Siste Viator by Sarah Manguso

September 13, 2011

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.