Siste Viator by Sarah Manguso

As readers of this blog know, I have been a longtime fan of the Tournament of Books. Though I would love for it to have a more literary bent, the Tournament uniquely creates a dialogue between book lovers who are prize/awards judges and the broader book-loving community. The Tournament is not a prize/award/competition on the Moses model, no tablet descends from on high with a title etched on it. Rather, the judges issue opinions explaining why they chose one book over another.

I, an attorney, like this decisional aspect because it emulates the common law tradition brought to the judicial system of the United States from England. In the common law system, (appellate) judges are expected to publicly defend their legal opinions in written opinions. In this way, the Tournament is perhaps the most open and democratic of the literary prizes/awards/competitions.

That openness, that juridical quality, also brings accountability to judges. We, the constituency, know who to blame for a particularly poor decision and who to praise for a particularly good call. The commendation or condemnation can come not only in quickly-stifled yells of glee or dismay that, being stifled not quickly enough, bring concerned family or co-workers running, but also via posts on the ToB’s message board or one’s blog. However, the best form of praise is good, old-fashioned money. That’s right, do like they do in Louisiana, pay the judge when s/he rules in your favor. Well, it isn’t exactly the same thing unless your book is actually being evaluated, but purchasing a particular judge’s book seems like a good way to reward a noteworthy ToB decision. I like to try good ideas, so I did try this one.

Sarah Manguso was my favorite ToB judge of 2011. Hers was, happily, only one among many finely reasoned and written literary opinions. I probably should have bought a shelf-full of books. I chose hers. I even chose poetry despite prose options. I guess Nicholson Baker will do that to a fellow.

So, poetry.

Did I mention that Baker participated in the ToB in 2010 and that Manguso’s 2011 ToB opinion was outstanding. It was awesome. She was great.

That’s Cloud Cube by Heidi Neilson on the cover.

Okay, I have a confession. I do not read much poetry. Baker really is responsible for my choosing a book of Manguso’s poetry, Siste Viator, rather than her prose. I am going to have to buy another of his books now, because that was an awesome thing he did. Manguso rocks. I have to buy another of her books too. This could get out of hand.

My delay and avoidance in getting to the merits of the book is due primarily to the fact that I am acutely aware of my limitations with respect to coherent commentary on verse, rhyming or otherwise. I know only how this poetry made me feel.

I smiled wrly at “Everything” and its line: “I am the statue that thinks it’s running.” The joke is on me too. I was inspired by “Asking for More” and have determined that, for me too, “The horse I ride into Hell [will be] my best horse.” I won’t share anything about “Kitty in the Snow”, but….damn! The thing about this poetry is that it pulsates. You reach out to feel that bit of life and it slaps you in the face. This is not poetry with which you cuddle, but you will, on occasion, clasp it to your breast in a fierce embrace. I loved it.

Baker helped me be less afraid of….uh, I mean better appreciate poetry, but I still don’t entirely understand the alchemy by which a mere splash of words can shatter the window between reality and you, that window you didn’t even know was there. Whatever the process, Manguso has produced gold.

The poems are in free verse, typically, and not rhyme. This, it seemed to me, rendered Baker’s metering discussion useless for this collection. But I am not even sure of that. I really am lost when it comes to poetry. However, even I can hear the lyricism in these poems and the vigorous thrashing for and at life. Manguso exposes the frustrated artist and, equally, the frustrated human.

Frustrated is not exactly the right word. It implies too much passivity. Manguso evokes an energy borne of the clashing of action with ultimate futility. Hers is not a Munchian scream of anxiety or terror, but a scream of courageous defiance. This is not to say that the poems explore primarily anger or opposition to fate. There is humor and tenderness too. Mostly, the poems reflect an intensity of passion that makes me ashamed. Why didn’t I think to ride my best horse into Hell? Now, being handed the idea, do I have the courage to mount my fastest steed and spur it into the mouth of Hell?

But there is more to the poem “Hell” than the wild charge she made. I am tempted to reproduce the poem in whole, but I limit this second excerpt to the punishing end:

…..What I do know is that there is a light, far above us,
that goes out when we die,

and that in Hell there is a gray tulip that grows without any sun.
It reminds me of eveything I failed at,

and I water it carefully. It is all I have to remind me of you.

