The Great Poem Series: Sarah Manguo’s “The Rider”

Originally appearing in American Letters and Commentary in 2000, Sarah Manguso’s “The Rider” made its way into The Best American Poetry 2001. Based on ideas of religion clashing with science, the poem focuses on a narrator describing the probabilities that could lead to the end of the Earth, creating an Apocalypse, before combining them, and stating that she will go on to do other things. While Ms. Manguso only confesses that the prairie mentioned is in relation to one is South Dakota, she doesn’t provide much information regarding the poem. Regardless, the poem still latches on to many incredible ideas.

The title drew me in. While skimming through vast amounts of poems, I felt that the title brought a simplicity to the poem – a rider, traveling through some type of idea. Hoping to see it as some form of a struggle, I began to read more.

The length is just perfect. Of course, that may come off as an uneducated thought; however, the length, as it currently stands, provides plenty of information regarding her subject as one that has acted as a divider for many years across many different nations.

Religion versus science. This debate, between proven analysis and logical thinking, has been conducted, based on beliefs shared for thousands of years and the newly formed basis of scientific knowledge. Except, the second one strikes for fear into those who believe it, and often contains the idea of a single entity creating everything. When it comes to these two debating sides, they especially disagree on the issue of death; both predict apocalypses, yet they take different roads to reach that point.

Now, she doesn’t come out and say that it is simply an argument over death. Rather, she plays it out within the first few lines. She argues that “some” believe the “end will come” in the form of a “mathematical equation”. This represents the scientific viewpoint. Calculations are created to look at possibilities of asteroids, earthquakes, or even wars, in order to determine a time when they believe the world will end.

She then confesses that “others” believe it will “descend” as a “shining horse”. This acts more as a biblical reference; the shining horse refers either to the devil appearing as a savior, or the Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse; each representing either Death, Famine, War, or Conquest (the title could possibly be an ode to these riders). While this may seem like a Sunday religious lesson, these points represent the beauty of the poem. Ms. Manguso’s poem blends two important concepts and confronts both ideas; she doesn’t confess to having a bias for one or another. Instead, she finds a solution to this centuries-long debate.

She stitches their ideas together. She starts noticing differences as she progresses through the poem, discussing “equations” drawn in “shapes” of “horses”, and “horses” which are now “covered” in “equations”. These two ideas go together. Instead of looking at either a religious or scientific viewpoint, she sees both for what they are – ways in which the world will end. In fact, she goes even further, admitting the faults in the debate. She argues to the reader that “death” comes “in the form” of a “horse” in “shining equations”. While she seems to be poking fun at these adjectives used to describe apocalypses, an aspect that also makes her humorous, she confronts the idea of death as imminent. No matter what one believes, everyone will die in one way or another. Essentially, she’s arguing that we really shouldn’t have a debate over this, because it’s almost irrelevant, seeing as an end will come anyway (BAP 153).

She continues her fight against these ideas. Representing a normal person, she discusses daily activities, such as opening “ a window” before she “unmakes” her bed. She then writes that somehow all these actions are “moving” her “closer” to the “equation” or the “horse” with “everything she does”. With this in mind, she speaks to the logic of all people: if every action we commit brings us closer to this idea of death, what then would we do to live? Should humans just stop any actions? Should we wait for our time to come? While these ideas cannot be answered with a simple yes or no, she leaves it open to the reader, who is able to interpret the poem anyway he wishes to.

Before the poem ends, she concludes with her own thoughts, as a poet and non-believer in the debate of science and religion. She confessed she is “tempted” to hook an “ ankle” around the “world”, as she is about to “ride far beyond” the “low prairie” of “beginning and end”. This has to be one of the best endings to a poem I’ve seen in a long time. Hoping to leave this debate behind, she has a desire to take the world with her, almost wishing to help others stuck in this almost-debate, and take them with her, as she rides off into emptiness with her life, not thinking about these ideas. This acts as another aspect of beauty within the poem and writing. As I mentioned earlier, she never confesses what she might believe in. Rather, she argues what she feels about the outcome. She, in this sense, leaves it completely in the hands of the reader, who can make up his own mind.

Ms. Manguso doesn’t give away any aspects of the literary meaning behind her poem. Instead, she focuses on one small aspect that creates a big impact – the prairie in the last line. “At the time” she confesses in the Contributors’ Notes of BAP, “it seemed like the end of the world”. In regards to my thoughts, I felt this was truly an incredible piece of poetry. For anyone who feels this debate between religion and science isn’t that much of a big issue, or someone who prefers to live life opposed to thinking of the worst, I would highly recommend this poem.

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