By Terese Karmel
He may have been cocky and charismatic, but to Norah Pollard her father was even more than that: John “Red” Pollard was a superhero.
Yet it wasn’t the presence of the jockey of Seabiscuit that led to her reverence; it was his absence.
“When you don’t see them that much, they become sort of mythic,” said Pollard of parents who spend long periods away from their families. “You’re awestruck when they do come home.”
For most of the year the Pollard family’s “home” was Pawtucket, R.I., in the shadow of Narragansett Park, the racetrack where Red Pollard spent much of his 30-year career.
If Norah Pollard, who now lives in Stratford, Conn., didn’t see that much of her father when she was a child, he now occupies her adult life in her poetry.
Her first volume, Leaning In (2003, Antrim House), is infused with poems about Red Pollard. Among them is the poignant “Narragansett Dark,” in which her father is lying in a nursing home built on the site of the former racetrack.
He did not know where he was/so the irony was lost to him, she wrote. But there’s magic as the poem unfolds. In his dreams, the old jockey hears the horses’ soft nickering and blowing, the thin/rustle of silks, the creak/of saddle and the tick/of hoof on stone. He rises and finds a bay horse…waiting for him…with an empty saddle. The poem concludes with an image of the pair riding under the moon…into fields of night.
A poem from Report from the Banana Hospital (2005), recalls the 1969 fire at Rhode Island’s Lincoln Downs Race Track that took the lives of 39 horses. Pollard includes the horses’ names (Count Jopa, Royal Wista, Isher, Skylot), some that make it to the highway, meteor horses in the dark racing death. Others in their panic, wheel and spin/thunder back to their stalls/home to them. And then we see the jockey: This is the night I see my father weak/standing alone in the dark lot far off by the pine/weeping nakedly, his thin arms by his side/his shoulders hunched and shaking.
These gentle reminiscences characterize Pollard’s poetry, which is also dominated by the natural world, the highs and lows of her own lifetime (she was afflicted with clinical depression for years), and reflections on her family as well as their wild adventures.
Her father introduced her to poetry, and she still has the beat-up paperback, The Pocket Book of Verse of Great English and American Poems, which was always with him.
Norah Pollard, who will be 70 in May, didn’t start writing poetry until the 1980s when a friend invited her to a party of writers and encouraged her to bring something to read. Their reaction to a few lines she had jotted down years earlier launched her new career. She recently retired as an executive assistant at a Bridgeport steel factory after a history of assorted jobs.
Pollard said her father had a “wonderful sense of humor” but also had a “hair-trigger temper and at times could be a wild man just like Seabiscuit.
“He never thought he was a hero,” she said. “He was not one to beat his own breast.”
In her signature poem, “Red Rider, Red Rider,” she speaks of his fleeting presence in her life: You hardly were around, quick star/dark storm racing lightning circuits of the track/ but when you came home, you…took up the moon’s room in my night/and days, you shouted down the sun.
Red Pollard died in 1981 at age 72, a permanent presence in at least one life, according to his daughter. “There never was that extreme connection with any other horse,” she said of her father and Seabiscuit. “And that horse only made a connection with my father.”