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

Sarah Manguso’s, The Rider,” is a brief poem originally featured in American Letters & Commentary and more recently printed in the 2001 edition of The Best American Poetry. This poem reflects the author’s opinions on how the world will end, and forces the reader to question religion and science.

The first two lines instantly grabbed my attention: “Some believe the end will come in the form of a mathematical equation. Others believe it will descend as a shining horse”. The repetition of the word “believe” made me question which version of “the end” I believe. I often find myself wondering how the world will end, and to this day I truly do not know if I agree more with scientist’s mathematical predictions, or the Bible’s version. I interpreted the “shining horse” as a biblical reference to the Book of Revelation in the New Testament. The four horsemen of the apocalypse represent conquest, war, famine, and death. When these horsemen appear, the Bible claims  that judgement day is upon the earth—the day the good will ascend to heaven and the evil descend to hell.

Complexity begins to build up as the poem continues. Manguso writes, “I calculate the probabilities to be even at fifty percent: Either a thing will happen or it won’t” Here, Manguso includes us in her philosophy. Like myself, Manguso does not hold a strong opinion on how the world will end. By saying “Either a thing will happen or it won’t,” she is flaunting a very nonchalant attitude. Manguso may be hinting at the idea of fate vs. free will. A thing will happen or it won’t happen; does this mean that we are in control or that everything is predetermined? Essentially, I agree with Manguso’s feelings towards the subject; people should not worry how the world will end and just accept that it will end somehow—the how is not important.

It would be dishonest to say that I was able to comprehend the rest of this poem, but I have done my best to simplify what the author has put forth. Manguso abruptly starts talking about mundane activities she is doing, “I open a window, I unmake the bed”. This marks a major shift in Manguso’s tone. This redirected my attention from the end of the world theories back to current life. Manguso shocked me once again when she went on to claim that these seemingly worthless activities are bringing her closer to the equation or the horse. Again, I wonder if this is a reference to fate vs free will. The poem continues to connect the horse and the equations to completely unrelated things. I believe Manguso is trying to play with the reader’s mind. Maybe the author did not want the poem to be picked apart, line by line, as most poems are. In my opinion, the only similarity that horses and equations have is that they both can be connected to theories about the world’s end.

I attempted to do a little research on Manguso, to see if there was a specific reason she may have written the poem. Although I did not find the exact religion that she is affiliated with, I made the assumption that she is either unaffiliated or a Christian, based on the views expressed in her work. It is fairly common for people who do not follow Christianity to be skeptical about the Christian religion which is why I question Manguso’s religion. However, she also seems skeptical about the scientific community’s beliefs which makes me view her as an outsider to society. This may be significant because Manguso could be viewed as unbiased; she’s at a midpoint between believing in science and religion.

In the last two lines of the poem, Manguso switches back to a serious tone. After babbling nonsense about the horse and the equation, Manguso writes “I am tempted to hook an ankle around the world as I ride away. For I am about to ride far beyond the low prairie of beginnings and endings”. This writing style almost makes me feel like I could have only read the very beginning and end of the poem and gotten the same understanding from it. I also noticed that she said “ride away” without mentioning if she was on a horse or not; perhaps another ploy to leave the reader confused.

Overall, “The Rider” seems as if it was constructed to leave readers deep in thought. In the author’s notes, Manguso reveals that the “low prairie” in the last line is a reference to the low prairie of western South Dakota. To her, the prairie resembles the end of the world. This makes me question if the things written Manguso earlier in the poem that seemed meaningless are deeper analogies.

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