Agnus Dei

I carried the lamb in a sack on my horse
the tongue hanging grey and limp.
It’s buggered, said Dad, throw it in the creek.
The creek leaped, dimpled. Small bubbles
whirled, it rumpled where I was looking
the water shadowed half-blue-black

deep just there with duckweed floating out
the yards behind all noise, the cattle swirling
up air swelled with dust and bellowing.
Flies lighted on and off the rails.
I took the lamb and kneeled in the pudgy mud
both hands under it, under the water,

laid it carefully into the shocked cold.
It hardly struggled, there was so little left.
Put the bloody thing out of its misery
I heard in my head as I pushed it under
and the water shuddered.
Get the hell out of that he yelled at my back

you macabre little bastard!
It might have been ghoulish, he was good with words.
The yards were sweating hot
Dad wiped his hatband, the sack smelling
of dry stiff flax, I wiped my nose
my hand all mud and numb.

The birds hummed. In rain, in wind
I go out all hours on my lambing beat
he’s the shadow of me, always riding beside me.
Let it go he said, quietly. I let it go floating
it bobbed and the sun caught the eye, closing.
Shush, shush, said the creek.

Marty Smith grew up on a sheep and cattle farm in rough hill country, the only kind of farm a returned serviceman could afford. Mostly too steep for machines, the work was done with horses. Her first poetry collection, Horse with Hat, looks at what the war did to her father and what fell out of it. It also looks at the long relationship between men and horses. ‘Agnus Dei’ was short-listed for the 2014 Bridport Prize (UK) and was a place-getter in the 2014 Joy Harjo Poetry Award (US). Horse with Hat won the Jesse Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry in the New Zealand Post Book Awards 2014 and at the same awards was a finalist in the poetry category. Smith has been awarded an arts grant to work on her next book, an exploration of the racing world through the people who work there and their sinewy speech.

Smith comments: ‘In tough conditions, you have to grow a skin between yourself and the things you have to look at; the child in this poem is still learning how.  There was no sheltering from injury and death. We rode past corpses and looked at their blowing up and going down each day.

‘The poem came from experimenting with tiny details for an exercise set by Margaret Ross, my tutor for the International Writers Program at Iowa University. The duckweed floated up from random memory, stuck there. It seems shocking to us now, to throw something into the creek, but in the fifties it was what people did. It was part of a duty not to let animals suffer.

‘Some poems in Horse with Hat have echo lines, as an invitation to read the poems together. “Put the bloody thing out of its misery” is an echo line from “Emphysema for Aunty Gwen”. My father and his sister Gwen didn’t want doctors to “jack them up” if they were terminally ill; they wanted someone to shoot them and be done with it.

‘“Agnus Dei” talks to other poems about faith to suggest that the soldiers who signed up in innocence were sacrificial lambs, in the biblical sense. It also hints at the unspoken: that they may have used their service pistols to help a mortally wounded fellow being out of his misery.’

Jeff Boyle, of the band Jakob, recorded the audio of ‘Agnus Dei’ and Maude Morris made the sounds, loops and the unsettling birdsong.

Poem source details >



‘Emphysema for Aunty Gwen in Best New Zealand Poems 2011
Marty Smith's New Zealand Book Council page
Victoria University Press author page
‘Hat’ in Best New Zealand Poems 2009
Marty Smith in the International Institute of Modern Letters’ graduate showcase