Posts Tagged ‘sarah manguso’

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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When Maddie and I interviewed John Hunter of Hunter Publishers a month or so back, he brought along a stack of books for us, an expansive gesture that Maddie, better tenacious of her good breeding than I am (sorry, Mum and Dad) took the lead in declining to fully exploit. But neither of us could resist taking one book each from the proffered pile, and there was a dog fight over Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay. I won — spurred by Older Sister Entitlement Syndrome — and Maddie took away the tantalising, not-really-second-place Oink Oink Oink by Eric Yoshiaki Dando.

I’m not usually a scrapper, and I don’t think Maddie is either. But John was describing how he’d discovered Manguso’s writing — she’s a poet and short fiction writer, an Iowa alum — and came to buy the Australian rights to The Two Kinds of Decay, a memoir about her experience with a disease called chronic idiopathic demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (CIDP). Both us girls (well, I’m extrapolating from how I felt) were intrigued and touched by the story and its short-sections format, and I got stuck into it pretty much straight away.

Like most human dramas seem to do, Manguso’s sickness crept up on her without any warning. One morning in 1995, when she was washing her face, she couldn’t catch her breath and her hands started tingling. It was a strange affliction that became more severe over the next couple of days, though with the average person’s blithe lack of presentiment for catastrophe, her worry was mostly directed at the collateral effects:

I was concerned I’d caught a strange illness, but I was more concerned that I looked drunk. I was staggering around, even to and from breakfast, and I felt people looking at me and thinking it might be time for an intervention.

Only a day later, she fell down in her university’s courtyard. Her mother took her to the hospital and in twelve hours she was hooked up to a machine and warned that she would be intubated through a hole in her neck if she deteriorated any further.

What followed was four years of medical treatment so intense that ‘intrusive’ doesn’t quite cover it. In CIDP, the immune system secretes antibodies into the blood, and these antibodies destroy the patient’s neurons. To avoid the effects of this self-destructive cycle, Manguso had to undergo apheresis, ‘from the Greek aphairein, to take away’. Her blood was fed into a machine that spun the blood into its separate components, removed the poisoned parts — in Manguso’s case, the plasma — and guided back into the body once mixed with saline and artificial plasma.

The matter-of-fact way in which Manguso describes the effects and the equipment of her illness is simple, though not inhumane or stark. She reports the taste and the cold of the plasma infusions, inescapable because they are inside her; and it’s difficult not to put one’s hand to one’s neck and close the book and be of one’s own body for a moment. Weakness is one of the accompanying detriments of CIDP, with the limbs becoming too impuissant for common tasks. This leads to impossibilities where once there was effortlessness: the section entitled ‘Blood and Shit’ tells of the cheerful nurse who ‘really knew how to wipe an ass’, and Manguso’s gratefulness for the competency with which her favourite staff would accomplish these intimate duties. Less able to be imparted without horror are the tales of professional inadequacy. In ‘The Sikh’:

He tried again and again to jam the tube into my vein. Every now and then he had to stop and apply pressure, as I was bleeding. At one point I thought I felt a jet of blood spurt into my chest cavity, and that’s when I lost my composure.

Months later, after his hair had gone from steel gray to white, my father told me it had looked like a horror movie.

While her writer’s nous enables her to figure her observations as salient themes or lessons, Manguso’s poet sense also conveys understanding in impressionistic flashes. At ‘The End’, she learns to ‘pay attention’; and that ‘to pay attention is to love everything’: a conclusion as comprehensive and inscrutable as monks’ replies to koans.

Not elegiac, but clear and aware, Manguso’s memoir is a bright prism for insight into the matrix of sickness and strength. Written seven years after her recovery, The Two Kinds of Decay uses a structure of fragments to translate life’s linear chaos into something multifaceted and utterly graspable. In a cruel bracket of life where the words ‘prednisone’ and ‘bolus’ and ‘fear’ become daily companions, and doctors and nurses number among the most common cast members, humanity might be a person’s most precious and most tenuous asset. Manguso’s powers of pellucid distillation guarantee the preservation of that humanity in the telling of a story with the power to all but devour it.


Next on the list for me is certainly some of Manguso’s poetry. Also, she is working on a novel: ‘it’s called The Guardians, and it’s about surveillance and paranoia’.