rob mclennan


How to love everything: thoughts on rereading Sarah Manguso

In late 2007, I discovered the work of Sarah Manguso, a young American poet then a fellow at the American Academy in Rome, through American poet Rachel Loden's wordstrumpet blog:

Monday, December 03, 2007
Rose, Oh Pure Contradiction

Season of faxed cremation papers, which one shouldn't read, one really shouldn't.

But here's arguably the best blurb ever:

Since Knox favors premise over conclusion, her poems simply speak -- they do not explain. In this way they are not entirely unlike scripture. The part that is unlike scripture is the one that's like "Wait, I was reading these poems and laughing but my hearing aid fell out and then my face just kind of blew off in a beautiful rainbow spray of bullshit-dissolving napalm."

This from Sarah Manguso, writing about Jennifer L. Knox's Drunk by Noon. I'm looking forward to the book, and perhaps (with a virulent head cold) living up to its title.

But what else might one expect from someone capable of writing these lines, as Manguso did in her book Siste Viator (wait for the last rim shot):

My great-grandmother's lamp is mine now. It is made of rose quartz -- that is, it is made of poetry.

More poetry: A coin you dropped when you took your pants off is still on the floor. Please come back and pick it up.

More: The scar on my hand I got cleaning the house for you has outlasted you. In this way you are indelible, but only as long as I have my hand.

There was something heartbreaking in those lines, cold and love-struck. Especially those last two. Barren, and matter-of-fact, writing "...only as long as I have my hand."

I hadn't heard of Manguso before this, but those few lines were enough to make me want to seek out everything she'd published. Knox's name, somehow, passed straight on by. Just what was it that struck? There was something that punched full, reminding of the dark and light humour and lyric compactness of the late Canadian poet John Newlove; a direct indirectness and lyric sensibility that reminded of Anne Carson, writing the dark and loaded optimism of love (far more compelling than, say, a light pessimism). There was the juxtaposition that came out of direct statements and ideas through her lines and bare fragments. Manguso's poetry seems to come out of how her phrases collide. It's as if Manguso herself watches how her phrases collapse into each other, rearranging the results to suit her fancy, writing in and even out of a kind of fractured, ordered chaos. And, as in Newlove, a humour that emerges out of that dark. In her writing, there is always a loss to be found, a betrayal, a hurt to be held in the palm of one's hand. There is always something worth surviving.

The Questioners

We have read too many books.

Just before the key modulates,
a tone sounds more like its position in the old key
than it sounds like its position in the new key.

That is, it sounds more like the present than the future,
but the future is imminent in it,
as in a sculpture life is imminent.

I raise my hand in the studio
but no one of authority looks at me.

Only the other questioners look at me,
their hands raised and limply waving.

We are all equally ashamed, making a soft noise together,
in the studio gently waving.

We are lowering our hands now, all equally ashamed.

Sarah Manguso's first trade book, the poetry collection, The Captain Lands in Paradise (Farmington Maine: Alice James Books, 2002), includes everything that slowly separates out into her subsequent three, including tight lyric lines, short essays, poems, small fragments of prose and short stories; this is perhaps where some of the initial comparison with Canadian poet Anne Carson initially came, as Manguso wrote her "Short Essay on Love," as well as other poems that blend the idea of the essay with the topic of love, a favourite subject of both. As Manguso writes:

A love story: I am cold and happy
and then sleep on the divan and wake up sad.
In the morning I use the dusty toothbrush
that doesn't belong to anyone. Love?
Practice riding on a skateboard in an empty street at night.

There is the truth that comes with a distance that seems almost cold, a straight shoot from the hip. It is this, she says, as much as it is, but it is also no more. There are the obvious comparisons to Carson's own "short talks," originally published in book form in Canada by Brick Books in 1993, and reissued (and reworked, even down to switching American for her Canadian spellings in the earlier edition) for a foreign audience, slipped inside of larger Plainwater: Essays and Poetry by Knopf two years later. Like Carson as well, there is classical relation, as in Manguso's poem "It's a Fine Thing To Walk Through the Allegory" or "Two Variations on a Theme by Stevens." Like Carson, this is Manguso using a reference to Stevens to achieve further ends, all of which, somehow, manage to return full circle to the author/narrator's own dark revelations and realizations, writing poems out of her ongoing, and even optimistic dark. There is her poem "Glencoe," on the part of Scotland famous for the narrative of Macdonalds butchered by Campbells, an old feud fed and triggered by the opportunity of William of Orange arriving in England to replace King James II. Manguso writes like a dream; about a dream-scape, abstractly into drifting confessionals that don't get bogged down. In her poem, the loaded title is barely given pause, as she moves through other territory; is this simply me reading more into the poem than she had otherwise intended?


