Young Montaigne goes Riding


Que scais-je?

I wake up to the sound of music played
on pipes or strings ? my father’s whim, not mine.
He believes my tender brain might bruise
if I wake too suddenly. Saturnine
cows orbit his estate and confuse
themselves with a grove’s piebald shade.

It’s early. Bullish nostrils quivering steam.
Dew-shuddering trees and a clatter of stallions.
Stuttering chickens peck and servants scrub
floors, an armada of grey galleons
scouring shallows. One of them, a snub-
nosed woman, I recall – that is, I seem

to recall, for I have no memory to speak
of, only curiosity – comes from the same
village on my father’s estate where I
was put out to nurse. I greet her by name.
Mornings like these, before the sun gets high,
I like to ride: I prefer the oblique

paths which wander and meander to the one
which goes straight to the truth. Mist rises
from the fields, all patchwork, like our deeds,
and we ride. How one exercises
one’s judgement choosing a suitable steed
is a question worthy of a theologian:

do we judge a horse racing, walking or at rest
in the stable? And how do we judge a king:
upon the throne of state, or on that private
throne, his private estate? I read the steaming
dollops falling from the jouncing nates
of my companion’s horse as I would a text

of some thousands of words, theorising
on the consistency of excrement
and what it tells us of the teeth, the heart,
the firmness of the gut and the contentment
and the clearness of a conscience. The fart
is a different matter: a vapid, rank uprising

disproving the obedience of the anus
as it is discussed in Vives’ commentary
on Augustine’s man who synchronised
his farts to the steady alimentary
metre of verses his friends devised.
Usually it is most unruly and mutinous –

much like our current form of government.
I am fortunate to be born in depraved times:
for very little effort I am thought
virtuous; abstaining from the crimes
which are the weapons of that war fought
here, in the hub of civil discontent,

allows me idle hours, time which breeds
chimeras and grotesque things. Variety
alone satisfies me. We pass a field
of sheaves of wheat whispering like a society
of academicians. Weighed down by their yield
they learn humility and lower their heads,

but in the next field ears of wheat rise high
and lofty, heads erect and proud as they
are empty. What do I know? That I can’t bear
being shut up in a room, that children play
with knucklebones, men with words, and where,
before they enter our lives, diseases lie

is a mystery? Silent veins of smoke
thread the air. Over the fields a clump
of houses appears, bristling with sound: notes
from a strident rooster, the mill’s slow thump.
This is the village where children suckle on goats
and the poor hide their diseases with a cloak

of gentle words which relieve the pain and soften
their harshness. What would we do without names?
Worldly troubles are mostly grammatical
and we have taught our ladies’ cheeks to flame
at the mere mention of what they are not at all
afraid to do. Sometimes in daylight. And often.

I could ride for hours: pacing does not tire
me as much as a set journey which forces
me straight ahead instead of the roads which chance
throws up. I think my ideas are like horses.
Sometimes they follow each other at a distance;
at others they glance sidelong at each other.

The path declines and we descend and muddy
hooves spatter our caparisons.
To what could I liken this river? A moulting
snake? What matter our comparisons
when this river, like a civil war, is revolting
against itself, eroding its banks? I study

the surface, shedding scales of light; beneath,
on the river-bed the wind?s shadow furrows
its skin like a plough. I study everything:
what I must flee and that which I must follow,
although since my earliest days nothing
has occupied my mind more than death,

but I’ve never gnawed my nails over Aristotle.
Once, as I stood on the headland of my brother,
the Sieur d’Asac’s lands in M?doc, I saw the waves
break over what was once his land. At another
time he had been rich: now, nothing save
fens and drains remain from his battle

with the sea. We continue over dunes
under puffed up clouds and pass a flotilla
of ducks quacking in tiny epicycles
on the current. I cannot stay still. A
mind does nothing but whirl around like little
silkworms which then get tangled in cocoons.

One and the same pace of my horse seems to me
now rough, now easy; the same road at one
time shorter, another time longer; one and the same
view now more, now less pleasing; the sun
now shines too hot, now too feeble a flame
to warm my tired bones. Now I am ready

to do anything, now to do nothing. I do
nothing but come and go and I’m unable
even to rid myself of vice, I just exchange
one for another. Only a fool is immovable
and certain. The sun has become a blazing orange
rising towards the meridian of depthless blue.

It’s getting hot. I could stay all day
in the saddle, riding around and about without
flagging. Recently I’ve heard of a tribe
of cannibals in the new world. I do not doubt
there is more barbarity in eating a man alive
than dead; but who are we to talk, who flay

our enemies alive like dumb creatures
when they are men, like us? These cannibals
know valour; they would rather be killed and eaten
than ask not to be. To a man they are unable
to yield to fear: they are killed, not beaten.
But then again, they do not wear breeches.

A horn sounds. My neighbour hunts again.
Gentlemen are mounting their horses, eager
to course across the grounds and chase some hare,
petrified, and watch lean hounds crush meagre
bones and fur in their grim jaws. I share
the thrill of a hunt, but cannot stand the pain.

I steer my horse homewards – there is a shelf
in my circular library filled with books which say
the earth and planets revolve around the sun.
Perhaps that is the case. For every day
our fortunes change and turn around our sovereign
king. But I revolve within myself.

from Open Water (River Road Press, 2007), David Musgrave 2007, used by permission of the author and River Road Press

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