This stab in the heart provides an example, I think, of how Manguso captures and fuses the frustrations and disappointments both of being an artist and a love-needing-giving-wanting human. The poetry in Siste Viator is intensely personal while managing universality. Love, loss, and art are the three principle threads Manguso weaves together. I say this as if each of those terms denotes a well-defined category when, I know perfectly well, they do not. I am at a loss as to how else to succinctly describe the purported “subject matter” of this poetry collection. I am not a poet.

A note at the beginning of the book relates the derivation of the title:

Siste viator (Stop, traveler)
was a common inscription
on Roman roadside tombs.

This bit of information both shocks and baffles me. More so before reading the collection. After, it makes the same sort of sense as suddenly finding two withered fists grasping your lapels and two bloodshot eyes glaring into your soul pleading for what you know not.

9 Responses to Siste Viator by Sarah Manguso

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    Oh, I share your trepidation about poetry!

    • Kerry says:

      It is frightening stuff. But, I found, reading a poem a night was actually kind of awesome, particularly as I got on so well with Manguso. I sometimes did not know quite what to make of them, even so, they were nearly always affecting.

      I can’t say I will be gorging on poetry any time soon, but I am going to want to browse my wife’s collection a bit more.

  2. Aldrin says:

    I, too, am averse to reading poetry. It’s just so… I don’t know… cryptic.

    Oh, and what a magnificent ending to a magnificent review. Will definitely grab this book the first chance I see it, whether or not I intend to immediately read it.

    • Kerry says:

      Yes, cryptic. I understand prose. It has a beginning, a middle, an end. It’s going somewhere, while poetry is often over before it seems to have gone very far. I have (re-)discovered that poetry sometimes says things that, it seems, would take a book of prose to evoke.

      Thank you for the kudos. I do highly recommend it. A poem a day does not keep the doctor at bay. Still, not a bad way to go.

      • Aldrin says:

        I almost always tend to invoke John Keats’s theory of negative capability when grappling with seemingly incomprehensible verse. Tangentially, I’m often reminded of Jane Campion’s Keats biopic, Bright Star, which taught me a great deal about understanding—or, rather, not understanding—poetry.

        Going back to Manguso: I have just emerged from a secondhand bookshop here in Manila where I found, to my delight, Sarah Manguso’s memoir of illness, The Two Kinds of Decay. Have you read it, too? I still require Siste Viator, though, as well as her other books.

      • Kerry says:


        You have a good idea. I will remind myself of Keats’s theory of negative capability in the future when poetry seems to be getting the upper hand with me. Thank you. I will also keep a lookout for the Campion bio, Bright Star.

        On Manguso, I have not yet read The Two Kinds of Decay. I am a Manguso fan now, so it is on my TBR. I’ll be keeping an eye out for it and her first work of poetry The Captain Lands in Paradise and her collection of short stories, Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape (81 stories in 81 pages). I look forward to trading notes with you on these.

  3. Poetry is a language which sadly all too few of us speak. It’s a language with power though as you found here.

    I need to return to the Angela Leighton volume I’ve been reading off and on. It has a similar connection to me as this has had with you. That’s the thing with poetry, it’s somehow incredibly personal.

    As far as I can tell the only answer to getting to understand poetry is to read it. I, like many people, tend to pick up a volume and get frustrated that I don’t fully understand what it’s doing or how it’s doing it. But why should I? How much do I have to compare it to?

    Poetry somehow seems to exist as much in the gaps between the words chosen as the words themselves, but that of course is nonsense because the words are all there is. How then does it create that impression? I don’t know, but then if I read only one book a year and you asked me how an author brought a character to life I’d probably struggle to answer that too.

    Welcome back by the way. Nice to see the blog return.

    • Kerry says:

      You make an excellent point. It is rather silly to fret about not understanding something well when you haven’t spent much time trying to understand it.

      Great comment, as always. This is reason enough to keep a book of poetry near (or borrow from my wife’s collection on the regular). I’ll keep a lookout for Angela Leighton.

      Thanks for the welcome back. It’s good to be back.

  4. Sarah says:

    The thing about this poetry is that it pulsates. You reach out to feel that bit of life and it slaps you in the face. This is not poetry with which you cuddle, but you will, on occasion, clasp it to your breast in a fierce embrace.

    Well, if this is you failing to comment coherently on verse I envy you your limitations! I would be very happy to read poetry and feel all that. But, as others have said and discussed, poetry is scary and the only way to get to grips with it is to give it a go. Kudos for getting on the horse, Kerry.

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