The sheep cling to the side of Ben Nevis,
permanent as tears. I disembark from the ski lift,
the sheep laughing as I walk out of the valley
and into the parking lot. When do you stop walking
and start driving? The sun stays out all summer,
arctic winds blowing through the heath,.
The piper stands wide as a house, weights hidden
in the bottom of his kilt. I've come to come clean, lugging
my woe in plastic bags. I'm going to water the ground.
Innocent as eggs, the sheep look at me looking at them.
Each one blinks as if trying to remember my face.

What really resonates through Manguso is in how her poems write such complications of the heart, writing out longing, heartbreak, expectation, love and otherwise loss, all while refusing to underpin the entire enterprise with pessimism. She refuses. There are so many of her lines that suggest a hard-won truth, a gain come from all sorts of loss, but a gain nonetheless, and a truth, as well as a love that knows no bounds, but some lines that should never be crossed.

Poem of Comfort in Which All Things
Are the Same

Let's go to Greece
where every island is a different color
and look at the ruins that predict their own shapes,
and the dogs that bark in them.
Now you are naming each building
and I'm carrying you inside a building,
your judgments following behind us like a history.
Keats lies in some different ruins,
those more of baths than of sofas,
and pieces of his hair decay above ground in fancy libraries.
Chances are you will not see a single ghost in your lifetime
but many objects that might be mistaken for ghosts.
Every country in the world has invented ghosts,
and how they find us. This poem is new.
This poem is for you.

How does a book get constructed, get built? In an interview with Rebecca Wadlinger, Manguso says:

My poetry wasn't informed by poems. My memoir wasn't informed by memoirs. My writing is informed by a deep and prolonged attention to the assorted material seething around my memory.

Later on, continuing, with:

Each of my books had its own problem to solve--I wanted to get rid of things, or remember things, or describe how much I wanted to exist or how much I wanted to disappear. Those are the impulses that made the books.

What are the problems she is trying to solve? Through her answer, she references a definition of the artist, perpetually troubleshooting, consantly creating problems that need to be solved. Reviewing her second collection, Siste Viator (New York NY: Four Way Books, 2006), for DIAGRAM, Paul Guest opens by writing:

The poems in Sarah Manguso's second collection, Siste Viator, crackle with wicked fire. The title is Latin for "Stop, traveler," a traditional inscription on gravestones; as such, it frames the book in at least two ways: there is mortal gravity here but also a kind of cheeky weirdness. That these tides do not pull the book apart, leaving the flotsam of poems without cohesion, is this book's considerable success. Another word for this effect might simply be grace.
      The book's second poem, "Asking for More," seems to serve as a kind of mission statement. Quoting Berryman from a 1972 interview, Manguso writes:

I am not asking to suffer less.
I hope to be nearly crucified.
To live because I don't want to.
The invocation here is plainly to suffering, to the manifold miseries of life. Such directness is bracing, engaging for all its baldness. But that "nearly" in the second line complicates matters: the speaker does not quite wish to wallow. That mediation creates a kind of air in the poem, a space for hope, and in fact, the very next line calls hope "that sweet agent." The light that enters is dim, only enough to enable the speaker to see Hell. The gratitude of a line like, "Thank you for leaving me this whole world to go mad in" can hardly be said to be gratitude at all, and yet, it isn't mercy the speaker wants. It's "more." More of what? This world like a hell. Even madness. The poem is like a prayer: "I don't mind when no mercy comes" is how it begins to close itself, like a wound.

Is Manguso writing out a tribute to her pain? It seems an oversimplification to think so, and perhaps even a misreading; much in the way that it would be to say that bpNichol engaged with simple wordplay, John Newlove a pessimist, or that Margaret Atwood is humourless (will Americans even get my Canadian references?).


The discovery of Italy's best wine,
and not alcohol poisoning, is what killed the prelate.

You've got to hide your love away,
not because showing it is useless,

but because it isn't.
Don't let me get what I want.

I love you as dead people love--in every way imaginable.
Don't let me bring that cat inside.

If you leave your wife with her beautiful name,
don't tell me.

See this deer track?
Just walk away.

When he had any, Dostoyevsky threw away his money.
I won't let you in my house.

Manguso seems to make little distinction between genre, yet works longer individual stanza lines in this collection than the previous, and fewer prose poems. Does it matter the size or the form or the shape? Manguso writing everything she does in straight sentences, and with punctuation. What is the difference between poem, story and memoir other than the possibilities of intent, shape or consequence? In an interview posted June 4, 2009 on LiteraryMinded, Manguso said:

I don't feel compelled to tell stories or to invent. I do, however feel compelled to try to make sense of the surrounding chaos.

Later saying, along the same lines:

My favorite writers don't waste time. They write in order to solve problems. I like animals for the same reason – they are guileless, they don't pretend to like things, they do what they must do.

