Reading in The Horse Latitudes
Authors Can’t Stop Naming Their Books after Random Geographical Area
It all started in 2016, when someone gave me Matthew Robinson’s book of short stories, The Horse Latitudes. Some weeks later, in a bookstore, I saw a collection of poetry by Paul Muldoon called Horse Latitudes. Huh, that’s a funny coincidence, I thought, and bought it. The two books sat on my shelf together for a year or so, until I got an email from Dzanc about a forthcoming novel by Morris Collins, Horse Latitudes.
Wow, I thought, how many books are called that? And can I write a group review of them?
A lot, I learned after some investigation, and yes, you’re reading it right now. After multiple pitches, I finally found an editor who was as amused about this idea as I was. Unfortunately, he did more research than I did and discovered an absolute mass of Horse Latitudes books, all of which I then felt obligated to read. He tried to stop me, but I’m a completist, which is why I don’t play video games anymore, and why I read twelve books with the phrase “Horse Latitudes” in the title. Twelve. This isn’t even all of them! Others were out of print or cost too much.
If you’re baffled by the phrase: the horse latitudes are natural areas of calm in the ocean, mostly around Central and South America. Places where the winds die down and leave sail-powered boats shit out of luck, to use a sailor’s phrase. When trapped in calm seas, old-timey cargo ships would, depending on who’s telling the tale, drop their horses overboard (to save on food and water) or just eat the horses (to save slightly more on food). There’s also an explanation involving effigies, but it’s less frequently cited.
Safe to say, writers really like this metaphor.
I ordered the list below based on my enjoyment, which is utterly subjective, but which I hope will boost sales for Collins and Muldoon, at least. Not every book below has a direct relationship to the literal meaning of the phrase, and that’s part of how I evaluated them. Which one is right for you? You could find out, via the giveaway I’m running (see below). But first, read on.
1. Horse Latitudes (2019), Morris Collins.
This highly interior novel, told along several chronologies, follows a man who faces a series of moral failures. That sounds tedious, but the writing is that kind where you feel like every word was placed by the writing gods rather than a fallible human. It takes a while to attach to this book, but if you can, the result is quite a meaningful reading experience. This was the last one I read, and I was sick to death of Horse Latitudes books by then, and I still loved the book.
Title relevance: 3/5. Takes place in Central America. Main character definitely stagnant. Does not include seafaring.
Quote: “In such situations, in such climes, with the sea becalmed and water running out, they’d toss their horses overboard. Take stock. It’s time to abandon what you can live without.”
2. Horse Latitudes (2006), Paul Muldoon.
I’d read a lot of mediocre or terrible poetry at the time I opened this, so after just a few pages, my mouth was ajar. “This is what poetry is for,” I thought to myself. Muldoon dances with language and poetic forms intriguingly and expertly. I don’t know what he meant most of the time, but I don’t care.
Title Relevance: 4/5. There’s a suite of eponymously-titled poems that relates both to horses thrown out of a boat and to the geographical location. Plus, the poem “Alba” occupies itself with both issues.
Quote: “Where we once had made good weather / was now a region of calms… despite Carlotta’s jettisoning his six mares / in an effort to break the deadlock.”
3. The Horse Latitudes (2016), Matthew Robinson.
I can’t tell if these are short stories or memoir, but I think they deliberately blend the two forms. Robinson is an Iraq vet, and these connected stories are about his experiences there. Thus, they’re pretty dark, but they’re also extremely well-written.
Title Relevance: 3/5. Takes its name from one of the stories, where one of the grunts explains the concept to the other. It’s a metaphor for the Iraq engagement, probably, but also an example of what men do when they’re desperate.
Quote: “Son, you’re in the Cavalry, it is not nothing—horses are not for eating. What the fuck is wrong with you?”
4. The Egghead Republic: A Short Novel from the Horse Latitudes (1957), Arno Schmidt.
This is a deeply weird, out-of-print German experimental novel. It concerns itself with dividing walls, radiation, and juvenile sexual frolicking in about equal parts. A possibly unintended commentary on what was happening in Germany post-war, but also a deliberate commentary on punctuation. It’s sexist and racist and totally daffy and pretty wonderful.
