This was supposed to be a soliloquy
about Bertran de Born, a troubadour from
twelfth century Limousin. I wanted to start
with his line about springtime pleasing him.
I wanted you to hear de Born like he was
Richard III or Coriolanus begrudging an aside,
bloviating on all the pornographies of war—
beautiful buckram, helmets and hauberks,
waving gonfalons, brains greasing clubheads.
Bertran was loyal to warfare the way a knife
submits to the whetstone that sharpens it,
said he was so damn tough the shreds of war
clung to him, said a man who didn’t tire of war
was worth more than a falconer on the riverbank
whatever that means. It pleased him when scouts
put herds of peasants and goats to flight.
Peace was anathema. It softened landlords,
made them idle and fond of hosting tourneys
whose pomp and pageantry the baron despised.
His villainy seemed positively Shakespearean,
though after more thought another idea struck
flipping through the Berkeley edition from
Paden Sankovitch and Stӓblein, this squat
burgundy hardcover with horizontal pages
like the picture books your teacher reads
as you sit crisscross on the carpet floor.
I imagined those stuffy Georgian satirists,
Ambrose Philips, Samuel Johnson, Pope,
aristocratic wit that assays and
contemplates in heroic couplets,
that worships at the altar of Horace.
de Born would give a lengthy tract
moralizing in fine-tuned pentameters.
Merit would be his maiden and muse
her sisters Goodness and Chastity.
He would tell Papiol to hasten his words
so the Angevins would learn courage
was not to parlay when armed afield,
and a man cleaved in half to his breeches
was a wonderful thing to witness.
Then I imagined him as one of Browning’s
the way Fra Lippo Lippi, poor brother Lippo,
says you’ve caught him at the end of an alley
where the women leave their doors ajar.
He’s put you on the spot, made you complicit,
even has you falling in love with warfare
and swearing in oaths on abbey missals,
in your dreams drumming on fields
in bloodied boots and altogether silent,
no one claps afterwards they just linger
big pupiled, dazed or mechanical, inhaling
the fetor of swollen unburied corpses
clogging the waterways of a chateau besieged
by petraries and burning French countryside.
How prophetic it all seemed, like Eliot
whose Tiresias with wrinkled dugs had foreseen
the sterility of springtime, of gardens planted
year after year with handfuls of dust
that gave nothing back, only history and fear.
The burgundy book suddenly fragmented,
each poem become like a shard of pottery
neatly arranged on the table but out of order,
only suggesting the wholeness of a jar.—
But even the planhs aren’t that grim.
He mourns but he immortalizes Rassa
among Alexander and Arthur, among
Roland Oliver and the heroes of Roncevaux.
That’s how you keep invitations to court coming.
That’s how you get your sons knighted at Le Puy.
I thought perhaps I’d gotten this all wrong.
The last third of the book we’re told
by the editors de Born becomes a monk,
trades his panoply for cilice and prayer beads,
is humbled by God’s patience with him.
With great leaf-turning-over verse
he absolves himself of past indiscretions
which is what made me think of Arthur
not Mallory’s but Monty’s, an Arthur singing
the simulacrum of a song that goes like this
from the Tony Award-winning Spamalot.
A song that knows we’ve heard it all before.
That’s the trouble, it just goes on and on.
The only thing you can do is have fun with it—
like the scene where Arthur fights the Black Knight.
I like imagining Bertran de Born amputated
down to his bloodied torso, his limbless body
jumping up and down like a coiled spring,
his sense of bravery refreshingly undiminished,
barking with pride, tis but a flesh wound.
That’s how the Cistercian monk pleases me.