Again, what are these problems Manguso works so hard to solve? On the argument of form, she goes further in her piece "The Fallacy of Prose Poetry: an Extension of Eliot's ‘Reflections on Vers Libre'" on the Academy of American Poets website, writing:

The relentless naming and sorting of contemporary poetries has always suggested to me a group of autistic kids locked in the Quiet Room, trying to organize their way out. Yes, I believe in the possibility of philosopher Ian Hacking's so-called "dynamic nationalism"--in which, "once you invent a category...people will sort themselves into it, behave according to the description, and thus contrive new ways of being"--but I don't think new words bring about new categories of reality as often as some critics (particularly one 500K-word graphomanic blogger) wish they did.

Prose poetry--whatever it is, and however we define it, is fashionable. Anthologies of prose poetry have been coming out of this country's woodwork at a moderate rate for the past quarter-century. Yet the genre (form?) eludes the assignment of an industry-standard definition. Russell Edson--who, as many readers of poetry know, by hook or by crook, is a prose poet--balked even at the term "form" in his 1976 Parnassus essay "The Prose Poem in America": "I hesitate to use the word form when speaking of prose poems, because for all the interesting poets who have written them, the prose poem has yet to yield up a method." Which immediately recalls Gustave Flaubert's rule: "To seek to imitate the methods of geniuses is futile. They are geniuses for the very reason that they have no methods."

Her first collection includes short, sharp and much tighter pieces than her second, and include poems that achieve that rare punch in a few bare words, despite the fact that her second, a bit looser in form than the first, seems more a single unit of composition. It makes me wonder if the poems in her second collection, Siste Viator, written much closer together, and more with the idea of "book."


Meanwhile I fuck this sculpture
In my mind until it melts, then stop.
Mmm, cold.
At the party I talk to everyone's honey
And sip poison and then go home,
Get shitfaced, and get it on with myself.
I'm so good, I give it to myself every bad way I know.
I whisper in my ear as I come:
Sarah Manguso, you're a damn fine lover.
Maybe someday we can be together, too.

Siste Viator is certainly darker than her first, but does push a refusal to wallow; it's as though she wants to revel in whatever there is, or ought to be, despite the dark. Her poems dance in it. If, as Guest claims, "Asking for More serves as mission statement," it's the final poem in the collection that wraps the book in a serious whole; her final poem that refuses the debate between whether dark is something inevitable or something to overcome. The darkness is already there, deep within.

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.
I am what you avoid and what you stop avoiding.
I am what's left when there is nothing left.
Love me hard, pilgrim.

Her writing moves in another direction through her short story collection masquerading as a novel, masquerading, even, as a collection of prose poems, Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape (San Francisco CA: McSweeney's Books, 2007):


I'm angry at the drawer, which has failed to close again, and I'm angry at the person, who has disappointed me once more. But really I'm angry I consented to believe in carpenter ghosts and that I consented to love an asshole. It was I who committed the real injustices. When I figure that out, I'm so angry I think I'll surely give up, but I do not. I'm too angry. I want to keep myself alive so I can commit further injustices against myself, the self who has already committed such injustices against me.

In her prose, Sarah Manguso writes a detail that demands your full attention. Her fictions become a kind of accumulation, small stories that work together as a series of self-contained fragments by, seemingly, the same Manguso-like nameless narrator of her poems, each fragment building into something that can't help but be larger, even novelistic or memoiristic. But does it matter if any of her stories are true?


The espresso machine, which I care for as if for part of my own body, has been misused again. Someone has thrown away one of the metal cups by accident, and the pump has been left on too long. It stays unclean the whole day. I have posted a list of instructions and given a demonstration, and people still cannot or will not care for it as I do. I weep as I try to fix the machine, realizing that even if I haven't convinced the others it's part of me, I seem, at least, to have convinced myself.

But we know the difference. Don't we? In eighty-one stories, each no more than a page apiece, we suspect the difference from the way the narrator shifts, leaps and slyly contradicts, sometimes, both in overt and subtle ways. Each of her small stories expands a moment that usually remains hidden, or unknown. Manguso's strength in these stories is in how she is able to vocalize so many small, unspoken and even unmemorable memorable moments. How does she manage to bring so much of the dark and unspoken into such light?


One girl embodies all the qualities I most hate: stupidity, lassitude, cruelty, and ugliness. Once while I am putting books into my locker she walks by me and kicks me hard. When her father is arrested for tax evasion I hide my delight from no one. The girl's family loses everything and moves from their mansion to a small apartment in a nearby town. To this day I am glad.