Title Relevance: 4/5. The novel takes place aboard a jet-propelled island that can only safely inhabit the horse latitudes because the water is calm there. No actual horses are at risk.
Quote: “And upon renewed stroking and whispering: they snorted in exasperation (must also have been inhibited by their ridiculously thick gonads: half horse, half human: horse latitudes!)”
5. In and Out of the Horse Latitudes (2018), Mary Imo-Stike.
These poems essentially narrate the life of a Baby Boomer from early childhood to the present moment. Though good, these poems could easily be prose. No poem that doesn’t need to be a poem should be one. Imo-Stike’s poems show poorly compared to Muldoon’s work, for instance. But the poet is skilled at compressing a story to its essentials, and her heart is clearly in her work.
Title Relevance: 1/5. Metaphor only, one poem.
Quote: “In an upstairs apartment one block from the Goodwill / we entered the horse latitudes of our time together: / no work, no car, burned bridges between here and our last state.”
6. The Horse Latitudes (1990), Robert Ferrigno.
The author has since written many more thrillers, and I sincerely hope they’re better than this one. It’s a silly book, unnecessarily gory and clichéd. A villain actually says he’s surrounded by incompetence. But I’m ranking it in the middle of this list because I had plenty of fun reading it.
Title Relevance: 0/5. Nothing. Seriously.
Quote: “McVey planted his foot in the center of Michael’s back and drove him down. ‘We’re not so different, you and I,’ he said to Danny.”
7. Lost in the Horse Latitudes (1946), H. Allen Smith.
This book was a big hit in its time, because Smith had the kind of fame particular to the 1940s: forgotten today, but prominent, and even important, during the war. (Other victims of this kind of fame are Bing Crosby, Alan Ladd, and an entire roster of radio stars.) Smith’s style as a humorist resembles Dave Barry’s, which is a compliment. Some of his inherent humor is still funny, but this book relies upon anecdote rather than analysis, so most of it is hopelessly dated and even irritating.
Title Relevance: 1/5. Only a metaphor, but a fully explained one.
Quote: “I was simply restless—wandering in the horse latitudes. …The dead calms and light, baffling winds of that summer led to a lot of aimless wandering.”
8. Letters from the Horse Latitudes (1994), C.W. Smith.
These are reasonably good stories about a male Boomer struggling with Life Stuff and, often, remembering how pretty the girls were in his youth. I found them dull and self-centered, but executed with skill. Like Updike’s “A&P,” which any writing teacher will tell you is useful to students but no longer something to read for pleasure. Recommended for people who are not tired of this kind of story.
Title Relevance: 2/5. There’s not a lot here about stagnation or seafaring.
Quote: “She was free to get lost in all that space in the West, drift rudderless and without an internal compass into her own Horse Latitudes.”
9. Horse Latitudes (2000), Jay Merrick.
Like Jude the Obscure crossed with The Island of Dr. Moreau. That is, profoundly boring, with an unnecessary science fiction frame. I kept waiting for this book to get good, and it never did. I’m sorry, Jay, if you’re out there, but your old-fashioned colonial told-to narrative had minimal oomph, and blending it with a futuristic setting just didn’t work. I hope, and suspect, your later books were better.
Title Relevance: 5/5! In it, on a boat trapped in calm waters in the relevant latitudes, a character kills a horse out of fear for his water rations.
Quote: “I said, ‘I have nothing against detours.’ At this, Freyn delivered an instant riposte. ‘Precisely,’ he said vehemently. ‘Precisely. This whole story is about detours.’”
10. Looking for the Horse Latitudes (2007), Miguel Gonzalez-Gerth.
It’s a bilingual collection, which is nice in terms of the time it takes to read, but it’s not very good. Poems like Gonzalez-Gerth’s are lost on me; they bear a kind of assumed gravitas that I feel the poet doesn’t earn with his mundane language. The poet seems to love God and pussy equally, and guiltily.
Title Relevance :0/5. I don’t know if the poet didn’t understand the metaphor, or what, but even the eponymous poem has little to do with calm seas, stagnation, or horses.
Quote: “Here lies the telltale vacancy, / the vacant compass.”
11. Horse Latitudes (2018), Stephanie Colburn.
Oh, I do not like assessing this book. It’s self-published, and the poems in it are heartfelt and clear-eyed. I appreciate the poet for doing creative work, day after day. But I cannot say she writes good poetry.
