost boy who can't remember

that lost song, that can't remember how to sing his hallelujah ,

so I sit scratching the red bites on my legs until they bleed.


Until I Learn That Please Is the Color of a Bruise

Made from his hands, Chris aims a gun at me.

You’re dead , he says. But I don’t like being

the dead one, so I take off running. The chasing

lasts a long time. We snag our sleeves

• n the tops of chain-link cyclone fences

until the chasing becomes a way to see

how far we can explore. Climb and run,

climb and run, the unbraiding of back alleys

and empty lots until we end up on an acreage

• f private property with our own privacy

and no one else around. Chris corners me

under an old lean-to where a sun-damaged

cigarette boat is living out the rest of its existence

• n top of an old hitch-trailer. Here,

Chris forces me to play punch-for-punch

until I beg Please stop. Until I learn that please

is the color of a bruise, skin swollen and purple

• n the side of my throbbing arm. Everything is

swollen when it starts raining. We roll our pant legs

up and walk home through the wet grass.

My soaked shoes, as I walk, are like a feeling

knotting up inside my stomach that I can’t explain.

This is how you stay friends when you’re poor ,

Chris says. Our whole summer was like this—

when we couldn’t see that far into the future,

every day was the same. It was nice,

the way we could handle a little bit of pain

and return to it again, day after day.


Flyover Country III. [Long Day of the Factory Belt]

And what of my father who lost his father at nine?

Everyday after he threw a baseball at a church wall

across the street from the only apartment he ever knew,

playing basketball on the sloped hill of a parking lot

with other lost kids on the north end, until he moved in

with my mother in the only place she ever knew,

and together, the two of them compared the only geographies

they believed in.

When he thinks of this, his face reminds me of a barn’s haymow

rotting away, insulated with owl nests

and mice skulls. This was his descent

into the incinerating pleasure of normalcy-

work and bars, work and bars-long days of the factory belt hangover.

How many days has he risen and questioned

the different versions of himself pinned to clotheslines

where the wind flattened, smoothed, and beat

• ut the wrinkles? I believe it was hard for him to reach into a closet

too small to contain the dreams that went missing

and pull out a routinely painful, uniformed version

• f himself, like removing an arm from a bush,

finding it scratched by thistle and covered in cockleburs he pretends

don’t hurt. When I look into the landscape behind his eyes,

I believe it was too much for him to sludge everyday

through the sedgegrass shadowed

with sycamores and elms, where littered white plastic bags

floated through like ghosts,

snagging on felled branches-yes, his eyes grew to look like this.

It took me a long time to accept this,

but his wife is asleep in a bed that is falling into the ground,

and I will never understand his fear. Compassion

is awareness of the ineffability of another’s fear—its different shades,

and there is honor in the weathered crumpling of his face.


Scared Violent Like Horses

I was too young to call him a friend, but I had a classmate once who snuck up

behind a horse and now his body is made of a long time ago.

He is the quiet space in my memory where he never sat next to me again.

Back then, everyone I ever called a friend held fire in their fists

when they talked to me. Their fists were dingy, grime-covered, and grease-slick

as if they were made of horsehair, as if they were untamed and lonely,

galloping and wind-swollen. We didn't know how to talk about loss,

so we made each other lose. We went to fields to see

who could take the most damage. We went to fields that smelled like the boy

who became an empty space on a Tuesday morning a long time ago.

Now, because I am scared of time and how it moves, I look down at my fists

that didn't always want to, but have hit so many friends

that the broken knuckles look like bruised magnolias. Listen to me, Please ,

when I knock or bang on the table or door and beg for attention.

Please, I don't know how to ask for forgiveness. I don't know how

to let anything go. I don't know how to say anything else

about the boy who had a buzz cut and a flat head, the boy who was kicked in the face

by a horse and died looking up at the sky. The boy’s father must have

found his son with a crushed face, and while running back to the house

with his own son in his arms, must have said something raging

and spiteful to God. This memory is my starting point when I think backwards

and apologize for all of our fists coiled tight as key rings. How could we not

break the mirror we look at in the morning? How could we not swing

at the different versions of our faces staring back between

the fissures? The hurt and mangled parts of us loved the blood dried brown

• n our skewbald knuckles, and we had nightmares of being reined in.

We needed someone to help us change. We needed someone to force us

into confronting the uselessness of our violence.

But no one came, and our fists swelled unbridled and restless, wild and afraid.

Table of Contents





Pie Tins behind Porch Lights

Portrait of the Only Child with Tire Swing

Self-Portrait as Stolen Bike

North End I

As If the Shirt Were Standing up Straight, Hand Raised


Word Problem


Noise Falling Backward

North End II


Self-Portrait as Home Run Ball

The Scarecrow’s Reflection Is an Only Child


Little Ticks of Blood and the Taste of Dead Leaves

Until I Learn That Please Is the Color of a Bruise

North End III



Flyover Country

I. [If You Stay Long Enough]

II. [Of Motherhood, a Fierce Drowning]

III. [Long Day of the Factory Belt]

IV. [The Taste of Copper]

V. [To Sever Anything]

VI. [To Riven Stillness]

VII. [Renders and Yields]


Scared Violent Like Horses

The Decapitation of Paul Bunyan

Thin Napkins Sprinkled with Salt

North End IV

Last Rites

Self-Portrait as Psychiatric Ward

Definitions of Body

Our Mother Stolen in a Pothole

North End V




North End VI

What I Mean When I Say I Don't Box Anymore

A Brief History of Friends

On Fighting

Love is Like a Horse Set on Fire from the Inside

Wild Vision of What Is Real

Sometimes I Call the Damage Healing

And Other Acts of Mercy

Upon Learning That Years Later the World Did Not End,
I Was Finally Able to Talk about the Wild Horses

Guide and Guard Us Far and Near



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