Cataclysms on tap, we’re hanging around to behold
This one-horse town transfigured to metropolis;
Where once hoofed stock stood stunted, shaggy, and scrofulous,
Out of the clouds: Four Ponies of the Apocalypse.
White, red, and black — the colors as foretold,
But riderless now, so skeptics mutter hidden,
“That bow’s not from an archer, it’s a ribbon”;
The spectral scythe’s supplanted by a tractor;
And as for “pale,” Greek khloros “greenish” hardly
Suits this Resurrection reenactor —
No sword, no scales, no visible hand to parley
One damn denarius’ worth of wheat or barley.
Souls straddle the fence; the heathen are not rioting;
The crack of doom is covered up with plaster;
Pestilence is horseflies, Famine dieting;
And War is a warhorse sung by a chorale —
A warm-up act while, waiting for the rapture,
The lesser quadriga is trotting around the corral,
And Revelation, the horse, put out to pasture.
NOTES for Students of English
“The Four Ponies of the Apocalypse” echoes the details of a famous Bible episode known as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” found in the last book of the New Testament, Revelation 6:1-8:
1. The 1st rider, on a white horse, has an archer’s bow and is sometimes interpreted as symbolizing Pestilence;
2. The 2nd rider, on a red horse, has a sword and a crown, and is sometimes interpreted as a symbol of War;
3. The 3rd rider, on a black horse, holds a pair of weighing scales and is interpreted as representing Famine.
4. The 4th rider, named Death, is on a pale horse and is commonly depicted carrying a scythe like the Grim Reaper.
On tap – Available, on hand; originally and usually refers to beer ready to be drawn from a keg.
“Hanging around to behold” – “To hang around” is colloquial, very informal; “to behold” is lofty with an archaic flavor; the combination of the two sharply contrasting style levels in one sentence is typical of Hertz’s poetry.
One-horse town – Here the adjective “one-horse” figuratively means contemptibly small and insignificant.
Hoofed stock – Animals with hoofs; here, horses and cattle.
“That bow’s not from an archer, it’s a ribbon.” – A play on two meanings of “bow” (rhymes with “go”): 1) the arc-shaped weapon used with arrows; and 2) a decorative knot made of ribbon.
Greek khloros “greenish” – The color of the 4th horse, sometimes translated as “pale,” is khloros in the original Greek. It means “greenish” and is the root of the English word “chlorophyll.”
“No visible hand to parley” – To parley means to negotiate, to dicker; but how can a hand talk? Here, “hand” is a play on two meanings: 1) the invisible hand of the absent rider who would be holding a sword or a pair of scales; and 2) a person who does manual labor or general tasks on a ranch or farm.
“One damn denarius worth of wheat or barley.” – According to Revelation 6:5-6, at the appearance of the 3rd rider on a black horse (Famine), a voice is heard saying how much wheat and barley can be bought for one denarius, an ancient Roman coin.
“The heathen are not rioting” – An echo of Psalm 2:1 of the King James Bible which begins: “Why do the heathen rage?”
The Crack of Doom – A play on words: 1) The Crack of Doom, usually capitalized, is a set phrase meaning the moment when the Heavens open on the Christian Day of Judgement at the end of the world; “crack” means a loud noise as of something breaking, as in “a crack of thunder”; 2) Here, “crack” — not capitalized — means a physical crevice or fissure, as in a wall.
Warhorse – A play on two meanings: 1) a horse used in combat; and 2) music that is played so often that it has become trite.
Chorale – (Pronounced ka-RAL, rhymes with “pal.”) Here, a chorus or choir. It is pronounced just like “corral” – a fenced-in yard for horses.
Warm-up act – A short preliminary musical performance or comedy act that precedes the main event at a concert.
The rapture – An allusion to the belief held by some Christians in The Rapture (usually capitalized), an event associated with the end of the world during which all living true believers will be taken from the earth by God into heaven.
Quadriga – (Pronounced kwa-DREE-ga) From Roman antiquity, four horses abreast that draw a chariot.