Henry Real Bird is our finest poet of the Montana native experience. The poems collected in "Horse Tracks" trace his encounters with the natural world and offer his readers a means to inhabit Real Bird's extraordinary life and insights.
Real Bird is at his strongest when he offers plain expressions that subtly understate powerful experiences. Here, for instance, are the first lines of "A Cottonwood Leaf":
"To see the firstborn / Of a longhorn heifer with one horn / As she gives her protection / Is a feeling of great satisfaction."
Equally satisfying are these plainspoken lines from "Fat on Ribs": "The tough winter weather will not leave, / The sun will not come out, / And I am out of hay."
Henry Real Bird is no stranger to hardship. He was born and raised on the Crow Reservation, and he currently earns his living breeding bucking horses on Yellow Leggings Creek in the Wolf Teeth Mountains. Hardship and its complement, resilience, are a recurring theme of "Horse Tracks." Those who know that geese mate for life will immediately understand the significance of the wonderfully titled "Odd Numbered Geese." In this meditation on loss he writes: "My soul has gone east / To leave me sleepless. / The death of a feeling, / In the sunlight through the teepee's neck / The fine dust ascends gently."
But Real Bird does not dwell for long on the pain of loss. He is more interested, finally, in the redeeming theme of love. The poem "Night and Day" expresses how pain may work as an affirmation of love, particularly in the context of traditional rituals:
She taught me to talk in prayer, in Sun Dance,
To be connected with Mother Earth
To love again in rebirth.
I bit the sagebrush
As the eagle claw pierced into my chest
Beyond the pain, prayers mixed with tears.
Montana readers will be especially drawn to the love Real Bird shows for the landscapes with which they are familiar. This poet has clearly spent the better, and probably the best, part of his life in the saddle. His affection for the last best place is strong and infectious. In "Short Canyon," he describes a winter ride up Yellow Leggins Creek to check on his horses: "Today I hear the snow that squeaks / From under my horse's feet, / Strong haze among the peaks / Of the mighty cold Wolf Teeth."
In "Red Scarf" Real Bird invites us to a fresh vision of a familiar part of our world:
Redtail hawk blessed me with his shadow,
Clouds peak to my south,
Granite to the west,
Sheep Mountains and the Pryors
Look their best
Grass full grown.
Henry Real Bird understands one of the fundamental duties of the poet: to compel us to observe our world and our lives closely, lest we commit the tragedy of taking them for granted. In "Vision," the final poem of "Horse Tracks," he laments "a life where people hide / From themselves in thick underbrush, / In the shadows of their hearts." Real Bird, in his final lines, makes a declaration to which it is very much worth listening: "I want nothing to cling to your heart / As you go riding in life. / That is what I have asked for you."
Stephen Germic teaches writing and literature at Rocky Mountain College.