Posts Tagged ‘four way books’

Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay, her memoir about chronic illness and recovery, is an incredible book; and one of its most interesting lines for me was: ‘A lyric speaker must occupy the lyric moment as it’s happening. Or so it seems to me at this moment.’ I took Manguso’s ‘lyric speaker’ as a reference to a lyric poet and, hideously underacquainted with poetry as I am, took recourse via The Oxford Companion to the English Language (well, okay, Wikipedia – I have tried to get a copy of the Companion from work, but I think it’s out of print) to find out what kind of a poet that was. The Companion says that a lyric poem is ‘usually a poem with rhyming that expresses personal feelings’. Okay, so pretty broad and, as it turns out, not really a good definition to base my research about Manguso on, as she’s an acclaimed prose poet. (Yes, I know I shouldn’t be using Wikipedia for ‘research’, but I am on holiday, dammit.)

Nevertheless, I enjoyed Siste Viator, her second book. Manguso’s poetry often takes the form of short stanzas, much as in her memoir. Often, she uses two-line stanzas, which, aligned in a poem’s spine, create a raft of spaces and lines that evoke a dangling rope ladder. My experience with these contraptions is that I detest every step I take on those unsteady rungs, but when I get down to the bottom, I look up and admire the beauty of the thing, and the tensile-then-slack ways of my once-consort. I often felt the same way about Manguso’s poetry, which is so footed in a personal vocabulary of emphasis and excogitation and reference that it can seem unmired and stakeless to a reader not privy to the writer’s emotional matrix. (However, Siste Viator does include a couple of pages of notes at the end, which include a number of fascinating nods.)

But Siste Viator means ‘stop, traveller’, and was a common inscription on Roman roadside tombs. Thus, Manguso invites our advertence to the monuments she has laid to her emotional remains and their targets: ‘I arrive and arrive. Look–I am the statue that thinks it’s running.’ Sometimes, this is literally death itself: ‘My favorite euphemism for death is the future … Will we never live together in the round house?’ In her ‘Address’ poems, the static nature of the published/memorialised poet is emphasised, and the reader bears witness to an explicit exchange between the poet and her target. Some rung-hopping from one of these unilateral calls, ‘Address on the Tenth Day’:

This morning all non-coffee energy comes from having slept in
your blue shirt.

Soon we will fly north and see a glacier: proof that poignancy
can be planned.

Before the needle (poignard) goes in, we must ride in an airplane,
but airplanes also are poignant. Liftoff: the moment that flying
stops being a metaphor.

These poems are often the embodiment of her Decay epiphany: occupy the lyric moment. Thus, they invoke modern equipment, scratch at immediate thoughts and grasp at fleeting mental possessions, bowerbird-like. Manguso is assiduous in occupying the moment. She documents the unexpected expansion of capacity in trying circumstances: ‘I am not asking to suffer less. / I hope to be nearly crucified.’ Relentless curiosity is a vital part of this documentation, perhaps as an aid to understanding, perhaps as part of a forging between the poet and the subject: ‘How long in a cold room will the tea stay hot?/ What about reality interests you? / How long can you live?’ Many of the poems in Siste Viator include the reader in their descriptive embrace, and my favourite are those powerful with vatic pronouncement:

Love not the rider but the old rider,
The ghost in the saddle: Obey that ghost.
A good horse runs even at the shadow of the whip.
But we are not good horses.

from ‘Reverence’

But Manguso’s focus is sure, and at the end of Siste Viator, she reminds us what the spectacle of the lyric poet means for the reader:

I am not here to ruin you.
I am already in you.
I am the work you don’t do.
I am what you understand best and wordless.
I am with you in your chair and in your song.

Love me hard, pilgrim.

from ‘Oblivion Speaks’

Read Manguso’s poem ‘Address to Winnie in Paris’ at The Best American Poetry blog.

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