Title Relevance: 2/5. The sections are arranged by latitude, but none of them are located in the horse latitudes. One poem relates, but it’s metaphorical.
Quote: “I could tell you I’m suffering from a bout / of horse latitudes but would you have any / idea what I’m talking about?”
12. Horse Latitudes (2003), Robert Dunn.
Also self-published. I shouted and moaned aloud while reading this, it was so bad. It ruins sonnets, villanelles, and sestinas alike, and is cringingly terrible at every attempted mood. A precocious child who likes 1950s sitcoms and joke books will enjoy this, but I cannot think of another audience anywhere, ever, who will. If you want a taste, read “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” one of the grandest terrible poems of all time. Read it aloud. Trust me.
Title Relevance: 1/5. There’s one poem and an illustration, but that’s it.
Quote: “Whenever you find yourself becalmed in the Horse Latitudes / It simply doesn’t pay to cop an attitude.”
Would you like the opportunity to read all of these books, or to foist reading them on someone else? Of course you would! Between now and the end of February, if you sign up for my newsletter, I’ll enter you into a random drawing to win all twelve of the books I read and summarized above, shipped directly to you. Yes! I bought them all and now I want to give them away. Desperately. A runner-up will win a literary tote bag from my large collection of them, gathered from membership drives and long-lost writers’ conferences. Please enter. I have to get rid of this stuff.
See you in the horse latitudes.
10 thoughts on “Reading in The Horse Latitudes”
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Please re-read “A&P” for fun. !! You’re missing something if you think it is just a teacher’s tool. Makes me doubt all of your assessments.
Good post. The first time I ever heard of “Horse Latitudes” was the Jim Morrison poem. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bn4U4MMs2eM
Not my favorite thing, but at least the subject fits the title.
Great article! As a horse lover, with horses members of my family, I cringed at the books that included literal interpretations of the title. 🙁 As a writer (traditionally published) I empathized with authors trying to come up with a catchy, although not always, original title.
I admire your vision, chutzpah and tenacity in seeing this project through.
When I hear the words “horse latitudes”, I think of the 1967 track by the Doors (and I wager more than one of your authors does too).
“Horse Latitudes” is the fifth song from The Doors second album, Strange Days. The song is a spoken word piece by Jim Morrison with the band providing incoherent noises as a backdrop. Morrison speaks the lyrics, telling of a ship at sea forced to jettison the onboard horses to lighten its load. The words are taken from one of the first poems Jim Morrison wrote, inspired by a book cover he saw at a local bookstore as a child.
This is super reading, but you aren’t done yet. Here is Alamgir Hashmi in The Manchester Review, 19:
Quote: ” But how do you know where you live, / he says, West Doldrums? Horse Latitudes?”
(from Hashmi’s poem “Conversation”)
How did you pass up the opportunity to call this “Horse Platitudes”?
I signed up for your newsletter as I absolutely want to read the H Allen Smith book. I have an issue with your date though: this may be the publication of the copy you have, but the book was published before. My grandpa read it on July 26th 1945 and wrote about it in a letter home from the war. So your dates maybe are not right? Good article. Robinson’s book is of course the best.
1) I am aware of the Morrison song, and I sincerely wish I’d mentioned it in the article, because many helpful people have pointed it out to me.
2) Barbara C., you would like C.W. Smith’s book.
3) L. Colfax, I think you would enjoy this Metafilter thread: https://www.metafilter.com/179062/horse-latitudes-horse-latitudes-horse-latitudes
4) Cassondra, I’m sorry for the oversight. My copy of the book is a reprint by Blakiston, “by special arrangement with Doubleday & Company,” and the copyright is “1941, 1943, 1944,” which means to me that some of the essays were published prior to the book publication, not that the book was published in toto prior to 1946. Clearly I was mistaken. I’m glad you have such detailed letters from your grandfather during the war; they must be treasures.
Thanks, Katharine, for reading all these books and taking the time to assess them. Are you any closer to understanding WHY so many books choose to use the same phrase??
I look forward to meeting you in Iceland in April ! Deirdre (Dee) Dwyer from Nova Scotia