As National Poetry Month draws to a close and the Kentucky Derby approaches, I dedicate this post to poet Frank X Walker and his book of persona poems on Isaac Murphy, Isaac Murphy: I Dedicate this Ride. Murphy descended from slaves and rose to prominence as a jockey, winning the Kentucky Derby three times. The title poem of Walker’s collection and reprinted on the Affrilachia website offers a sense of the rich interior life Walker imagines for Murphy:
I Dedicate This Ride
When I come barreling down the stretch,
I always think about my daddy, James Burns,
a runaway slave turned soldier.
At the start of every race I pretend
he’s in the crowd, standing at attention,
watching me ride for the first time,
his brass belt buckle gleaming
like his proud mouth.
I tell myself I don’t dare lose
that this race is for the Union,
for all ex-slaves who joined up,
who stole away with their families.
They taught us about sacrifice,
dug trenches, carried supplies
and ate a whole lot of rebel bullets
just so they could keep the freedom
they hungered so much for.
Just so their children could dream.
So I could ride horses and enjoy true quiet
and these visits with him
in the middle of all this noise.
I’ve written about Murphy before and reflected on his final resting place at the Kentucky Horse Park. I’d still be curious to know what you think about his fate, as Walker would have it, as a “ghost lawn jockey.”