This was supposed to be a soliloquy
about Bertran de Born, a troubadour from
the 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 and 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 did not 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 Shakespearean
though after some more thought
another idea struck at two in the morning
flipping through the Berkeley edition from
Paden Sankovitch and Stӓblein, this squat
burgundy hardcover with horizontal pages
like the picture books your teachers read
while you sat crisscross on the carpet floor.
I thought of stuffy Georgian satirists
Ambrose Philips, Samuel Johnson, Pope
aristocratic wit that essays only what
pleases it, contemplates in heroic couplets
pretentious and slavish to Horace.
de Born would give a lengthy tract
moralizing in fine-tuned pentameters.
Merit would be his muse, her sisters Honor
and Goodness would grope men’s egos.
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 oaths on abbey missals
in your dreams, drumming on the field
in bloodied boots and otherwise silent
no one claps afterwards they just linger
dazed or mechanical, and big pupiled
inhaling the fetor of swollen unburied corpses
tossed in the water supply of a castle 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 but out of order
their contours never fitting together
only suggesting the wholeness of a jar.
But even the planhs aren’t that grim.
He mourns but he also canonizes Rassa
with Alexander and Arthur, with Roland
Oliver and all the heroes of Roncevaux.
That’s how you keep invitations to court
coming, and get your sons knighted at Le Puy.
But maybe I’d gotten this all wrong.
Near the end of his work we’re told
by the editors de Born becomes a monk
trades his panoply for a cilice and prayer beads
is humbled and self-satisfied with how patient
God has been with him all these years.
With great leaf-turning-over verse
his song absolves him of past indiscretions
which is what finally led me to what
this poem ended up being—a parody.
At last de Born seemed like the Arthur
not of Mallory but Monty, singing
the simulacra of a song that goes like this
in 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 and head
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.