In 1995, just as Sarah Manguso was in the midst of whatever else a twenty-one year old should be in the midst of, she discovered that she had "a wildly unpredictable disease that appeared without warning" and "tore through her twenties, vanishing and then returning, often paralyzing her for weeks at a time." The result of her working her own way through such a thing, after two collections of poetry and a book of short fiction, as well as receiving the Rome Prize in 2007 by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, is her beautiful and matter-of-fact prose memoir, The Two Kinds of Decay (New York NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008).

Some believe the clinical difference between Guillain-Barré syndrome and CIDP is subjective--that my disease was CIDP because I was sick for years instead of just a few weeks. Sometimes I think I might just have had a particularly bad case of Guillain-Barré syndrome.

Of course I'd rather have the common disease that people know how to treat, but there were times that I cherished my rare disease for its irrefutable proof of my specialness.

For its proof that my death, the end of the disease, whenever and in whatever form it came, was going to be remarkable.

One of the things that had struck me about her earlier work is in just how intelligent, wry and, dare I say it, wise Manguso's writing is, without being overtaken by overwrought emotion or overthinking. Her writing is just so damn sharp. In The Two Kinds of Decay, Manguso's prose style is no different, writing her unsentimental way down to the bare bone of the essential parts of the story, writing a deeply honest thinking experience through her disease, and through her own history, written from after nine years (as she writes, so far) of remission.

Either before or after that--though it doesn't matter now, since I remember things in the order that they make sense--my primary care doctor visited me and said I'd already endured something much worse than most people have to endure in an entire regular-length life. His voice shook. He was forcing tears either forward or back.

Before the diagnosis, I would have loved hearing him say that.

The doctor was older than my parents, and he must have had plenty of younger patients, but he didn't understand yet that suffering, however much and whatever type, shrinks or swells to fit the size and shape of a life.

How do those earlier works shift through the lens of such a disease? Not a new lens, but certainly something that colours perception, that particular distance she keeps. Poems that refuse sentiment almost through refusing to name love as any more a thing than any other. Is it fair to let this revelation colour the rest of her writing? Disease can create a distance, and what Manguso's writing manages is a rare space where she is both narrative witness and participant, riding both sides of the proverbial fence.

Getting sick was a process just as getting well was a process.

The most important things must happen slowly, incrementally.

The short sections read almost Brautigan-like in their individual shapes, like small accumulations that eventually make themselves into the size and shape of a book, something that even Richard Brautigan found daunting, and far easier to accomplish through such individual and nearly bite-sized sections (her collection of short fiction exists almost the same way). Interviewed about the memoir, and the movement from one genre to another, by Anne Condon (conduced September 29, 2008), Manguso responded by saying: "Some people ask me why I stopped writing poetry and started writing prose, as if only one can be practiced at once. Some people who have read my poems get indignant when I call my prose prose, as if prose is a pejorative term. What I am interested in is something outside genre: clear and sustained perception and communication, which requires extreme empathy, and in the end is a kind of love."
In the book itself, she even writes of the same kind of consideration, almost explaining her structure without talking about it, writing:

I don't know how to write a novel. I like to ask writers who write novels how they do it. How they write something longer than what can be held in the eye comfortably, at middle distance.

How can I stop thinking about the disease long enough to write about anything else? How can I stop thinking about everything else long enough that I can write about the disease?

My friend Isabel says, When you're writing even a short novel, with at least a couple of subplots, and God only knows how many characters, your brain holds the volume of it beyond the ability of your consciousness.

Of course.

This book, too, explains part of why you don't have to scratch too much surface to find death in quite a number of her poems. But wasn't it Brautigan's own daughter who said that You Can't Catch Death?

Our neighbor told us her mother had died just that week and that she was at the dump with some of the things from her mother's apartment. Alzheimer's, she whispered.

And my mother told our neighbor we were sorry, and that her mother, my grandmother, had had Alzheimer's, too.

Then the neighbor saw the pile of canes and walkers we'd just left on the ground, and looked at my mother, and indicated she understood how sad it was that my mother's mother had used those things until she couldn't walk anymore.

How sure our neighbor was that her suffering was the only kind of suffering.

And how sure I was that mine was worse.

After watching my own mother's illness from the mid-1970s on, and watching whatever else I've seen anyone else go through (including whatever it is one calls one's own suffering), what amazes about Manguso's book is more than the sharp, clear writing and the astute commentary, and more than her refusal to wallow in any amount of self-pity; what amazes is just how aware and clear-headed she is of her own situation, especially through the passages when she claims she is neither. This is a remarkable mind that has produced a remarkable piece of writing, through everything else she has gone through. Listen to this passage, from just near the end of the book. Is this the lesson that Manguso, and then we, should take from everything she writes?

This is suffering's lesson: pay attention. The important part might come in a form you do not recognize.

You might not know to love it.

But to pay attention is to love everything.



to go back to the home page